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Doris Howard portrait
Doris Howard at the El Mirador Hotel Tower 79 years after arriving to convert the posh hotel to Torney General Hospital for the US Army, August 1, 1942. Photo: Desert Regional Medical Center, 5/14/2021.

Doris Howard Returns to Palm Springs 79 Years After Arriving for WW2 Duty

Camp Grant
Doris at her first station in the Army at Camp Grant, Illinois

While awaiting the overseas duty Doris Gardner and her best friend Mary Rodden signed up for, they were given an opportunity to help convert the swanky El Mirador hotel in Palm Springs to Torney General Hospital serving Patton's troops training in the desert for the North Africa campaign. Doris had read about Palm Springs in her hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin, as a second home to her favorite movie stars. Doris and Mary jumped at the chance to leave the doldrums of Camp Grant, Illinois.

While standing on the small outside platform of the caboose of the train from Chicago, Mary kept intoning, "It's hot. Oh, it's hot." And would head back inside the air-conditioned car. Doris, however, stayed on the platform with its narrow chain guardrail that seemed to be smiling up at her. She adored the heat which reached 116° that summer. They arrived August 1st, 1942.

Doris remembers that nurses often traveled in groups of 6. She and Mary joined 2 nurses from Boston and 2 others from Camp Grant, including a pregnant nurse, on the Super Chief train, stopping at Harvey Houses along the way.

Doris Gardner was the first nurse in the second group alphabetically, so was deemed nurse #7 to arrive. By the time she asked for overseas duty again, there were hundreds of nurses in the enormous Army compound.

Doris loved briskly walking to the petit downtown to the only air conditioner within miles at the drug store/soda fountain. The proprietor liked it very cold, so the uniformed women would step outside to finish their ice cream. And they'd go back in to cool down again, this time buying some peanuts and hanging around until they were too cold and ventured out into the blistering desert sun again.

Doris frequently hiked into the Indian canyons and loved Tahquitz Falls. They climbed a fence onto Indian land to soak their feet in what they called The Oasis, probably the creek which was at the end of the small downtown.

Doris' family had heard the stories and how much she loved Palm Springs, finally making a return there a reality in May of 2021. They were concerned about pandemic restrictions, though Doris and her son Bill, with whom she lives, were fully vaccinated. But with temps rising, Bill made the decision to go in mid-May rather than wait for yet another year to pass.

Here's a glimpse into the astonishing time Doris had visiting her old stomping grounds nearly 80 years later. Hint: Doris adored Palm Springs all over again. And Palm Springs adored her.

Doris' first room was in the building to the right of the tower. Her balcony looked out to the tower and the high mountain San Jacinto. It was so hot (only one air conditioner in town at the soda fountain) Mary suggested dragging their mattresses out onto the balcony. Only a few moments after getting settled in the open air where they could see more stars then they could ever imagine they experienced a first for them both: an earthquake.

In The News

Images From a Memory of a Lifetime: Doris in Palm Springs, 2021

The Train Station

Two tours lasting 5 hours in one day: Tour 1: The Palm Springs Air Museum

Tour 2: Desert Regional Medical Center tour by Communications Director Todd Burke. Doris was there on cowboy dress-up day.

Press Conference

Palm Springs document paying tribute to Doris Howard
Todd Burke
Doris with newfound friend and kindly host Todd Burke, DRMC Communications Director. Photo: DRMC
Doris showered with flowers, gifts, medals and honors, including a City of Palms Springs proclamation and a spectacular flyover of a WW2 era C-47.

Stories from WW2: Doris in Palm Springs 1942

Arrival: 1 August 1942


Doris and Mary
Doris and Mary joining the war effort announced in local Wisconsin papers.

Doris met Mary Rodden at her first job after graduating from St. Luke's Hospital in late 1941. They were neo-natal nurses giving care to newborn babies and caring for the mothers. It was duty Doris cherished. But she was saving up some money for her big plans: to be a stewardess and travel the world she read about in the many books Doris read starting from the age of 4.

But the war broke out. The young nurses thought the older ones with more experience would go. But they pleaded with the younger nurses: You have your whole lives ahead of you. We have our families, our careers to tend to. So the nurses, with only the care of babies and mothers signed up for war duty. And they put it right away for overseas assignments.

"The wheels of war turned slowly," Doris says. They signed up in January but weren't assigned until May to Camp Grant, Illinois. Out in the middle of nowhere, without much action, Doris and Mary reiterated their desire to go overseas and help where it was needed most.

Three months later the Chief Nurse (who would significantly figure in their lives once again at the end of the war) told Doris that there were orders for Trinidad and would she like to go. "Of course! Why not?"

A few weeks later another visit by the Chief Nurse. "The orders for Trinidad haven't come through, but there's something else you might consider. There's a call for nurses in Palm Springs where the Army is building a hospital. Is that something you would like to do?"

Doris was all for it, but said she'd talk it over with Mary.

A few days later they were in a train, joined by 4 other nurses, heading southwest from Chicago, Illinois to Palm Springs, California. Second home, they had heard, to the movie stars.

As the train headed into the southern states, Mary and Doris would stand on the small platform on the back of the caboose, with its thin swinging chain for security. "It's hot," Mary sighed. "Oh. It's hot."

She turned and headed back into the air conditioned car.

But Doris lingered on the short deck, taking in the smells, the views and the heat: she loved them all. "I think I'm going to like Palm Springs."

Palm Springs Train Station

At 1800 hrs, 6:00 P.M. (passenger trains ran on time back then), six nurses in dress uniforms were left on the platform at Palm Springs, California.

"We went to Los Angeles from Chicago on the Super Chief (the southwestern route) and stopped at Harvey Houses along the way. We had to eat by 6p, so if the train came later than that you were out of luck."

El Mirador Hotel Matchbook in the collection of Doris Howard.

"We were left off in San Bernardino, California, and took a local train out to Palm Springs Station, open air and unstaffed. We were left off with no one in sight, 6 nurses all alone in the lonely desert, 'out in the middle of nowhere,' around 6 P.M. on a very hot day: August 1st. 1942, with no staff and no phone in sight to alert the Army we had arrived."

They went over every inch of the inside. They scoured all around the outside of the building for a phone. They couldn't find one. They looked far to the horizon.

"Well girls, it looks like the Army's forgotten we were coming. We'll have to hike it."

They looked out on tracks' side of the station. "Well, it can't be that way. There's nothing out there. No road, nothing. C'mon, let's see what's on the other side."

They raced to the other side and looked out. Except for the mighty mountains in the distance, the great San Jacinto, it all looked the same. Road: there was none. They saw but three things in every direction: white sand, joshua trees and a darkening blue sky.

None of them: the two from Boston, the two from Wisconsin and the two from Illinois had never seen (or felt) anything like the blistering heat before. Doris fell in love with it instantly. Heat, it turns out, was her thing.

"Well, we either stay here for the night, or get moving. Which is it?"

"Let's get out of here! But which direction should we go?"

Puzzlement. They looked and looked for something on the horizon, tracks, a road, anything. There were no clues.

"There must be a phone in here somewhere," Mary declared.

"Come on girls, let's find it before we die out here of dehydration!"

El Mirador Hotel Matchbook in the collection of Doris Howard.

The station was unlocked, the windows were open to let in any (hot) breeze that might come along. But no phone in sight.

"Well don't this beat all! Where did they put that phone? There's gotta be a phone. Who ever heard of a train station without a phone?"

An hour had gone by trying to figure out the next move before they were stranded for the night. One nurse heaved a sigh and put her leaned her up-stretched hand on a wood panel in the middle of a wall.

Boom! All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a telephone was two inches from her face.

"How'd you do that, Angel?"

"I have no idea! I just leaned against this wall and now I'm staring at a phone."

To keep the phone free from as much dust as possible, phones in remote desert stations were encased in a murphy-bed style cabinet. Press on one side and the phone flips around in front of you with ¢5, ¢10 and ¢25 slots and a horn jutting out with an earpiece on a hook.

They immediately called the base. "Oh you're here! Gee that's the bees knees. We'll be out there in a jiffy."

Picked Up

About an hour later as dark was descending, a row of jeeps drove up with the boys cheering to see the nurses. They hoisted them into the jeeps and off they went for a long, bumpy ride to the astonishing, beautiful gem and Hollywood star favorite, the El Mirador Hotel in Palm Springs to turn it into the US Army Torney General Hospital supporting the troops training for Patton's North Africa campaign.

The soldiers told the nurses they were really happy to see them. The hotel had six nurses already just starting the work and these six new nurses brought the total to 12. Now something could really get done.

Over a few months the grand hotel became a hospital. Soon after adjunct buildings were added as a base.

Contemporary photographic print of El Mirador Hotel in Doris Howard's collection.
Athletic, Doris frequently hiked to Tahquitz Falls.

Setting Up

The nurses walked into a beautiful—but empty—grand hotel. Hospital beds were being installed in the big and smaller rooms. Doris was assigned the post-surgical ward, as she had been at Camp Grant. Ward Men were pushing the beds around, trying to fit the most in.

But as for supplies: none. Every single medical supply had to be ordered. Every stitch of linen for the beds had to be asked for. The towels, basins, antiseptics, swabs, needles for the new treatment using penicillin every few hours, bedsheets, pillow cases, pillows: all of it had to be ordered and stocked to the hilt for the expected surge of sick soldiers training in the desert.

Once the ordering was complete and the shelves stocked, about a month into it. The nurses waited for their patients. There were none. Day after day they would report for duty and come off duty not having seen another soul.

"You didn't dare read! You were ready at any moment for anything that might come your way. You didn't write letters, or sew, you sat there at the ready. For eight hours.

Many weeks passed by with Doris and her friends at the ready with nothing more to do.

They raced out of the hospital at duty's end to take in this oasis called Palm Springs.

The dying man

The day duty nurse for the surgical and post-surgery wards was Mert Onsrud, another Wisconsin girl from La Crosse. They got to know each other at shift changes as Doris came on for night duty.

One day as Doris was finishing up to go off duty, the Chief Nurse approached her. "There's been a bad bus accident. Some badly wounded soldiers are coming in. Could you work another 8 hour shift?"

"You didn't say no back in those days. But I wouldn't have anyway. I was happy to help."

One soldier, a man of Italian name and ancestry, was badly injured. Mert worked to save his life that day and turned his care over to Doris at shift change. Doris read the chart. Neither the doctors and surgeons nor Mert expected the man to live through the night.

The next morning Mert came in crowing. "Well Gardner must have done something right. He's still with us and much improved at that."

"Well, there isn't much I could do to help him other than do my duty. I took his temperature, gave him his shots and talked to him through the night, like any other nurse would do."

From then on. Doris and Mert became fast friends and joined Mary and Doris for the duration of the war. Now the three were inseparable.

Athletic, Doris frequently hiked to Tahquitz Falls.

Palm Springs

Mary and Doris attended the Catholic Church every Sunday. A new library opened, always a second home to Doris. They briskly walked to town and walked up and down the few blocks. A Church, a library, the drug store. A few hotels. The Chi Chi Room. The Desert Inn where Shirley Temple always stayed, though they never saw her in town.

As midday approached, they would head toward the end of town and the edge of Indian land. A high fence closed off what they called The Oasis. A flowing creek with two big boulders in the center. Was it legal for them to climb the fence? Was it trespassing to put your feet in the water? Yes. Did they do it anyway? How could they not! The temperature was hurtling past 100° on a march to 116. It was a long way back to the hospital. They scaled the fence and plunged their hot feet in the water.

A long way off they saw an Indian man. He was leading a donkey carrying bundles. Would he chastise them? He made his way farther out toward the lower foothills and disappeared in a gap.

Doris and Mary, cooled off, headed for home.

Hiking up San Jacinto

Movie openings

The Chief Nurse was fond of Mary and Doris. "I've never seen two people get on better than you two," she often said.

Sometimes the Chief Nurse had been given tickets to film openings and asked to give them to 2 more nurses. Doris and Mary were it twice.

They saw the opening of Journey For Margaret which they had been told would feature a stunning performance by Margaret O'Brien in a protracted crying scene. "There wasn't much to that movie but the big crying scene for Margaret. And it did go on for some time," Doris remembers

Another opening was at the Desert Inn and the nurses had been asked to come to be seen by the community.

2 Trips to Hollywood

Military buses would take officers and enlisted men out to Los Angeles and pick them up to come home. The nurses got one day off a month. Mary and Doris planned to see Hollywood.

On one trip during a tour of Paramount, they were invited in to watch the filming of a movie. They though they might be in the background of a large studio with many actors, techs and staff wandering around, but they were invited onto an intimate set with only a handful of staff, one actor and themselves. Robert Preston was filming a solo Wake Island scene where he was tearing himself out of a prison wall. The actor's work was very intense and they enjoyed being able to eavesdrop. The film went on to win critical acclaim and was one of the years' biggest box office hits.

Brown Derby

Coming home was hard. The bus first picked up passengers to the Palm Desert in Los Angeles. By the time it picked up passengers in Hollywood there were no seats. No enlisted man or other officer offered their seat to the nurses. Doris thought it would have been reasonable for someone to trade halfway through the 4 hour ride. But no, the two stood the whole way. As officers they could have asked an enlisted man to give up their seat at least somewhere along the line, but they did not take advantage of rank. Mary suffered more, having a larger frame and was bounced around quite a bit standing on heels holding onto the back of a seat. Doris' small, light and strong stature from years of athleticism took it in stride.

A few months later they took their one day off to return to Hollywood. They were at Paramount again and actor Dick Powell spotted them. He came over to talk with the nurses and after awhile said to Doris, "Say, I'm working on a film that you would fit right into. They've been looking for the right girl and haven't found her yet. Why don't you give it a shot? I'll take you over for a screen test right now!"

"No, thank you."

"C'mon! I think you might be perfect for this part. You never know. They can set you up for a test right now. "

Mary encouraged her. "Go on, Doris. I'll go with you. Don't you want to be in the movies?"

"No, I don't. I want to be in the service doing the duty I signed up to do. I want to help people, I want to help where I can do the most good, I want to go overseas to help the war effort and do my duty for as long as I am able."

The two continued to work on Doris, but she was adamant. She was just fine doing what she always wanted to do: helping people and traveling the world.

The women came home again, just as they had before, standing the whole way. They never got the bug again to see the stars in Hollywood. But they both saw stars again aboard the USS Comfort when the likes of Bob Hope and Dinah Shore would come aboard. Dinah, Doris notes, was always very helpful. She didn't just wander the halls, she rolled up her sleeves and wanted to do any work she could to help out. "And she meant it."

Writing home.

One of several postcards Doris wrote home from the El Mirador Hotel/Torney General Hospital. This one 12 days after arriving.

Doris taught herself to high dive by inching out on the high platform, laying down along its length with her legs hanging over the edge. She's flip up fast into a dive so she wouldn't have to see how high she was until the last second.

Rogers Ranch matchbook cover. Hover over matchbook for inside map. As always, click for larger
matchbook inside
Rogers Ranch matchbook inside cover.

Rogers Ranch

The lane down to the El Mirador Hotel was farther than it is today. The lane was lined with palms and orange trees. When they first arrived one of the nurses pulled an orange off as they were passing by, they were so abundant. She was just about to quench her thirst, but a Mexican worker called out from a distance, "No eat! Lady, no eat!" She threw it down and no nurse ever tried to eat another.

The tower was visible over the palms and there was a feeling you were really going someplace special headed down the lane, until the full glory of the El Mirador tower building was suddenly revealed and Doris felt she was at the most beautiful hotel in the world.

Quite a ways farther down the El Mirador Hotel Road was Rogers Ranch, owned by Glen Rogers, not Roy).

Doris and Mary briskly walked out there many a time to ride the horses. They rode them around the dusty area in the morning before it got too hot for both the human and the horse.

"There was nothing to do in Palm Springs in the summer. Nothing. The bike shop for rentals was closed. Who rides a bike in 116°? Well I would have! The only things open were the Catholic church, the library, the drug store and Rogers Ranch. So we went to Rogers Ranch when we got tired of the drug store."

"The hot sun would come pouring on the pool where we spent an awful lot of time if we were free in the mornings. But in August the water and sun were just too hot. So we'd go down the lane to Rogers Ranch. We did that about a half a dozen times, I suppose."

"Mary and I, being a couple of girls from Wisconsin, we didn't know anything about horseback riding, so we learned to get on them and then they just take us where they wanted to go: out in the dusty desert. When they decided it was time to come home, they headed home and there was nothing you could do about it. They were in charge."

"I seemed to do okay, but Mary had a harder time. One time a horse threw her and she landed in the sand with a thud. But she got up and got back on the horse. I told her to keep her knees tight against the horse and she might stay on if he pulled that again. She never fell off again."

"It was something to do when there wasn't much to do. And I loved the horses so."

Her affinity for horses has stayed with Doris through the years. There were a good number of horses at the ranch, living herd style. To this day it breaks Doris' heart to see a lone horse in a pen on a road trip. She knows them to be such social creatures and is sad to see them alone. Doris has been out to see the wild horses nearby her home in Reno and she hopes to visit with some horses with a Veterans group sometime soon.

Chi Chi Bar and Grille

The wintertime Chi Chi Bar and Grill

One time Doris was asked out on a dinner date. The food was so good in the nurses mess that she normally was happy to stay in. But she decided to go and her officer date took her to the Chi Chi Bar and Grille. Her date ordered her a filet mignon. When it came it was the largest steak Doris had ever seen: a 12 ounce filet mignon that was 2" high. The 90 pound nurse took a bite. The most delicious steak she had ever, ever eaten. And to this day she still says the same. Though Doris stopped eating meat after her heart attack in 2001, she might be tempted to have one if the current Chi Chi in Palm Springs served something similar to the one she had in 1942.

"Doris, you're the first date I've taken here who actually finished her meal. And you are certainly the smallest person I've taken on a date here."

Harry Mustacio
Harry's Italian Cafe matchbook top

The Trip: 2021

Doris stayed for a few days at Mammoth Lakes/Mammoth Mountain. The drought forced an early closure of the ski resort, though the shops and restaurants were still open. The locale is stunning with its many alpine lakes in the heart of the eastern High Sierra

Traveling Doris, Bill and Brooks travel to Palm Springs
Mammoth Doris tours Mammoth Mountain on the way down to Palm Springs
Mono Lake Doris, Bill and Brooks take a leg-stretching break at Mono Lake on the way down to Palm Springs. They spent the night at Mammoth Mountain and toured 8 lakes in the area. Note Doris' license plate.
June Lake Doris visits Silver Lake in the June Lake loop on the way down to Palm Springs.
Newspaper Doris headlines the Saturday issue of Palm Springs' Desert Sun.
Flowers Lilac and sweet pea bouquet from Doris and Bill's garden. The car smelled heavenly for the whole 3 day trip to get to Palm Springs.