Madigan Army Hospital Bedside Network (Fort Lewis)

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D., and Dale L. Sadler
  • Posted 7/16/2013
  • Essay 10416

During renovations in 2011 at Madigan Army Medical Center on Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Pierce County, 8,000 16-inch phonograph records (transcription discs) were discovered hidden behind a gymnasium wall. Research identified them as recordings produced by the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS) from the World War II years through 1959. The recordings had been broadcast on the Madigan General Hospital (later Madigan Army Hospital) AFRS Bedside Network station, which used the call letters KMGH and later KMAH. The Bedside Network was a closed-circuit system with a listening device at each hospital bed. Locally known and nationally famous performers made guest appearances broadcasting from the radio station's studio. Shows originating from the station often included patient participation to boost morale. The Bedside Network station at Madigan operated until the early 1970s.

Phonograph Library Hidden Behind Wall

On February 5, 2011, a contractor renovating the gymnasium at the former World War II Madigan General Hospital discovered 30 large boxes behind a wall. Upon examination, the boxes were found to contain 8,000 transcription discs. The 16-inch vinyl records were larger than standard 12-inch record albums. Army Corps of Engineers construction representative Al Clark (b. 1947) was at the project site as part of his regular construction monitoring. He recognized the records as World War II vintage recordings. Realizing their historic value, Clark saved them from being thrown in the dumpster and alerted the Cultural Resources Program at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

A press conference at the location announced the discovery. The Madigan Army Medical Center public affairs office shared a report that identified a Madigan hospital radio station with the call letters KMGH (for Madigan General Hospital). The records were identified as Armed Forces Radio Service recordings. The 16-inch records were playable only on specially designed radio station turntables. Found in record sleeves were scripts, announcer notes, and commentary. Also, acetates produced at the Madigan station were among the recordings. Following the discovery, the acetates were saved into accessible digital formats. The digital copies provided great information regarding the station shows and announcers. However, how and why the records ended up behind a wall in the hospital gym remained a mystery.

"Voice of Madigan" Radio

Madigan General Hospital at Fort Lewis opened in September 1944 with one-story wards connected by covered walkways. Wounded troops from the war arrived in large numbers beginning with its opening and, at the end of World War II, at a faster rate. Providing entertainment and recreation was an important part of the recovery process. A hospital library, arts and crafts shop, and recreational trips to tourist locations in the area all helped to do so. Puget Sound communities collected magazines and books to place in the wards. Each ward had a radio for patient listening pleasure. This created problems since patients had differing musical tastes. A community drive to provide radios for each patient only complicated matters as some patients then played their radios loud and bothered others. The solution was a closed-circuit radio system.

In January 1946 KMGH, the "Voice of Madigan" radio station, started broadcasting as one of the first of the 111 Bedside Network hospital stations in the United States. The radio broadcasts were transmitted over wire to a private listening device, a three-inch plastic waffle called a mique (mike), on the pillow of each bed. The patient could select from a menu that included the hospital station broadcast or one of three local commercial radio stations. The hospital station, located on the balcony of the Red Cross Auditorium, produced its own shows and played the AFRS transcriptions. Popular artists included Bing Crosby (1903-1977) of Spokane, Dinah Shore (1916-1994), Gene Autry (1907-1998), Kay Kyser (1905-1985), Glenn Miller (1904-1944), Louis Armstrong (1901-1972), Frank Sinatra (1915-1998), and the Andrews Sisters. The Armed Forces Radio Service produced recordings in different categories, such as popular, classical, western, and informational (for instance, a discussion of the decision to use the atomic bomb).

Sweetheart of the 41st Division

From the beginning, patients participated in the locally produced shows. One of these, first broadcast on September 19, 1946, was a variety show, This Song Is Yours. It included songs, hospital musical groups, comedy acts, and guest speakers. The host was local Tacoma vocalist Marjie Joy Miller (1931-1966).

The teenager was a well-known Fort Lewis personality, having performed more than 7,000 hours singing for the soldiers during World War II. The soldiers named her "Sweetheart of the 41st Division." Her KMGH appearances were her first radio performances and help launch her career. In 1947 she graduated from Stadium High School and then spent two years at Stephens College in Missouri obtaining a degree in drama.

Miller returned to Tacoma and in 1951 taught at the Lewis Harter Dance School and performed on several Tacoma radio stations. In 1952 she headed to Hollywood and changed the spelling of her name to Millar. She appeared in several feature films, including Money from Home (1953), About Mrs. Leslie (1954), and When Gangland Strikes (1956). Millar was a regular on the television show Dragnet. While returning home from a Dragnet filming in 1957, she was involved in an auto accident. She was treated for multiple injuries, including a leg wound. The hospital did not recognize the severity of the leg wound and gangrene developed. She had numerous operations to save her leg. Millar found herself missing home, so she decided to end her acting career and return to Tacoma. She taught again at the Lewis Harter Dance School and had a Tacoma television show on which she interviewed Hollywood stars making local appearances.

A New Station, Staff, and Programming

In April 1947 Frank Soares (1918-2009), a World War II veteran with AFRS broadcast experience in the China-Burma-India campaign, arrived as the station manager. He designed a first-rate broadcast station, a new facility that included a soundproof announcer's booth, a record library, and audience space. Soares built it in the Patient Recreation Building across from "Times Square," the hub in the hospital complex, crowded with patients going to the cafeteria, post office, and Post Exchange. This new station was dedicated in January 1948. In addition to station duties, Soares was actively involved in the Lakewood Players theatrical group, appearing in its productions and also performing at the Tacoma Little Theater.

The station's staff of five was drawn from local radio professionals. Bob Engler (1924-1996), from Seattle radio station KEVR, served as announcer and writer. His radio and television career spanned fifty years, and he was known as a Seattle television personality. Other announcer-writers were drawn from Tacoma and Seattle stations. Soares sought out trained army radio announcers. Staff Sergeant Willis A. Koffroth (1921-2008) became a civilian at the end of World War II and joined KMGH in January 1948. He had done radio work in Spokane as Bill Gordon before coming to KMGH. When the Korean War broke out, he returned to active duty and radio duty in Japan.

The available commercial stations provided news, sports, and music. On the hospital channel, channel one, patients heard updates on hospital and Fort Lewis events. In addition to the music shows using the AFRS recordings there were KMGH-produced shows. A popular show in 1948 was Studio Party that allowed patients to request organ melodies. Tacoma organist Miss Van Derripe (b. 1925) played the requests. A selected ward would send ambulatory patients to the studio as an audience. Each week, issues were presented to a panel of patients from one of the wards for a forum called World Affairs. A one-hour quiz show, Can You Take a Hint, had five patients trying to answer rapid-fire questions. On Sundays, Madigan Chapel services were broadcast over the hospital channel.

The 1950s -- The Bedside Network's Golden Age

In 1951, when Madigan General Hospital became Madigan Army Hospital, the radio station changed its call letters to KMAH to reflect the new hospital designation. During the Korean War, Madigan General Hospital was busy treating the wounded. Performers visited the hospital to entertain patients and boost morale. There were regular shows in the Red Cross Auditorium and often those shows were broadcast over the radio station. Sometimes the performers broadcast from the Times Square station. These shows were often recorded on acetate for rebroadcast. In April 1951 the famous banjoist Edwin Ellsworth "Eddie" Peabody (1902-1970) and local cowboy singer and guitarist "Cherokee Jack" Henley (1908-1993) performed together in a studio broadcast. Cherokee Jack had started a radio show at Tacoma's KMO station in 1945. He made appearances throughout the Puget Sound area and in the 1950s had a KMO television show. The Women's Army Corps (WAC) Chorus, which regularly sang in the Chapel, worked up a 1951 show of secular songs for KMGH broadcast.

In May 1951, a show called the "Hollywood Headliners," which was headed to Seattle to greet returning Korean War veterans, gave an impromptu performance at the hospital. The performers arrived without equipment, so guitarist Emma Lou Welch (1924-2012) had to borrow a patient's guitar. "Hollywood Headliners" appearing included Carolina Cotton (1925-1997), called the "Yodeling Blonde Bombshell." Carolina Cotton had appeared in a number of films. Also on the show was Sue England (b. 1928), a dancer and movie star. At these shows a small audience was allowed into the studio, while the entire hospital could hear the show over the closed-circuit bedside system.

Louis Armstrong came to the studio with his wife, Lucille Armstrong (1914-1983), on February 8, 1952, and did an hour-long show. In December 1954 Roy Acuff (1903-1992), a country star very popular with soldiers, performed for station listeners. The station also broadcast concerts and events. When Tacoma's Sixth Avenue Baptist Church presented the cantata "Life Eternal" at the hospital chapel, it was broadcast live. In January 1953 the show 20 Questions had a studio panel that tried to answer patient-submitted questions. The panel had 20 chances to answer the question and, if unable, the patient submitting the question received a prize. A Brownie camera was awarded to the top winner. Another show, The Patient Roundup, showcased talent from the hospital wards.

 In 1953 Frank Soares left and Verne Curda (1926-2005) became the new station manager. Curda, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, moved to Olympia with his wife Doris (1927-2008). Curda wrote scripts, including a 1953 special on how Madigan Army Hospital was being cost-conscious. In 1964 he became the hospital's public affairs officer and in 1985 he retired to his Olympia home.

The station call letters reverted to KMGH in 1957 when Madigan was reclassified as a general hospital. Television was available in all of the dayrooms by 1957, and its popular following resulted in a decline in radio listenership. The station had only a manager and several soldier staff. In 1959 the Armed Forces Radio Service ceased producing the 16-inch recordings. Stations such as KMGH would have to find records from other sources. Staff borrowed records, obtained surplus from commercial stations, and received donated recordings.

The 1960s -- Patients Turn to Television

Announcer-writer Sergeant First Class Nick Carr (b. 1923) came to the station in 1962 with considerable writing experience. A veteran of World War II, he had already written two shows for the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, and while at KMGH he prepared scripts in addition to his on-air shows. He created Christmas shows and had a regular feature, The Poetry Corner. Nick Carr, following a 24-year army career, retired in 1966 to Olympia. In retirement, he became a pulp fiction authority.

The radio station was still in operation in 1968, with five area radio stations piped into the hospital on a closed circuit. In the early 1970s, the hospital station closed and the recordings were boxed up and, for reasons that remain a mystery, placed behind the gymnasium wall. In 2011, following its discovery during the renovation work, the record collection was returned to the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, which worked to catalogue and archive the collection for future generations.

Sources: Harry Mackenzie, The Directory of the Armed Forces Radio Service Series (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999); "New Radio Show Presented over Station KMGH," The Flame-Spearhead (Fort Lewis newspaper), September 21, 1946, p. 4; "Bedside Companion Entertains Patients," Ibid., June 6, 1947, p. 8; "Officer and Radio Announcer Is Now WAC Expert on KMGH," Ibid., January 30, 1948, p. 3; "'Can You Take a Hint' Quiz Show on KMGH," Ibid., February 13, 1948, p.8; "Audience Participation Radio Show at MGH," Ibid., January 8, 1949, p. 2; "MAH Patients See Top Hollywood Show," The Ranger, May 11, 1951, p. 4; "MAH Radio Station Manager Appointed as AFRS Chief," Ibid., June 25, 1952, p. 4; David Ragan, "Success of Marjie Millar in Movies Is No Surprise in Her Home Town, Tacoma," The Seattle Daily Times, April 18, 1954, p. 92; "Radio at Random," Ibid., July 21, 1968, p. 168; "Nick Carr and his Nick-of-time Pulp Heroes," Ibid., December 19, 1971, p. 135; "Echoes of the Past," The Northwest Guardian, February 18, 2011, p. 1.

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