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Wheels of Courage
How Paralyzed Veterans from World War II Invented Wheelchair Sports, Fought for Disability Rights, and Inspired a Nation
By David Davis
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The Greatest Show on Four Wheels
March 10, 1948: A Wednesday evening in New York City. The illuminated marquee looming over the entrance to Madison Square Garden promotes the evening’s featured attraction: BASKETBALL TONITE: KNICKS vs. ST. LOUIS BOMBERS.
Inside the world’s most famous entertainment palace, a haze of cigarette smoke hangs over the basketball court, empty save for two referees in black-and-white-striped shirts with whistles around their necks. A ring of loudspeakers hanging from the rafters burbles with the sonorous tones of public-address announcer John F. X. Condon as he notifies the assemblage that an exhibition game between two teams of World War II veterans will precede the main event.
What the near-capacity crowd of 15,561 spectators is about to witness is the most unusual form of basketball since 1891, when Dr. James Naismith invented the sport with a pair of peach baskets and a soccer ball.
World War II had ended nearly three years previous, but the war was still uppermost in the thoughts of many Americans. More than sixteen million men and women—about 10 percent of the nation’s population—had served in the U.S. Armed Forces during the war. American casualties (dead and wounded) totaled one million, a number that exceeded the population of all but five U.S. cities. Everybody knew somebody who had participated in the most destructive conflict in human history.
On the domestic front, the effort had been all-consuming. Americans bought war bonds, planted victory gardens, sent Red Cross parcels overseas to prisoners, rationed food and gasoline, conserved metal and paper, worked in munitions and aircraft factories, and memorized maps of the European and Pacific theaters. In the peace that followed, the public’s interest in veterans’ issues remained as high as the nearby Empire State Building. Moviegoers flocked to view The Best Years of Our Lives, So Proudly We Hail!, and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. Books about the war, from John Hersey’s Hiroshima to Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead to James Gould Cozzens’s Guard of Honor, were published to prize-winning acclaim.
The servicemen who took to the Garden hardwood that night were as extraordinarily ordinary as other veterans. They were the “mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys” that journalist Ernie Pyle celebrated in his Pulitzer Prize–winning columns from the front lines. They were “Willie and Joe,” as sketched by Bill Mauldin in his Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoons. They were your brother, your husband, your neighbor, your best friend from high school, your boss. They came from Paterson, New Jersey; Billings, Montana; Needham, Massachusetts; Brooklyn, New York; and the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles. They were GI Joes and Dogfaces, Buck Privates and Mud Eaters, Leathernecks and Grunts.
Except these veterans were different. All of them were permanently paralyzed from the waist down from injuries they’d incurred during the war. All of them were seated in slender metal wheelchairs. The home team was made up of patients at Halloran General Hospital on Staten Island; the visitors traveled to New York from Cushing General Hospital in Framingham, Massachusetts.
When the game started, the chatter in the stands gave way to uneasy, muted murmuring. Halloran’s Jack Gerhardt was speeding around the court like racecar driver Mauri Rose cornering at the Indianapolis 500 when he collided with another player and spilled out of his chair. Matrons gasped and dabbed at their eyes with handkerchiefs; crusty sportswriters complained that the smoke from their Lucky Strikes was causing them to tear up.
But after Gerhardt muscled his body back into his chair and demanded the ball, and after the Cushing crew brayed their displeasure at the officials—“Whatsamatta, ref, can’t you hear either?”—the mood inside the arena relaxed, and the fans began to cheer and whistle as if they were witnessing a miracle.
Which, in many respects, they were. For millennia, paraplegia had been a death sentence that physicians were powerless to prevent. The life expectancy of soldiers with traumatic spinal-cord injuries during World War I was estimated to be about one year. But now, the wonders of modern medicine were promising hope, and paralyzed veterans like Gerhardt, a wiry paratrooper wounded at Normandy, could envision a future.
How that future would unfold was less clear. People with severe disabilities were usually shunted off to institutions or hidden away in private homes. The barrier-plagued society accommodated only non-disabled people. There were no curb cutouts at the street corners of most American cities, no ramps leading to the entrances of office buildings. There were no handicapped parking spaces or kneeling buses, no homes with accessible toilets, showers, and doorways.
That myopia extended to sports. Prior to World War II, playing sports was out of bounds for those with “crippled bodies,” a common phrase from the era and one that encompassed amputees and polio patients. The Paralympics didn’t exist. Neither did the Warrior Games or the Invictus Games. And, who in their right mind would consider racing the 26.2 miles of the Boston Marathon in a wheelchair?
It turned out that thousands did. From the paraplegia wards of far-flung army and navy hospitals came a radical experiment: wheelchair sports. What started out as a fun diversion within the rehabilitation process soon turned into something more: spirited competition, yes, but also an avenue toward an independent life, an affirmation of a future, a diminution of stigma.
When paralyzed veterans took wheelchair basketball out of hospital gymnasiums and into storied sports stadiums like Madison Square Garden, Boston Garden, Chicago Stadium, the Oakland Civic Auditorium, Los Angeles’s Pan-Pacific Auditorium, St. Louis’s Kiel Auditorium, and the Palestra in Philadelphia, they showed that they were not going to hide their condition behind closed doors. Their skill and moxie stirred a large section of the nation and, most importantly, they educated doctors, politicians, the media, business owners, and the general public about the latent value of people with disabilities.
Just days after the game in Madison Square Garden, Newsweek plastered on its cover a photograph of Jack Gerhardt holding a basketball while sitting in his wheelchair. Non-disabled athletes using wheelchairs challenged the paralyzed veterans for on-court supremacy, and these teams, including the Knicks, the Boston Celtics, the Harlem Globetrotters, and top-ranked college squads, were handily defeated. Hollywood came calling to make a film about the men, starring the actor who that very evening was mesmerizing the audience at a Broadway theater a few blocks away from the Garden: Marlon Brando.
During the war, servicemen and women in the Pacific and European theaters experienced the worst of humanity. They watched mortar bombs kill their buddies standing fifteen feet away, leaving behind only a pair of mud-encrusted boots. They witnessed the appalling horrors of the Nazi concentration camps after they freed tens of thousands of half-dead slaves. They saw the devastation wrought by the explosions of two atomic bombs.
Now the war was over. Paralyzed veterans had sacrificed their glorious youth for their country and for freedom. They were alive, but their bodies and souls were damaged. They wanted no sympathy or special treatment. They simply wanted the opportunity to regain their sense of wholeness and to take their rightful place in society.
This book tells the long-forgotten story of how three groups of courageous and unbreakable pioneers—paralyzed veterans from World War II; the doctors and physical therapists who created the rehabilitative treatments to keep them alive; and the educators and coaches who used sports to motivate them—came together to change their world and, in so doing, changed ours.
On a January night in 1938, Dessa Tippetts hurried to her seat inside the cavernous gymnasium on the campus of the University of Wyoming in Laramie. The slim sophomore wore her dark brown hair in a fashionable bob with a side part. Her eyes sparkled with verve as she peered down at the basketball court and caught sight of her boyfriend, Johnny Winterholler, lining up for the opening tip-off.
Four thousand students, faculty members, friends, and local supporters—the largest crowd in the fourteen-year history of “Hell’s Half Acre” gym—buzzed with anticipation. The Cowboys were facing the University of Colorado, undefeated in Big Seven conference play and led by Byron “Whizzer” White, the future Rhodes scholar who later became an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
White and the Buffaloes had traveled to Laramie the previous year and whipped Wyoming, even though Hell’s Half Acre was “worth about ten points to us in every game,” according to Winterholler’s teammate, Curt Gowdy, who went on to fame as a broadcaster. “The thin air at seven thousand feet, which we took for granted, left them breathless after a while.”1
Cowboys coach Willard “Dutch” Witte directed Winterholler to spearhead the attack, and Wyoming took the lead, 19–16, in a nip-and-tuck first half. They held the margin in the second half as Johnny handled the ball and milked the clock in a nervy display of floor management. He tallied nine points, while White fouled out with one point. The fans counted down the final seconds of the hard-fought upset, 44–39.
Johnny showered quickly, then hurried to meet Dessa outside the locker room. They walked together to the student union and joined center Lew Young and the rest of the team for an impromptu celebration. Johnny had ROTC duties early the next morning, so they agreed to call it a night.
He escorted Dessa to the entrance of the women’s dormitory. They parted with a lingering kiss beneath the blackened sky that seemed to stretch to eternity, illuminated by a billion stars and the moon’s golden trail. Johnny wasn’t much for introspection, but as he strolled to his fraternity house on that Friday evening, he couldn’t help thinking how fortunate he was.
Johnny had spent his boyhood dealing with tragedy and hardship. John’s parents, Carl and Marie, were Volga Germans from Russia who immigrated to America in 1912. In all, Marie gave birth nineteen times, with fourteen of her children reaching adulthood. Johnny arrived in 1916, the second of the clan to be born in the United States. He and his siblings spoke German at home and English at school. During and immediately after World War I, at a time when hamburgers were renamed “liberty sandwiches,” they faced scorn because of their familial roots.
When Johnny was twelve, Carl Winterholler was killed in an automobile accident. Marie married a laborer at a local steel mill. Johnny and his stepfather fought, and when things didn’t improve between them, he was sent to live with an older sister in Wyoming. “It was during the Depression,” he recalled years later. “We had a big family, and I lived away from my folks because it was one less mouth to feed.”2
The town of Lovell is located in northern Wyoming, just south of the Idaho border. With a population of about two thousand hardy souls when Johnny was a teen, the hardscrabble ranching community alternated between sixteen-hour days in the burst of summer and interminable winter nights.
Sports was Johnny’s path to salvation. He excelled at baseball, but playing basketball with his brothers inside the heated school gym was a favorite winter pastime. When he wasn’t involved in sports, he hunted deer and elk and fished for steelhead trout in the cool, shimmering mountain streams of the Big Horn Basin.
“[Moving to Lovell] was the beginning of my life,” he said. “Things just seemed to come together.”3
Johnny clerked in a clothing store, picked crops, and roughnecked in the oil fields during the Depression years. Anything for a few bucks. At age sixteen, he made seven dollars a day, pretty good money for that time, and contributed five dollars from every paycheck to support the household. Though still underage, he enlisted in the National Guard, and earned a citation for good horsemanship.
He met his life’s enduring love in high school. Dessa Tippetts was the daughter of a local rancher and his wife, Heber and Permelia, who lived on a large farm of several hundred acres about two miles outside of town. They grew corn and sugar beets; their cattle and sheep grazed on federal lands in the Big Horn Mountains. Her family was among the local Mormon settlers, but the young couple’s different religious affiliations (Johnny was raised Lutheran) didn’t interfere with their budding romance.
Johnny admired her family’s stability and deep community roots. He and Dessa made for a striking couple dancing to “Pennies from Heaven” and “The Way You Look Tonight” at the chaperoned mixers. Dessa was serious-minded, but liked to laugh; they joked that she “only” had seven siblings. With brown eyes and brown hair and a dark complexion, Johnny reigned as the school’s most celebrated athlete. The “can’t miss” star was reportedly being scouted by the Boston Red Sox, the Washington Senators, and the St. Louis Cardinals, with their wizard of a general manager, Branch Rickey.4
Instead, Johnny and Dessa enrolled at the University of Wyoming in the southern part of the state. Agile and muscular, the five-foot, eleven-inch, 185-pound wunderkind turned into an all-conference selection in baseball, basketball, and football. Sportswriters needed to consult their thesauruses to describe his stylings on the gridiron: “elusive,” “scampering,” “slippery,” “lightning-legged,” “piston legs,” “whirlwind,” “swivel-hips.” On the diamond, he batted .532 his junior season to lead the league and was called the “best defensive gardener” in the outfield.
Johnny majored in geology and worked at a men’s clothing shop in Laramie. He and his younger brother pledged Phi Delta Theta. Within the fraternity, Johnny was known as a stern taskmaster. “Every young freshman that come in had to have an older man that kept him in line,” said basketball phenom Kenny Sailors, who was later credited with introducing the jump shot to the then-earthbound sport. “I didn’t take wearing a suit, coat, and a tie on Monday night [at dinner] too serious until I run into Johnny and he had a little paddle about [two feet long], and I took it pretty serious after I got hit a time or two.”5
Winterholler paid for college with a scholarship from the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). He took compulsory classes in weapons training, held in the basement of Hell’s Half Acre, and mastered drill procedures. What began as an obligation to pay for school grew into something more. During his senior year, Winterholler was elected captain of the Scabbard and Blade, the military honor society.
His ROTC scholarship came with an obligation. After graduation, Johnny was obligated to serve in the U.S. armed forces, which meant that he was unable to pursue a professional sports career immediately after graduation. He could only watch as his Colorado rival, “Whizzer” White, signed a lucrative contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates of the fledgling National Football League. (White later joined the navy.)
Johnny had planned to join the army, and perhaps the Army Air Corps, but due to an apparent misunderstanding, the appointment was not tendered. In an unusual move, University of Wyoming president Arthur Crane intervened on Johnny’s behalf and sent an application for a commission in the Marine Corps directly to Major General Thomas Holcomb, the commandant of the Marine Corps.
“In spite of the praise that has been showered upon him [for his sports success], he is a quiet, modest and earnest young man,” wrote Crane. “In school he has been entirely self supporting and in addition has helped two younger brothers…He is intensely interested in military matters, and I feel he should be an outstanding addition to your splendid Corps.6
“Because there will be an increase in our defense forces due to present conditions in Europe, I would consider it a compliment to our University and Corps of Cadets if Mr. Winterholler’s application could be given favorable consideration,” Crane concluded.7
Crane’s letter was persuasive, and Johnny’s application to the Marines was expedited. In the summer of 1940, after he and Dessa graduated from Wyoming, Johnny earned a commission as a second lieutenant. He was ordered to report to the Marine Corps Basic School at the Philadelphia Navy Yard for officers’ training. There, he studied mapping and tactics, including perimeter defenses and the protection of platoon flanks. He learned precepts of leadership and how to command troops while maintaining discipline and morale under the harshest conditions. He reviewed the code of conduct during warfare, including the Geneva Convention of 1929, signed by the United States, which laid out conditions for the treatment of prisoners of war.
Winterholler completed Basic School in February of 1941 and was promoted to first lieutenant. He bade farewell to his family and to Dessa, who was staying on in Laramie to work at the student union.
Their parting visit was achingly brief. She tried not to cry but could not contain her tears. They promised to write each other often and vowed to marry when he could send for Dessa to join him.
On April 3, 1941, Johnny and others with the 1st Separate Marine Battalion left Mare Island Naval Shipyard, just north of San Francisco, aboard the USS Henderson. Their mission: to prepare for the defense of the Philippines in case war were to break out between the United States and Japan.
* * *
The first time Stan Den Adel hiked to the top of Mount Tamalpais, just north of the newly opened Golden Gate Bridge, the natural world overwhelmed his senses.
Towering redwood trees, native lupine wildflowers, cascading waterfalls, the crashing waves at Stinson Beach, a pack of lurking coyotes, the lingering scent of coastal sage. A red-tailed hawk surfed the airstream. Fog blanketed the Muir Woods below.
Stan had always relished being outdoors—he was one merit badge away from earning the rank of Eagle Scout—but he’d never before experienced such rugged, wild majesty. He took a final panoramic gaze at the breathtaking vista before beginning his descent. He felt joyous to be alive.
Stan and his family were recent transplants to Marin County in California. His father, Franz, came from Pella, Iowa, a prairieland community founded by Dutch settlers, and had fought in Europe during World War I. His mother, Francis, was an orphan who taught school in Pella before meeting and marrying Frank (as he was called). They kidded that, with their similar first names—Frank and Francis—they were destined to be together.
They moved from Iowa to Oak Park, Illinois, ten miles west of Chicago’s Loop, where Stan was born on August 9, 1923. He and his younger sister, Shirley, benefited from a family friend’s benevolence and spent weekends exploring the city’s cultural sights: the Art Institute, the Museum of Science and Industry, the 1933–1934 World’s Fair.
The family left Oak Park at the tail end of the Great Depression. Stan graduated from high school in Tucson, Arizona, where he showed off his Chicago basketball skills (although he acknowledged that Shirley was the better athlete). When Frank found work as a haberdasher in San Francisco, they settled just across the bay in the town of Corte Madera.
There, Stan was smitten by the alluring woods that reached nearly into their backyard. He’d slip out of the house on Redwood Avenue in the morning or late afternoons after school and head toward Mount Tam. He timed his climbs to the summit and tried to beat his personal best.
The U.S. Forest Service hired him on a temporary basis as a forest-fire fighter and to eradicate invasive blackberry plants in Yosemite National Park. It was backbreaking labor of the most unglamorous sort, and he fell asleep every night exhausted. But he’d found his calling. He enrolled in Marin Junior College, determined to pursue a full-time job with the U.S. Forest Service.
It was the summer of 1941. Stan was eighteen years old, with a toothy grin below tousled brown hair and brown eyes. His future was as mapped out as the trails leading up to Mount Tam.
* * *
That summer, as baseball fans debated whether Ted Williams would break .400 and boxing aficionados speculated about Billy Conn’s chances against heavyweight champ Joe Louis, much of the world was at war.
Germany’s blitzkrieg had steamrolled Western and Central Europe and, allied with Italy, faced only a desperate, resolute Britain. The Soviet Union had invaded Finland and was annexing neighboring territories west of its borders, in accordance with its non-aggression pact with Germany. Japan was pursuing its long-standing conflict against China and threatening to subsume other nations and territories in the Far East.
The United States, though officially neutral, was preparing for war. Congress had passed the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, signed into law that September by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. This led to the country’s first peacetime draft and required all men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five (later revised to ages eighteen to forty-five) to register with local draft boards. To qualify, men had to stand taller than five feet, weigh more than 105 pounds, and possess at least half of their teeth.
In early 1941, Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease Act. This allowed the United States to supply foreign nations—particularly Britain, but also the resistance movements in occupied countries—with food, military equipment, and arms, while skirting existing neutrality laws. Defense spending soared, the U.S. Armed Forces readied more active-duty personnel, and factories began churning out planes, tanks, ships, munitions, and supplies.
Fighting Fascism in Europe with what Roosevelt called “the arsenal of democracy” was the president’s top priority. But, with U.S. and Allied interests and colonies scattered across the Pacific, he couldn’t ignore Japan’s militarism in the region. Tensions between the two sides ratcheted up after Roosevelt froze Japanese assets in the United States and closed the Panama Canal to Japanese shipping. The Allies also imposed an embargo to cut off Japan’s access to major sources of petroleum, steel, and iron. Japan responded by seizing control of French Indochina (known today as Vietnam) and signing the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy to form the Axis powers.
Roosevelt and his military aides considered the Philippines to be the strategic cornerstone of the Pacific. The United States had gained control of the archipelago (as well as Guam and Puerto Rico) after its victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Located just 1,800 miles from Tokyo, and situated between the South China Sea and the Philippine Sea south of Taiwan, the Philippines formed a buffer between Japan and the rubber- and oil-rich territories of Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaya, controlled by the Dutch and the British.
From his air-conditioned aerie atop the Manila Hotel, General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the U.S. Army Forces in the Far East, pooh-poohed the threat of war. “The Germans have told Japan not to stir up any more trouble in the Pacific,” he told reporter John Hersey, maintaining that Japan had “overspent itself” with its campaign against China.8
“If Japan entered the war,” MacArthur continued, “the Americans, the British, and the Dutch could handle her with about half the forces they now have deployed in the Far East.”
* * *
Gerald “Gene” Fesenmeyer shivered in the small bedroom he shared with two of his three brothers. It was five o’clock in the morning in the dead of winter in 1941. Outside it was dark as coal, but Gene knew the hogs were awake and eager for their chow.
He pulled on layers of clothes over his long johns, wrestled into his boots, and grabbed his hat. He hauled buckets of slop over to where the hogs were penned and filled up their trough. They greeted him with wet snouts and their usual breakfast-time clamor and then ignored him in their frenzy to get to the food.
He stared at their oversize bodies—the biggest were easily double his weight—while they munched and grunted contentedly. He swore quietly and returned to the house. A bowl of steaming oatmeal was his reward, and then he went out to finish the remainder of his morning chores.
Gene was fifteen years old. He was born and raised in Shambaugh, Iowa, which he described as “a little know-nothing place” about five miles north of the Missouri state line. His father, Lester, farmed 160 acres with corn, wheat, and soybean crops. His mother, Bessie, cooked, sewed, washed clothes, and raised six children.
They lived in a big old farmhouse without insulation. Snow blew into the house in the wintertime and formed snowdrifts inside the windows. There was no indoor plumbing. The outhouse was about one hundred feet off to the side of the house; nobody lingered there long when the temperature dropped below freezing. They took turns pumping water from the well.
- "This is an important and groundbreaking story about World War II veterans and their great courage to rise above their afflictions through the path of athleticism. They awakened the public that we are complete human beings who belong in society."—Ron Kovic, author of Born on the 4th of July
- "Wheels of Courage tells another remarkable story from the Greatest Generation: the invention of wheelchair basketball. Well written and meticulously researched, David Davis sheds light on a story of courage, inspiration, and hope that is a must read for all basketball fans."—Douglas Stark, author of Wartime Basketball: The Emergence of a National Sport during World War II
- "In this masterful narrative, David Davis tells a great story of courage and innovation. By uncovering this lost story of the greatest generation, Davis provides inspiration for those living today."—Paul Dickson, author of The Rise of the G.I. Army
- "The most thoroughly researched and best-written book ever written on wheelchair basketball."—Armand "Tip" Thiboutot, co-author of Wheelchairs Can Jump!
- Wheels of Courage belongs on every "best of" 2020 booklist. Not only is this a deeply human and inspiring story. Through the lives of three men who pioneered wheelchair basketball at V.A. hospitals, we see taboos crumble and a social movement in its infancy. It is also a remarkable sports story. It is a story of how the participants, spectators, and supporters of wheelchair athletics made sports for people with disabilities a part of the American sporting landscape.—Clayton Trutor, DowntheDrive.com
- "Wheels of Courage is the best kind of nonfiction - it's packed with history, reads like a fast-paced novel and will give you a new understanding of the origins of disability culture as we know it."—Ian Ruder, Editor of New Mobility Magazine
- "Fascinating in its detail. Moving in its humanity. And deeply connected to themes, events, and emotions well beyond the competition itself."—Bob Costas
- On Sale
- Aug 25, 2020
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Center Street