You Might Be Surprised to Learn What This Resort Hotel Did During World War II

Rounding the bend past the guard gate, I catch my breath when I spy the Greenbrier resort’s main building. The Georgian-style structure, wedding-cake white and six stories high, looms above flower-speckled grounds that cover 7,000 acres and include cottages, five golf courses, tennis courts, and hiking and bridle trails. This posh estate was established in 1778 in White Sulphur Springs, Virginia (now West Virginia), around a natural hot spring (though the main building wasn’t built until 1858 and since has been expanded). Five presidents stayed here before the Civil War and famous guests since then have included President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, and a whole roster of industrial barons—including Vanderbilts, Fords, and du Ponts—who regularly spent their summers here.

But one chapter of this majestic hotel’s history is lesser known—during World War II, diplomats from enemy Axis countries were interned here. And after they left, the hotel became an active wartime military hospital. There aren’t tons of artifacts left behind from those years, but you can discover traces of this fascinating history and hear some interesting stories. I’m here to learn about it from Dr. Robert S. Conte, who served as the Greenbrier’s historian for nearly 40 years. 

“Remember, Pearl Harbor was a big surprise,” Conte says as we sit at a big wooden desk in the Victorian Writing Room off the dramatic main lobby. I study the room’s gleaming wood trim, ornate mantel, and red carpeting, wondering what’s original and what’s not (only the wood trim, I later learn). “So, on December 7, there were pretty much fully functioning embassies in Washington,” which included those of Japan, Germany, and Italy. President Franklin D. Roosevelt demanded that these now-hostile diplomats and their families leave Washington within 48 hours for security reasons. The Greenbrier soon became a leading candidate to house the new adversaries. 

(Brian Walker)

“The Greenbrier had several things going for it,” Conte explains. “It was on the railroad line—so get on a train in [D.C.’s] Union Station and you’re there within a few hours. It was isolated, and so could easily be guarded. And it was first-class,” which was imperative to ensure the reciprocal treatment of American diplomats being held overseas.

The State Department approached the Greenbrier’s management—it was owned by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad—on December 17, 1941, to propose a leasing plan. Within two days the resort closed to the public and the first group of 159 German and Hungarian diplomats and their families arrived on a secretly scheduled Pullman train from Washington. “They pulled up in the same train station that still exists across the street,” Conte says. Eventually 1,697 people from five different countries were interned here.

The plan was to keep the diplomats at the Greenbrier for up to eight weeks while prisoner negotiations between Washington and the enemy countries ensued. From the start, all internees were treated as regular guests (other than the presence of 50 U.S. Border Control guards keeping an eye on them), with the staff  of several hundred and quality of the resort’s service remaining unchanged. General Manager Loren Johnston ensured this, even though some employees may have wrestled with the idea of serving the enemy. “You may rest assured,” Johnston wrote his staff, “that our Government has a very good reason for everything they request us to do.… It is our duty to serve these people for the duration of their stay in the best possible manner.”

German diplomats and their children enjoy a photo opportunity at a Greenbrier cottage converted into a schoolhouse during the internees’ stay.
(Courtesy the Greenbrier)

While the golf course and riding trails were off-limits for security reasons, the internees could roam the building and grounds, use the indoor swimming pool, play ping-pong in the main lobby, and shop in the lower-level stores. The Germans bought so much they needed two extra railcars when they left.

For the most part, the imprisoned guests were well-mannered, though one night the Germans celebrated Hitler’s birthday in the main dining room. “It got a little boisterous,” Conte says. “One of the staff said, ‘It’s a hell of a hail of heils.’” 

The Germans and Italians notoriously didn’t get along. “Of course, the Germans thought everyone was inferior,” Conte says. “There was tension.” So around April 1942, the Italians were moved to the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina, and Japanese diplomats, who had been interned at the nearby Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia, were transferred to the Greenbrier.

But the Germans and Japanese got along even worse, leading to conflicts that tested the staff’s patience. In another note, GM Johnston appealed to his employees once again: “It must be remembered that this country is in a grievous war…and in order that we may properly perform our service we must…do our full duty.”

At long last, behind-the-scenes negotiations in Washington paid off with a prisoner exchange involving neutral countries, including Mozambique, Portugal, and Sweden. The last diplomat left the Greenbrier on July 9, 1942, and the resort reopened to the public.

Hospital patients received an elegant “white tablecloth” dining experience.
(Courtesy the Greenbrier)

Even before the last internee left, however, management was in negotiations for the Greenbrier’s next wartime duty. The U.S. Army wanted to use the main building as a hospital, and soon purchased the property for $3.3 million, well below the market value at the time. And so, on August 31, 1942, after a short, six-week summer season, the resort closed its heavy glass doors once again and began the challenging task of transforming itself from a resort–cum–internment–camp into a military hospital, to the tune of $2.2 million in renovation costs.

“This hospital is a major story,” Conte says. Originally, army officials planned to knock down all the interior walls, but former Greenbrier managers hired by the army reminded them that someday it would be a hotel again. “They figured out a plan where they could use the existing 500 guest rooms, converting them to hold 2,000 beds,” Conte says, though some walls needed to be razed to make room for a surgical area. The elegant lobby level remained more or less the same, except for an elevator shaft added off the ballroom for wheelchairs and gurneys.

Conte leads me through the richly decorated lobby-level rooms (courtesy of New York designer Dorothy Draper after the war), pointing out pieces of centuries-old furniture and vintage lithographs. The North Parlor was converted into a chapel, he says; the enormous crystal chandelier is original—and, according to one story, one of the Japanese internees left behind the gigantic Chinese screens that grace one wall. We walk onto the balcony just outside, overlooking the back of the hotel. A guard tower once rose above the fields in the distance.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower chats with convalescing soldiers during a wartime visit.
(Courtesy the Greenbrier)

The hospital’s first soldiers arrived on November 14, 1942, and over the next three years, more casualties came from Europe, North Africa, the Aleutian Islands, the Philippines, and elsewhere in the Pacific Theater. “For a lot of G.I.s, it was like, ‘Holy mackerel,’” Conte says of the soldiers’ response to their first view of the refined setting. “Clearly, when you see the building, you know it’s no army hospital. When you walked in, there was carpeting and wallpaper and, at the beginning, white tablecloths on the dining tables.” 

The hospital wasn’t formally dedicated until October 16, 1943, when it was given the official name Ashford General Hospital—after U.S. Army doctor Colonel Bailey K. Ashford, known for his early 20th-century malaria research. The press, however, dubbed it the “Shangri-La for Wounded Soldiers,” given the fact that G.I.s could use the resort’s championship golf course and other facilities. 

Between 1942 and 1946, 24,148 soldiers were admitted, and 11,346 operations performed. “They did vascular and neurosurgery here,” Conte says, “as well as rehabilitation.” General Dwight D. Eisenhower stayed twice at Ashford mid-war for some R&R, and was admitted as a patient once in late 1945 (for pneumonia, Conte believes). 

One big issue the military confronted was how to run such an enormous operation during a national labor shortage. Their solution? Build a prisoner-of-war camp at a nearby former Civilian Conservation Corps camp. Seventy-two Quonset huts housed 1,000 POWs, first Italians and then Germans, who had been captured overseas. They cooked meals, took care of the grounds, did laundry, and ran errands, among other tasks.

The last patients left in 1946, and so did the POWs. With the free labor gone, the military sold the Greenbrier back to the C&O. That, however, wasn’t the end of the Greenbrier’s military duties. Ten years later, the government was looking for a site for an emergency relocation center for the U.S. Congress in case of nuclear war.  “Another interesting story!” Dr. Conte says—but not one for today. 

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