In the late 1970s, few people would have guessed the significance of the railroad car sitting in disrepair on a downtown Raleigh street corner. But a few decades earlier, hundreds of wounded World War II soldiers returning stateside certainly would have been happy to see Hospital Unit Car No. 89480.
In its prime, the car traveled between New York City and Charlotte, welcoming home soldiers when they arrived off the boats and providing care, including basic surgeries, while transporting them to permanent hospital facilities. It also was shipped overseas to serve troops during the Korean War in the early 1950s.
After the war, the car spent a brief stint as an exhibit in Promontory, Utah. In 1977, it was acquired by Raleigh’s Mutual Distributing Company, which planned to turn it into a lounge—until then-North Carolina Medical Society (NCMS) President Dr. D.E. Ward helped the train car take a different track.
In 1979, Ward received a call from Allan Paul, of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, who had stumbled across the car when looking for state railroad history artifacts to add to the collection of the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer.
“It was an untold story and North Carolina had quite a connection to the World War II hospital trains that operated across the United States,” Paul said, explaining that the car had been staffed by North Carolina medical personnel. “It was an interesting, modern approach to dealing with the wounded.”
Paul reached out to Ward and the NCMS for the $5,000 needed to buy the car. Ward’s immediate reaction was to get it however he could.
The car held a special significance for Ward, a history buff and World War II veteran who served two years in the United States Navy as the same time as his brother, who was killed on the last day of the war.
After the NCMS executive committee clarified that membership money couldn’t be used for the car’s purchase, Ward decided to reach out directly to the members by putting a notice in the NCMS bulletin asking for donations.
“I put a picture of the car in there and said, the medical society needs to buy it, send your money to the medical society and let’s buy it,” Ward said. “I thought it would be natural for the doctors in the medical society to buy the car and give it to the museum.”
Thanks to lots of small donations, the $5,000 was raised in just one month.
“They really came through,” Ward said. “They thought it was a good project, and it’s turned out great.”
The car is still on display in the transportation museum and, according to Paul, is the only car of its type that has been fully restored.
“It wouldn’t have been possible without the wonderful financial support and encouragement of the North Carolina Medical Society,” Paul said.
Since the restoration was completed in 2007, the car has become one of the museum’s most popular exhibits and one of the few cars visitors can walk through and tour. The car features a fresh olive green paint job with red crosses on the sides, 15 hospital beds and video of medical staff who worked on the car, including two retired nurses who reside in Charlotte.
“If you ever get close to Spencer, you go up and see that car,” Ward said. “It’s well worth it.”
Longtime NCMS member and former NCMS President Elizabeth Kanof, MD, recently made the trip to Spencer.
“Seeing the medical car at the Transportation Museum was an unexpected and moving experience,” she said. “I felt a sense of pride that DE Ward and colleagues had made this important contribution to NC history. With demands so great and resources needing to be spent so judiciously I am glad we made this contribution when we could.”
Ward, now 94, retired from practicing general surgery in Lumberton four years ago, but continues to work as a medical examiner for Robeson County, as he has since 1976.