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Book explores growth of wheelchair sports

Book explores growth of wheelchair sports

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HJ - Rolling Devils Fesenmeyer

The Rolling Devils wheelchair basketball team from Naval Hospital Corona, circa 1947, featured veterans from World War II. Shambaugh native Gene Fesenmeyer, far right, was among the players on the team. A new book by David Davis of Los Angeles entitled “Wheels of Courage” details the birth of wheelchair basketball as a part of the rehabilitation program for paralyzed veterans of World War II and how the rise of wheelchair sports changed the view Americans had of people with disabilities. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Harms and the Winterholler family)

A Shambaugh man is featured in a new book detailing the invention and rise of wheelchair sports following World War II.

David Davis of Los Angeles is the author of the new book “Wheels of Courage” that was released Aug. 25. The book details “how World War II veterans invented wheelchair sports, fought for disability rights and inspired a nation,” according to the cover of the book.

“What surprised me was nobody has told this story. Part of that, I think, is because of the veterans themselves. This was the Greatest Generation, but they were also a silent generation. They didn’t talk about what they did in the war. Most of the veterans involved had passed away, so when I talked to their sons or daughters, they had never heard of what their father had done. Their fathers never talked about what they did in the war or wheelchair basketball, so I would know more than they did,” Davis said.

In the book, Davis shares the stories of three veterans who played wheelchair basketball along with providing historical background on the development of the game and how it changed the attitude people had toward individuals with disabilities. Among those veterans was Gene “Jerry” Fesenmeyer.

Fesenmeyer was born Aug. 24, 1926, and was raised on a farm near Shambaugh. Right after graduating from Clarinda High School, Fesenmeyer enlisted in the Marines in May 1944.

“He was an Iowa farm boy - up before dawn to do all the errands. He went from his high school graduation and caught a bus to join the Marines. His parents had to give him permission to enlist because he was under age,” Davis said.

Fesenmeyer underwent his military training in Southern California. A member of the 3rd Battalion First Marine Division, Fesenmeyer was being trained for a potential invasion of the home islands of Japan.

“The strategy at that point was we would have to invade the home islands of Japan to win the war. As he would say, he was fodder and was expecting to die. They were expecting many, many deaths if that happened,” Davis said.

Instead, Fesenmeyer was sent to Okinawa for the last major battle in the Pacific Theater. Davis said Fesenmeyer told him Japanese soldiers were hiding in caves and held the high ground on the island, which were significant advantages in the rainy and muddy conditions.

Serving as a machine gunner, Fesenmeyer was making an advance when he saw a Japanese sniper in a tree. Fesenmeyer was shot in the chest before he could get off a shot, Davis said.

“He was lucky to be alive. He was tended to on the beach and then taken to a hospital ship. From there, he was evacuated quickly because, due to the nature of the wound, a serious concern was sepsis. Penicillin had just been developed. He lost a lot of weight and developed severe bed sores by the time he got back to the States. He lost 70 or 80 pounds and was already a small guy. When he arrived in San Francisco, they were placing bets if he would live through the night or not, but he made it and was taken to the naval hospital in Corona where he began his recovery,” Davis said.

While Davis was doing research for a book on Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, he learned the Hawaiian native spent time living in Southern California. He would make appearances at the grand openings of swimming pools at universities, hotels and resorts. One of the resorts he appeared at was the Norconian Resort Supreme that opened in 1929.

“When the Depression hit, the resort did not do so well. Right before Pearl Harbor, the Navy bought the facility and used it as a naval hospital. Some of the victims of Pearl Harbor were taken there and that’s where Gene was taken,” Davis said. “I came across a reference of the Rolling Devils as one of the first wheelchair basketball teams ever created and that’s when I jumped down the rabbit hole.”

Fesenmeyer was one of the basketball players for the Rolling Devils. After publishing his book on Kahanamoku in 2015, Davis began working on a magazine article about the naval hospital and the Rolling Devils published in November 2016 in Los Angeles Magazine.

Davis said he interviewed Fesenmeyer, who was living in Texas at that time, for magazine article. However, after hearing Fesenmeyer’s story, Davis said he realized there was far more of a story to be told. As a result, he developed a book proposal in 2017. After agreeing to a contract to write the book in 2018, Davis started two years of intensive research that took him around the country as well as to London to review the archives of Ludwig Guttmann, who established the Paralympic Games in England.

“I had very little prior knowledge. I am not a veteran and am non-disabled. I didn’t know about the roots of the game and had never seen a wheelchair basketball game in person. At the elite level it’s phenomenal,” Davis said.

In the book, Davis explains that army and navy hospitals developed wheelchair sports as part of the rehabilitation program for military personnel paralyzed in combat. Along with providing spirited competition, the sports offered participants a chance at independence they did not have previously.

“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,” Davis wrote in the book.

Although Davis has a longstanding love of history, he said researching and writing the book was an eye-opening experience. Davis said he had studied World War II, but had no idea of the sacrifices made by the men who fought and by the United States as a country. He said he also learned a great deal about disability rights and how advances in technology made wheelchair sports possible.

“One of the things that resonated with me was the wheelchairs themselves. Before the 1930s they were like La-Z-Boy chairs on wheels. People were said to be ‘confined’ to a wheelchair because they had no mobility. You couldn’t just wheel those chairs down the street or go to a car and drive around. Two engineers, Everest & Jennings, created chairs made of aluminum that only weighed 40 or 50 pounds. Back then that was transformative, not only for wheelchair basketball, but those models were also foldable and could go in a car. That meant you had independence and could drive to a job or to see your family,” Davis said.

As a member of the Rolling Devils, Fesenmeyer helped shed light on the barriers people with disabilities faced after World War II and still face today. Davis said he, and the countless other veterans who played wheelchair sports, showed they were proud of who they were and that they had nothing to hide about their disabilities.

Fesenmeyer died in 2018 just after Davis had told him of the contract to write “Wheels of Courage.” After first, Davis said he regarded Fesenmeyer simply as a source for his original magazine article and later the book. However, over time, Davis said the two men became friends. Davis honored that friendship by dedicating the book to his sister, Margot Davis, and Fesenmeyer.

“I was honored to tell his story. I wish the other two veterans I wrote a lot about were also alive, but they weren’t. I was really fortunate to meet him and talk to him. One of the highlights of my career as a writer was to meet him,” Davis said.

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