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The Witches of Camp White

It was an invitation to enjoy a fun-filled day in the Agate Desert sun, but cameras were strictly forbidden.

On July 28, 1943, Army medics and nurses were celebrating the first anniversary of the Camp White Station Hospital, designated the 79th Army General Hospital.

The first members of the Army’s Medical Division began arriving in the Rogue Valley between July 14 and July 28, 1942, only to find that the hospital would be just a few temporary buildings until the initial brick building was completed and occupied less than a month later, on Aug. 19. Until then, the most serious medical cases were treated at Medford’s Sacred Heart Hospital.

As the civilian crowd of about 1,000 began to arrive, the day’s festivities began at 9 a.m. sharp, with a women’s softball game pitting a civilian team recruited from the surrounding area against the Army nurses who took on the name, “The 79th Witches.”

By the bottom of the 5th and last inning, things looked darker than a Halloween night for the Witches, who were trailing 12 to 7 to the feisty locals, and yet, even with two outs, the nurses still had hope.

The women had loaded the bases with Helen Wilson at bat. Helen drove a pitch to left field and the rally was on. The hits kept coming, accompanied by a number of errors by the suddenly anxious local women. In all, six more runs crossed the plate and the Witches took the victory, 13-12.

Next, the valley managed a small bit of revenge by winning the young women’s potato race. Nine separate 50-yard lanes were drawn in the dirt with nine baskets placed several feet behind each lane. Three potatoes were evenly placed in intervals from near to far within each of the lanes. At the sound of a pistol, contestants raced to retrieve potatoes one by one, returning each to their basket — the winner the first woman to retrieve all three potatoes.

Dolly Age, 18-year-old Medford High School graduate, and a civilian clerk-stenographer at the camp, took the “Potato Crown” by placing her three potatoes in the basket 15 feet ahead of the next contestant. A little over a year later, Dolly would marry Sgt. William Ritter, whom she met while he was stationed at Camp White, after returning from the South Pacific war zone.

The Rolling Pin Throwing Contest for women was another victory for the Witches. The women took careful aim with five rolling pins at a stuffed, dummy “husband.” Nurse Tina Steward claimed victory with her strong arm and deadly eye, knocking the stuffing out of the hapless dummy with five direct hits.

The men competed in a three-legged race and a tug of war before Station Hospital senior Army officers suited up for a softball game against the previously victorious Witches.

The 10 “old men” started with a bang, garnering five runs in the first inning, but the Witches were on a roll. Col. Frank Chamberlin, director of the Medical Division, had promised the nurses that if they beat the men they would have a week off with pay and men would cover their jobs.

The women tightened down and went to work. Down by four runs in the 5th inning, the women bounced a ball off the chest of the pitcher, Lt. Col. William “Kid” Levin. It was another string of errors, with the “old men” looking “like a bunch of washwomen, falling all over themselves.” The Witches scored five runs and pulled out another come-from-behind win.

The nurses mobbed Col. Chamberlin and forced him in front of witnesses to repeat his week off with full pay offer. He did and he paid up.

After a massive, free picnic lunch and an afternoon of drill exhibitions, boxing matches and a children’s race, the day ended with an evening dance in the hospital auditorium.

It’s likely the “79th Witches” were having a real good time.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.