The Greenbrier Goes to War

Black and white photo of front lawns and facade of Neoclassical hospital building. Central section has portico on top of columns and is flanked by two multi-story wings. It is surrounded by trees.
The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

Public domain. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

The Greenbrier is a luxurious resort located in rural West Virginia, established in the early 19th century. During World War II, The Greenbrier “went to war” for the United States, serving as an internment center for enemy diplomats, a general hospital for US troops, and a Cold War-era bunker location.

The town of White Sulphur Springs in West Virginia has long been known for its restorative properties. The first recorded guest at the springs “taking the waters” for their health was in 1778, and people are still enjoying them into the 21st century. Today, a historic dome houses the springs, and the vast estate of The Greenbrier surrounds it.

Days after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States Government leased the hotel to house “enemy alien diplomats”. They hoped that relocating the diplomats to high-quality internment centers would inspire Axis nations to treat US diplomats similarly. German, Italian, and Japanese diplomats and their families were held for seven months. In the summer of 1942, the government released these diplomats in exchange for United States diplomats detained overseas.

At the onset of World War II, the United States military knew the country’s existing hospitals would not have enough beds or staff to properly serve the armed forces. Military officials set out to identify buildings that they could turn into hospitals. Large hotels fit this goal well, because they had many guest rooms and event spaces that could be quickly transformed into medical facilities. In September 1942, the United States Army purchased The Greenbrier hotel and 7,000 acres of surrounding ground for $3.3 million.

Workers began soon after to turn the luxury resort into a functional Army hospital. Guest rooms transformed into utilitarian patient rooms. Some of the larger rooms retained their more elegant features. These rooms served as recreational facilities for the soldiers. The hotel was renamed Ashford General Hospital, after Army physician Colonel Bailey K. Ashford. Colonel Ashford was known for his malaria research and for founding the School of Tropical Medicine in Puerto Rico. [1]

Female nurses stand on either side of an aisle to treat the injured arms and legs of male soldiers. The soldiers are seated on stools next to large metal basins filled with water.
Soldiers being treated in the “whirlpool room” by nurses.

Public domain. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

On November 14, 1942, Ashford General Hospital received its first patients. The converted hotel had a 2,025-bed capacity. The hospital specialized in neurology, vascular surgery, and neurosurgery. It employed hundreds of military staff and over 500 civilians. Many Red Cross volunteers and West Virginians also visited Ashford to ensure that the service members had a comfortable and speedy recovery.

Due to the labor and workforce shortage, 1,000 German prisoners of war maintained the grounds and buildings from 1943 to 1945. These POWs lived at nearby Camp Ashford, a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp located at White Sulphur Springs.

Soldiers were also able to use the grounds for rehabilitation and recreational purposes. Service members had access to all the former resort’s recreation facilities. These included a swimming pool, tennis courts, hot springs, and the estate’s famous golf course. Dances with live entertainment were also held every month.

Between 1942 and 1946, the hospital treated 24,148 soldiers. Notable patients included General Omar Bradley and future president General Dwight D. Eisenhower. After the last patients left in 1946, The Chesapeake and Ohio Railway repurchased The Greenbrier. The resort was restored and decorated by a well-known interior designer, Dorothy Draper, before reopening to the public.

In 1957, the government renewed its lease with the Greenbrier to build a secret bunker underneath the hotel. In the event of a nuclear attack on the capital, all 535 members of Congress would evacuate to this location. This ensured that the government could continue to function after an attack. The Greenbrier was a desirable location because it was close enough to the capital for a quick evacuation, but far enough away to be safe from an attack on Washington, DC.

The bunker was completed in 1962. Located 720 feet below ground, it contained everything Congress needed to live and work indefinitely. The bunker remained secret until its existence was exposed in a 1992 Washington Post article. In 1995, the US Government ended its lease with the Greenbrier, and the hotel started offering tours of the bunker shortly after.

The resort is still a well-known and luxurious destination for travelers. Visitors can view the historic architecture and furnishings of the hotel and tour the declassified Cold War era bunker.

The Greenbrier was added to the National Register of Historic Places on October 9, 1974. It became a National Historic Landmark on June 21, 1990. The Greenbrier is also a part of the Appalachian Forest National Heritage Area, which was designated in 2019.

The content for this article was researched and written by Hannah Haack, an intern with the Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education and the Park History Program.


[1] The School of Tropical Medicine was listed in the National Register of Historic Places and designated as a Puerto Rico Landmark in 1983. [NRHP 83002297]


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The Greenbrier. "History Timeline." About Us. Accessed June 2, 2022.

Harding, James E. and C.E. Turley. “The Greenbrier.” National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination Form. West Virginia Antiquities Commission, May 16, 1974.

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Last updated: May 1, 2023