How paralyzed veterans impressed a motion for disability rights, beginning with basketball | Leisure/Life

When Johnny Winterholler came home from World War II, he was a broken man. The young marine was captured in the Philippines in 1942 and spent the remainder of the war in Japanese prison camps, where he lost the use of his legs due to poor nutrition and lack of medical care.

In previous conflicts, paraplegic veterans were dismissed as “dead enders” with no chance of a normal life. But for the 2,500 such men returning from World War II, modern wheelchairs provided mobility, and the new miracle drug penicillin cured dangerous infections. Perhaps most importantly, there is a grateful nation that is committed to providing the best possible care to veterinarians.

Winterholler, a former multi-sports postman at the University of Wyoming, regained his strength, married his high school sweetheart – and looked for a way to resume athletics. On the advice of his doctors, who viewed exercise as a healthy means and a means of developing upper body strength, he became part of The Rolling Devils wheelchair basketball team, which competed against teams of paralyzed vets from across the country. It was the beginning of a movement in which today disabled athletes play almost all sports, including Paralympics, with high dollar sponsors.

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David Davis (Photo by Robert Levins)

“Many of these men became accessibility activists,” said David Davis, author of “Wheels of Courage: How Paralyzed WWII Veterans Invented Wheelchair Sports, Fought for Disability Rights, and Inspired a Nation” (Center Street). Davis will discuss his work in a live webinar presented by the Museum of World War II on Thursday at 6 p.m.

At first, wheelchair sports were shocking to many people, Davis said. “When you were in a wheelchair, you were pretty stuck in your home or facility,” said Davis. “The President (Franklin Roosevelt) got around in a wheelchair but did not have his picture taken in a wheelchair.”

Long before the Disabled Americans Act, there were no required wheelchair ramps or shelter. Wheelchair basketball games were some of the earliest public paraplegia games, Davis said. “It was positive: athletics, success and fun.”

The athletes became folk heroes who appeared on the cover of Newsweek, drew 15,000 fans to a game in Madison Square Gardens, and inspired a film called “The Men” starring a young Marlon Brando.

Jeremy Collins, the Museum’s Director of Conferences and Symposia, will host the webinar.

“Much of the post-war history is centered around the great, frightening post-war era, the Cold War, or the white picket fence, ‘leave it to the beaver,'” said Collins. “But for all the soldiers who returned home for ticker-tape parades, there were also those who were brought home on stretchers.”

Today, the sport’s option is ingrained in paraplegic rehabilitation, Davis said.

“If someone is so inclined and wants to exercise, there is this option,” he said. “That is ultimately the legacy of these paralyzed veterans. It is there.”

To register for the webinar, visit the museum’s website at

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