Bette Horstman, 1st Lieutenant, U.S. Army Medical Corps
When you imagine any of the many jobs shouldered by enlisted women throughout World War II, pioneers of the then-young profession of physical therapy may not immediately come to mind. Bette Horstman was one such pioneer. In facilitating the physical recoveries of both international prisoners of war and American GIs, Horstman also witnessed the juxtaposition of conflict in the Pacific Theater: the horrors of modern warfare set against the flourishing beauty of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Born in Hibbing, Minnesota in 1921, Bette Horstman grew up in Chicago, Illinois with her younger sister and parents. She is the daughter of an entrepreneur and Chicago business owner and a stay-at-home mother, who, as Horstman describes, was a “real lady.” Both of Horstman's parents were troubled by her decision to enlist, though their encouragement of her to pursue a college-level career may be considered ahead of its time. Horstman graduated from the University of Michigan in 1943 and was soon accepted by the Mayo Clinic's emergency physical therapy (PT) program.
Due to World War II, the program had been shortened to a one-year crash course training, with the first half being dedicated to formal instruction, and the second half being a hands-on assignment at a large hospital. It was at Harmon General Hospital in Longview, Texas where Horstman was first acquainted with the physical consequences that fighting the war had yielded returning soldiers. But Horstman had enlisted prior to this experience. She states: "It was wartime and I felt I was needed."
She enlisted in the U.S. Army Medical Corps while at the Mayo Clinic and after her stint in Longview was sent to complete basic training at Fort Lewis along with a cohort of other enlisted female medical personnel. Despite their intended positions being at a distance from any combat, the women were still trained as any other GI in the U.S. Army. They were taught how to handle different weapons, perform ground maneuvers, and were given the standard uniform, which included a large gas-mask and equally heavy boots. The trainees had no knowledge of where they might be sent, but by the time Horstman was shipped overseas, it was clear that her contribution to both the service and the profession of PT would leave a lasting impact.
In 1945, her first assignment as a newly commissioned 2nd lieutenant was treating prisoners of war at Tripler General Hospital in Oahu, Hawaii while she awaited her final placement. Horstman would eventually be sent over 3,700 miles further west to the newly captured Island of Saipan, which wore solemnly the direct traumas of the Battle of Saipan, with barely a month's gap between the fighting and Horstman's arrival. She would spend the majority of her Army service on the island. On Saipan, Horstman observed the ruins of bombed buildings paralleled with the beautiful tropical flowers growing beside beaches. She learned of the term “Suicide Cliff” and witnessed B-29s taking off on mercy flights to Japan. She attended simple fractures, sprains, and aches from the resident civilian population and prisoners of war and treated burn patients from bombing runs gone wrong and infantrymen with self-inflicted wounds.
Her investment in PT included responding to limited equipment with improvisation, as well as her proudest moment: training her fellow corpsmen in PT methods so they could assist her in carrying out patient exercises. In place of standard therapeutic cuff weights, she used gallon jugs filled with water or tomato cans from the mess. Without conventional resistance bands, Horstman opted for rubber strips cut from old tires. Otherwise, they worked manually to help their patients heal. Horstman affirms, "You can't get strong without resistance."
In her post-service life, following her discharge from the U.S. Army in 1946, Horstman helped establish the PT departments at three Chicago area hospitals. A long-time member of the American Physical Therapy Association, Horstman was also the first female in the state of Illinois to open up her own PT practice and she even went back to school to complete both a master's in education and a nursing home administrator's license. For her service during World War II, Horstman has received a Meritorious Service Unit Citation with 1 Star, the Asiatic-Pacific Service Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal.
In supporting her own mental and physical health at the age of ninety-nine, Horstman recognizes that she has always been active, saying, "You have to give back." Indeed, a volunteer and a generous interviewee, Horstman’s life continues to be about giving back and staying active in many ways. In recent years, Horstman has worked with the Veterans of Foreign War, the American Legion and at the North Chicago VA as a post commander, where she has volunteered for nearly two decades. She first gave her time as a health educator and before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, she volunteered for the bedside care program "No Veteran Dies Alone."
Now retired from PT, Horstman looks back on her years as a wartime physical therapist and maintains that her time in the Army taught her how to think outside the box. Horstman’s determination and the application of her military experience in civilian life contributed to a successful and meaningful career that left a lasting impact on Chicagoland healthcare. In her commitment to staying active and contributing to what she loves, Bette Horstman can still be found volunteering with her fellow veterans, or, as she did back in the days of her basic training, spending time at the nearest bowling alley.