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Corpsman Up!

By Pat Lisi, Southern Utah Vets Aid

It’s a well-known fact that Marines and Sailors don’t always get along with each other.  I don’t know precisely when or where the animosity between us began or who ‘fired the first shot’, but I suspect it began a long time ago when Marines were first assigned to naval vessels to protect the ship and crew.  This takes us back to the days of the Barbary Coast Wars the first of which was fought from 1801 -1805.  Probably the first famous landing of Marines was on the Shores of Tripoli which you hear about briefly in the “Marines’ Corps Hymn.”  The Navy delivered the Marines to Tripoli but did not partake in engaging the enemy on shore, which may or may not have ticked off a few Marines.

Created in 1775, the Marine Corps has been a component of the United States Department of the Navy, often working closely with naval forces for training, transportation, and logistics. Captain Samuel Nichols, considered the first “Commandant” of the Marine Corps, formed two battalions of Continental Marines on 10 November 1775, in Philadelphia as naval infantry. One could almost ascertain that to some extent these two military branches were sort of forced to work together, and on ships that were very puny compared to today’s massive navy vessels where there’s room to ‘go one’s separate way’ and stay out of trouble.

In other words, in tight quarters we can assume there were some pretty serious brawls pitting Marine against Seaman.

But, not all Navy personnel are frowned upon by US Marines. Navy Corpsmen in fact are highly respected by Marines especially if they’ve been in combat.  This is because Corpsmen are ‘attached’ to combat outfits and go into battle right alongside their Marine brothers and sisters.  In Vietnam I had occasion to know several Navy Corpsmen, or as we like to call them “Doc.”  Every one of them was courageous and we made it a point to protect our Corpsmen at all cost.  In my outfit, Echo Company 2nd Battalion 5th Regiment, the casualty rate was almost 90% during the 5 years 2/5 was in Vietnam; I was one of them and we all had one thing in common – we were tended to on the field of battle by a Navy Corpsman.

Here is a condensed history of the US Navy’s hospital corpsmen Service beginning with WWI:

Hospital corpsmen were serving with Marine occupational forces in Cuba, Haiti, and Santo Domingo at the outbreak of World War I. It was the change of the Marine Corps’ role to one of expeditionary forces in a large scale ground war that changed what hospital corpsmen would do. Sick call and preventive medicine were continuous roles that remained unchanged. Facing artillery, mustard gas, and machine gun fire, however, was new experiences.

Two to four hospital corpsmen were assigned to each rifle company. A first or second class petty officer would act as the company hospital corpsman and the others as platoon hospital corpsmen. In the trenches and more fixed locations, company aid stations were established by these contingents. A battalion aid station would have from five to seven hospital corpsmen and a chief. The senior Chief Pharmacist’s Mate and six to eight more hospital corpsmen would serve at the regimental aid station.

These hospital corpsmen lived and worked in arduous battle conditions. In one occurrence, a predawn mustard gas attack on the 6th Marines at Verdun in April 1918 had devastating consequences: 235 of the 250 in one company succumbed to the gas and had to be evacuated. The two company hospital corpsmen worked furiously to treat these patients despite their own gas injuries. One died and the other was permanently disabled.

Assaults on German positions offered hospital corpsmen further chances to show their commitment. Their performance in woods well known to Marines would cause the 5th regiment’s commanding officer to write, “There were many heroes who wore the insignia of the Navy Hospital Corps at the Bois de Belleau.”

In all, some 300 hospital corpsmen, doctors, and dentists served with the 5th Marine Regiment, the 6th Marine Regiment, and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion, assigned to the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division. Their professionalism and heroism were reflected in some of the statistics they compiled. During their time in Europe, in the bloody engagements such as Meuse-Argonne and Belleau Wood, they treated over 13,000 casualties. Eighteen of their own were killed and 165 were either wounded or injured by mustard gas.

A heritage of valorous service with the Marines was born. Two hospital corpsmen received the Medal of Honor. Other decorations to hospital corpsmen included 55 Navy Crosses, 31 Army Distinguished Service Crosses, 2 Navy Distinguished Service Medals, and 237 Silver Stars. A hundred foreign personal decorations were granted to Navy hospital corpsmen, and 202 earned the right to wear the French Fourragère shoulder aiguillette permanently. Their 684 personal awards make the Hospital Corps, by one account, the most decorated American unit of World War I.

World War II became the period of Hospital Corps’ greatest manpower, diversity of duty, and instance of sacrifice. Between 1941 and 1945, the ranks of this small organization swelled from its pre-war levels of near 4,000 to over 132,000 personnel. This increase came to fulfill new responsibilities with new technologies at new duty stations. In the face of great adversity, the Hospital Corps would cement its reputation for effectiveness and bravery.

Approximately 300 hospital corpsmen sat out all but the early days of the war when they were captured by the Japanese who invaded the Philippines. In prisoner of war camps and huddled in POW “hell ships”, they endured malnutrition, disease, torture, and brutality. One hundred thirty-two hospital corpsmen died as prisoners during World War II, a death rate almost 20 percent higher than among other American POWs.

Of all the hospital corpsmen in World War II, Fleet Marine Force personnel endured, perhaps, the most grueling side of war. As they swarmed numerous beaches in the Pacific, they became targets themselves as they braved fire to reach downed comrades. At Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Saipan, Tinian, Kwajalein, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, hospital corpsmen bled and died, often in greater numbers than the Marines for whom they cared. Hospital Corps casualties in the 4th Marine Division at Iwo Jima, for example, were 38 percent.

Pharmacist’s Mate First Class Ray Crowder made notes of his combat experiences in his diary:

“Most of the men who had been wounded previously were hit again…I was hit by a piece of shrapnel in my leg but I overlooked it until later. As soon as I could get my wits together…I began to do what I could for the guys. Two of the men were screaming with shock. Darkness had already fallen and I couldn’t see what I was doing. All that I could do was to feel the blood and try to get a pressure bandage put over it to stop the bleeding.”

Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class John H. Bradley’s heroism with the 28th Marines on Iwo Jima is typical of acts repeated by hospital corpsmen throughout the war. On seeing a wounded Marine, Bradley rushed to his aid through a mortar barrage and heavy machine gun fire. Although other men from his unit were willing to help him with the casualty, Bradley motioned them to stay back. Shielding the Marine with his own body, the hospital corpsman administered a unit of plasma and bandaged his wounds. Through the gunfire, he then pulled the casualty 30 yards to safety.

PhM2c Bradley was awarded the Navy Cross for his valor, but he is not usually remembered for this act. Days later, he and five Marines were captured in Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of the second flag raising on Mt. Suribachi. The image was reproduced more than perhaps any photo in history. It was the theme for the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, VA and made Bradley the first U.S. Navy Sailor to appear on a postage stamp. His likeness as a dedicated American serviceman is the most famous in the Hospital Corps’ history.

Members of the Hospital Corps treated some 150,000 combat casualties during the war. This does not include thousands of others, those plagued by disease and injured in the line of duty, who were aided by their medical shipmates. The cost of this service was high: 1,170 hospital corpsmen were killed in action and thousands more were wounded. But their valor in doing their jobs was great. Hospital corpsmen earned 7 Medals of Honor, almost half of those awarded to Sailors in the war. In addition, they earned 66 Navy Crosses, 465 Silver Star Medals, and 982 Bronze Star Medals.

As part of a United Nations force, Marines were committed to the Korean peninsula when South Korea was invaded by its northern neighbor in the summer of 1950. Within the first year, hospital corpsmen had participated in the dramatic landing at Inchon and the frigid retreat from the Chosin Reservoir. By the summer of 1951, a stalemated line of opposing forces took static positions. For the next two years, the war would be reminiscent of World War I, with bunkers, trenches, raids and artillery fire. The slow war of attrition was nonetheless lethal. In late March 1953, 3,500 Chinese Communist Forces soldiers attacked three outposts–Reno, Vegas, and Carson–of 40 Marines and one hospital corpsmen each. Out of this fighting came two Medals of Honor and numerous other decorations. In the Nevada Cities Outpost battles, most of the hospital corpsmen who were involved at the small unit level were either killed or wounded.

Although only one Marine division was involved in the war, the Hospital Corps lost 108 killed in action. Disproportionate to their numbers was their heroism. In Korea, hospital corpsmen earned 281 Bronze Star Medals, 113 Silver Star Medals, and 23 Navy Crosses. All five enlisted Navy Medals of Honor were awarded to Navy Hospital Corpsmen serving with the Marines.

American military commitment in Southeast Asia grew in the decades following World War II. As early as 1959, a few hospital corpsmen provided medical support for U. S. military personnel as part of the American Dispensary at the U.S. Embassy. Four years later, in 1963, Navy Station Hospital, Saigon was created. Ninety hospital corpsmen would staff the facility, which provided care for U. S. and allied (Australian, New Zealand, Filipino, and South Korean) military, as well as South Vietnamese civilians.

By far the Hospital Corps’ largest contribution in Vietnam was with Marine Corps units. Starting with the 50 who landed with the Marines at Da Nang in 1965, the enlisted medical component would grow to 2,700 hospital corpsmen assigned to 1st and 3d Marine Divisions, 1st Marine Air Wing, and other combat support units. Two medical battalions and two hospital companies operated field hospitals, collecting and clearing units, and dispensaries which treated the flow of combat casualties from the field. Closer support was provided at the battalion aid station (BAS) level, where casualties could be stabilized before evacuation to more definitive care. The BAS was often bypassed because of the exceptional medical evacuation capabilities of helicopter medical evacuation (MEDEVAC).

The most dangerous role of the hospital corpsman in Vietnam was in the field. Special units, such as Navy SEAL teams and Marine reconnaissance units took medical Sailors with them, as did the artillery, air, and infantry elements of the Marine Corps. Most of the 53 hospital corpsmen assigned to an infantry battalion served with rifle companies, one or two men per platoon of about 40. These Sailors patrolled with their Marines, risked the same dangers, and rendered the aid that saved the lives of thousands.

Contributions of hospital corpsmen in Vietnam were noteworthy, as they cared for over 70,000 combat Navy and Marine Corps combat casualties and countless military and civilian sick call patients. Their valor was great. HM3 Donald E. Ballard, HM3 Wayne M. Caron, and HM2 David R. Ray earned the Medal of Honor for heroism. HM3 Robert R. Ingram received his Medal of Honor for Vietnam in 1998. Additionally, 30 hospital corpsmen received the Navy Cross, 127 the Silver Star Medal, and 290 the Bronze Star Medal. The names of 638 hospital corpsmen were killed in action there, more than in any other war except World War II. Too many more–4,563–would earn the Purple Heart.

HM2 Chris Pyle wrote the following letter home before assignment with 1st Marine Division in Vietnam:

“Many people have died to save another. The Navy Corpsman has had more honors bestowed on him than any other group. My life has but one meaning, to save or help someone. Soon I will be going over to Vietnam. I have my fears and beliefs, but they lay hidden under my emotions. That’s why God has made me so. Someday I will see before me a wounded marine. I will think of all kinds of things, but my training has prepared me for this moment. I really doubt if I will be a hero, but to that Marine I will be God. I am hoping that no one will die while I am helping him; if so, some of myself will die with him. Love for fellow man is great in my book. It’s true they make me mad at times but no matter who it is, if he’s wounded in the middle of a rice paddy, you can bet your bottom dollar that whatever God gave me for power, I will try until my life is taken to help save him, and any other.”

Five months later, on 28 May 1969, HM2 Pyle was killed in action.

The 1990-91 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait gained a strong response from the U.S. and the world. Preparations were made to drive the Iraqi Army out of the tiny country, and corpsmen were readied to respond to the needs of their shipmates. Hospital corpsmen around the globe reacted, as their ships, stations, and Marines deployed or prepared to receive casualties. In fact, the first Navy casualty of the war was a hospital corpsman.

Of the vast number of Naval Reservists called to active duty, the largest single group activated was hospital corpsmen. Of an inventory of just over 12,000 hospital corpsmen in the Naval Reserve, 6,739 were recalled to active duty. The largest group of them, 4,617, served at medical treatment facilities and casualty receiving centers. 1,142 went to Marine Corps units, 841 to Fleet Hospitals 6 and 15, 471 of them were assigned to the hospital ships Mercy and the Comfort.

U.S. forces would again try to bring stability to a troubled land: Somalia. Hospital corpsmen there faced both bullets and the needs of a starving populace. One, HM3 Timothy E. Quinn, wrote a letter describing his experiences in February 1993:

“I was on a foot patrol that got pinned down by automatic weapons fire, and here I am tucked up against a tree trying to get small…” He continued, “I go out to orphanages and do simple sick call and such…the people there tell us that food is now plentiful, and that no one is dying of hunger anymore, but now the medical problems are much more apparent.”

In its first century, the Hospital Corps has compiled a truly honorable legacy of valor and sacrifice. In addition to the wars and conflicts recounted here, hospital corpsmen have responded to natural disasters, military accidents, and other peacetime emergencies. Moreover, they have maintained the regular health of their Sailors and Marines, giving immunizations, conducting preventive medicine efforts, and holding sick call. Today, the 23,000 regular and 6,000 reserve members of the Navy Hospital Corps continue to serve around the globe. They are assigned to naval hospitals and clinics, to surface ships and submarines. They fly search and rescue missions and deploy with Seabees. They maintain constant battle readiness with Marine Corps units and SEAL teams.

Hospital corpsmen have always had the job of maintaining the health of their shipmates. Their innumerable instances of heroism, of consciously exposing themselves to danger to save lives, are not spectacular because they were required to act. Their displays of courage have been noteworthy because these men and women cared about their shipmates and Marines on the ground in battle.

(Most of the preceding history was made possible by a contribution by HMCS (FMF) Mark T Hacala, USNR from his blog entitled, “The U. S. Navy Hospital Corps: A Century of Tradition, Valor, and Sacrifice).

 As far as I’m concerned Navy Corpsmen who end up with the FMF in a combat zone ARE Marines.  Those corpsmen who do not see combat are still highly dedicated and skilled “docs” who would willingly risk their lives to assist or save anyone in need of medical attention.  The corpsmen I knew in Nam are my heroes.


The #2 & 3 men on the right are Navy Corpsmen Baker and Horton, assigned to our Platoon of Marines, They traveled with the platoon commander, Lt. Kirkpatrick squatting in the #1 position on the right side of the photo. The man on the left side is the platoon radioman whose name I have forgotten after all these years.

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