The FMF Hospital Corpsman

Few outside the Naval Services know that the Marine Corps does not have its own medical branch. All medical, dental and religious care to Marines is provided by members of the US Navy assigned to the Marine Corps. These Sailors serve throughout the Fleet Marine Force, providing every sort of service, from routine sick call and first aid to major surgical hospitals equipped to treat all types of trauma.

During World War II, Corpsmen received their initial medical training at Hospital Corps School. They learned first aid, minor surgery, nursing care, dietetics, hygiene and sanitation, pharmacy, chemistry, nursing care, and anatomy and physiology. The following Hospital Corps Schools were active during the war: Norfolk, VA, Portsmouth, VA, Hampton Roads, VA, Great Lakes, IL, Brooklyn, NY, Bethesda, MD, San Francisco, CA, San Diego, CA and Farragut, ID. Course length varied from 10-13 weeks, dependent on needs of the service.

Medical personnel assigned to the Fleet Marine Force then attended Field Medical Service School. Here they learned bandaging and splinting, treatment of shock, casualty evacuation, and field sanitation. They also fired infantry weapons, lived in the field, and learned how to wear and use Marine-issue field equipment. This four-week course of instruction was first established in 1941. Schools were established at Camp Elliot, CA, and Camp Lejeune, NC. The west coast school relocated to Camp Pendleton, CA in 1944.

Approximately 1,000 Sailors were assigned to each Marine division. Support units typically had a small medical cadre of 1-2 Corpsmen per each company-sized unit. In the infantry, each platoon was supposed to have one attached Corpsman. The infantry battalion also had a small battalion aid station with a doctor and small medical staff. But in combat, there were often not enough Docs to go around.

(left) First Aid to the Fallen
Irwin Hoffman–1943
US Navy Art Collection

In combat, when Marines were wounded, the call for "Corpsman!" would sound. No matter where the wounded Marine was located, Docs and stretcher bearers would race to the scene to stabilize and evacuate their comrade. Equipped with battle dressings, sulfa powder and not much else, they were often the difference between life and death for the wounded. Thousands of Marines owed their lives to the work of Corpsmen.

Prior to the war, Navy medical personnel were often identified by Red Cross brassards. During the campaign for Guadalcanal, they quickly discovered that Japanese snipers used their Red Crosses as aiming points. Also, the enemy used ruses and tricks to ambush Corpsmen, often faking the call of wounded Marines.

Contrary to popular belief, Navy medical personnel were almost always armed during World War II. Early in the war, they mostly carried the M1911A1 pistol. By mid-war, many were equipped with the M1 carbine. They had to be ready to use their weapons as quickly as their medical supplies. The enemy was ruthless and didn't recognize any constraints on the battlefield. There were no pauses such as sometimes happened in Europe to allow medical personnel to attend to the wounded.

(above) A Navy Corpsman splints a fractured leg on the front lines of Iwo Jima—1945. The Marine kneeling on the left fills out a field medical card. still image from USMC combat camera film

World War II was the first conflict where truly modern technology was available for use in battlefield medicine. Wartime statistics showed that over 80% of the Marines who were hit survived and the odds of survival increased substantially if the wounded Marine was quickly evacuated to a field medical facility. The Navy Medical Department was committed to the very latest techniques and spared no expense to provide the very best equipment and personnel to save as many lives as possible.

The years leading up to World War II saw several breakthroughs that saved many lives. Among these miracles was the discovery of Penicillin, an antibiotic that fought infection. Another extensively-used antibiotic was sulfanilamide, which was issued to Marines and soldiers in both tablet- and powder-form. Sprinkled on wounds, sulfa powder helped to limit infection due to the filthy conditions on the battlefield. Taken internally, sulfa tablets helped the body in the systemic fight against infection.

For blood replacement, plasma was used widely, helping thousands of wounded Marines. Since it could be stored without refridgeration, plasma was prefectly suited to the demands of combat medicine. In the campaigns of 1945, whole blood was flown directly from the west coast of the United States to the combat zones.

The Navy Hospital Corps paid a high price for its work. 1,170 Corpsmen were killed in action during World War II and several thousand were wounded. Among the awards for heroism presented to Corpsmen were seven Medals of Honor, 66 Navy Crosses, 465 Silver Stars, and 982 Bronze Stars.

(above) Helping Wounded
Tarawa–1943, Kerr Eby
US Navy Art Collection

(above) First Aid
1944, Kerr Eby
US Navy Art Collection

"Corpsmen carried more than fifty pounds of medical supplies, including bandages, surgical instruments, sulfa, brandy and morphine. My corpsman also carried a rifle. He immediately started administering morphine and treating my wounds. My right eye was blown out of the socket and lying on my cheek until the corpsman put it back in place.…The most extensive injuries were to my right side. As the corpsman rendered aid, a Japanese soldier popped out of the tunnel and prepared to lob a grenade at us. Ever on the alert to his surroundings, the corpsman fired at the enemy. As best I could, I muttered, "Kill him! Kill him!" The corpsman emptied his carbine into him and the soldier crumpled to the ground. He had saved my life twice. Unfortunately, I would learn later, the corpsman himself did not survive Iwo Jima."

Indestructible by Jacklyn Lucas

(above) A Navy Corpsman in Iwo Jima treats a Marine with a severe chest wound. Life giving plasmanate flows from the bottle attached to the M1 rifle at right. still image from USMC combat camera film

Below is an alphabetical list of Navy Hospital Corpsmen who earned the Medal of Honor in World War II with links to their citations on the Home of Heroes web site. (Note: Names with an asterisk (*) indicate posthumous awards.

HA 1/c Robert E. Bush, Co. G, 2nd Bn, 5th Marines, Okinawa, 2 May 1945

PhM2/c William D. Halyburton, Jr., Co. G, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, Okinawa, 10 May 1945 (*)

HA1/c Fred F. Lester, 1st Bn, 22nd Marines, Okinawa, 8 June 1945 (*)

PhM1/c Francis Pierce, Jr., 2nd Bn, 24th Marines, Iwo Jima, 15-16 March 1945

PhM 2/c George E. Wahlen, Co. F, 2nd Bn. 26th Marines, Iwo Jima, 3 March 1945

PhM3/c Jack Williams, 3rd Bn, 28th Marines, Iwo Jima, 3 March 1945 (*)

PhM1/c John H. Willis, Co. H, 3rd Bn, 27th Marines, Iwo Jima, 28 February 1945 (*)










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