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Rooted in the days of the Citizen Sailor of the American Revolution and the Naval Militia of the nineteenth century, the Naval Reserve came into its own on 3 March 1915. On this day, Public Law 271 established the U.S. Naval Reserve as a permanent component of the Federal Government. For Navy Medicine, this anniversary offers an opportunity to look back at our own rich heritage. From wartime’s battlefields and hospital ship’s operating rooms to stateside hospitals and humanitarian efforts overseas, the Navy Medical Reservists have served, sacrificed and established a record—par excellence—that continues to this day.
Although Congress enacted Public Law 271 on March 3, 1915, it was not until August 29, 1916 that the Naval Appropriations Act created the structure for a viable Navy volunteer reserve force. The Navy first began to crack the roadblock for establishing a Naval Reserve Force in 1912 with the passage of an act on August 22th to establish a Medical Reserve Corps. On March 4, 1913, Congress authorized the establishment of a Dental Reserve Corps. In July 1, 1918 a bill brought the previously established Medical Reserve and Dental Corps under the greater Naval Reserve Force. Technically they were separate entities before this.
The Great War could be called the first great test for the Naval Reserve community. In World War I, over 330,000 Naval Reservists (or 60 percent of the entire force) were called into active duty for the war effort. By war’s end, this number included 384 Navy dentists, 466 nurses, 592 physicians, and 3,058 Hospital Corpsmen Reservists serving on active duty.
World War I also marked the first time Naval Medical Reservists were deployed to a combat theater. Throughout the war, Medical Reservists would serve at base hospitals in France and England, with Marine expeditionary units at Verdun and Belleau Wood, hospital ships and troop transports sailing the U-boat infested Atlantic Ocean, and home at stateside medical facilities . Notable Navy Medical Reserve heroes of the war include physician Lt. Orlando Petty who in June 1918 singlehandedly evacuated wounded Marines against a barrage of German artillery fire and through clouds of poison gas at Belleau Wood. For his actions, Petty would earn the Medal of Honor, a first for a Reserve physician.
As gunfire gave way to Armistice, the Great Influenza commenced its own deadly path across the globe killing more people than the war itself (between 22 and 40 million worldwide!) Navy Medical Reservists served on the frontlines throughout this pandemic—conducting pioneering epidemiological studies in Boston and San Francisco as well as attending to the sick at military hospitals— in turn, exposing themselves to the illness. Some like Navy Reserve nurse Marie Louise Hidell became martyrs to the cause. For her heroic service and ultimate sacrifice, Hiddell would posthumously be recognized with a Navy Cross.
Beginning in the 1930s when the Navy could grant new Reserve commissions at a ranks above lieutenant commander, Navy Medicine began recruiting some of the most talented and well-respected medical and dental specialists in the world. Many of these reservists served at units at the Mayo Clinic, and Johns Hopkins.
The inter-war years saw the maturing of the Naval Reserve organization in time for its greatest test: World War II. In March 1941, President Roosevelt’s declaration of a national emergency would set into motion the mobilization of the entire Naval Reserve. By the end of World War II, over three million Naval Reservists (or 80 percent of the entire Navy!) was mobilized.
Early in the war, Navy Medicine saw the advent of a new class of reservist—the Hospital Volunteer Specialist. Over 800 of these forerunners of the Medical Service Corps would serve in a wide variety of medical specialties from entomology to psychology. The Navy’s Hospital Volunteer Specialists proved themselves invaluable and were involved in everything from blood banking to malaria control to designing and conducting aviation recruit exams to medical research.
World War II also marked the first time that women in non-nursing positions could serve in Navy Medicine. The first woman dentist (Sara Kraut), physician (Achsa Bean) and women hospital corpsmen (WAVES Corpsmen) were all Naval Reservists.
Serving with distinction on battlefields in the European and Pacific Combat Theaters, Navy Medical Reservists would earn six Medals of Honor and 71 Navy crosses (15 physicians and 56 Hospital Corpsmen). Among these heroes was Hospital Apprentice First Class Robert Bush who while administering blood plasma to a wounded Marine at the Battle of Okinawa defended his patients with a discarded carbine rifle. Later earning the Medal of Honor for this act, Bush would also be the subject of an oil painting by Charles Waterhouse and the namesake of two Navy medical facilities (Naval Hospitals 29 Palms and Okinawa).
The work of Navy Reserve physician CDR Corydon Wassell at a field hospital in Java would go on to inspire one of President Roosevelt’s fireside chats and serve as the subject of a book by James Hilton, The Story of Dr. Wassell. The film adaptation of the book would star Gary Cooper in the title role as the Reserve physician.
Whether on ships of war, battlefields or as POWs, many Navy Medical Reservists would also pay the ultimate sacrifice. By war’s end, some 70 Reserve physicians, 12 dentists, two Hospital Corps Officers and 758 Hospital Corpsmen were killed in action.
As a result of the massive reduction of U.S. military forces following World War II, the United States suffered a severe shortage of dental and medical military professionals at the start of the Korean War. On 9 September 1950, Congress passed the “Doctors Draft Law,” the first military draft of dentists and physicians in U.S. history. Many reserve physicians and dentists who had entered the Navy through the V-12 program in World War were recalled into service and deployed, despite having little or no combat experience.
Navy Reserve physicians, dentists, nurses, Medical Service Corps officers, Hospital Corpsmen, and dental technicians held their own in Korea practicing their professions in four medical companies, aboard three Navy hospital ships (Consolation, Haven and Repose), and in sick bays of aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and other vessels patrolling offshore.
Later in the Vietnam War, political considerations and national strategy combined to limit the recall of reservists. Nevertheless, one out of seven Navy officers/Sailors in the Vietnam War was a Reservist. Medical Reservists served at Station Hospital Saigon, part of MILPHAP teams working in Vietnamese civilian hospitals, aboard hospital ships Sanctuary and Repose, and at the Naval Support Activity (NSA) hospital in Danang.
Navy Medical Reservists were represented in Vietnam by individuals like surgeon LT David Taft. While serving with the First Medical Battalion, First Marine Division, Taft was forced to attend to a casualty with a “live” 2.75 inch rocket imbedded in his left leg. Despite the risk to his own life, Taft “safely, coolly and competently” performed the necessary extraction while saving the life of his patient.
Taft was joined in theater by Reserve Corpsman HM3 William Barber. While serving with Company I, Third Battalion, Fourth Marines, Third Marine Division (Reinforced), in Quang Tri, Barber rushed threw a heavy volume of enemy fire to attend to four wounded Marines. After dragging each casualty to a protected position, he rendered medical aid until they were able to be evacuated by helicopter. For this act he would later be the recipient of the Navy Cross.
Navy Reservists in June 1972, Navy nurse and former Reservist Alene Duerk made history as the first woman to reach flag rank. Duerk originally entered the Navy through the Reserves in World War II. After being called to active duty in 1951, she remained until her retirement in 1975.
In 1991, Operation Desert Shield saw over 2,000 Navy Medical Reservists deploy and an additional 4,000 recalled to active duty to replace personnel deployed. Medical Reservists provided operational support of deployed Navy and Marine Corps units; augmented active duty crews of two hospital ships (USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy) deployed to the Persian Gulf; and enabled the Navy to maintain the quality of healthcare to its beneficiaries and provided staffs for 500 bed fleet hospitals deployed to Saudi Arabia (Fleet Hospitals 6 and 15).
Over the last decades the Navy Reservists have become more operationally-focused and participating in additional collaborative efforts with other services. Navy Medical Reservists have been an integral part of Expeditionary Medical Units (NEMUs) deploying to Djibouti, augmenting Army and Air Force staff at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, or serving at NATO Role 3 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Navy Medical reservists have been regularly recalled to active duty to participate in huge humanitarian and disaster preparedness efforts like Hurricane Katrina (2005), Superstorm Sandy (2012) and Operation Unified Response (2010).
In an era of the volunteer force, Naval Reservists continue to play a significant role in the regular force both in war and peacetime. In the last decade, over 70,000 Navy Reservists have been mobilized, providing both ready units and individual augmentees to support Navy and Joint Force efforts in combat operations, humanitarian and disaster relief missions around the world.
Today there are over 7,000 Navy Medical Reservists, 11 Reserve Units (including four Reserve EMFs), Reserve Medical Battalion and Dental Battalions supporting the Marine Corps, the fleet, SEABEES, Special Warfare, ships, and squadrons around the globe.