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The Korean War was a conflict in which helicopters quickly airlifted casualties from the battlefield to medical care, where the first large-scale use of antibiotics during wartime saved many from slow death by infection, and where the new practice of vascular surgery was used experimentally to salvage limbs. It was a conflict in which hospital ships, as up-to-date as any hospitals ashore, began providing definitive care for patients, and an advanced aeromedical evacuation system transported large numbers of seriously ill or injured patients from the battlefield to naval hospitals where their illnesses and wounds could be treated effectively.
When North Korean troops invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, only five years had elapsed since the end of World War II. Nevertheless, the condition of the U.S. Armed forces had so deteriorated in numbers and training that those troops who were dispatched to Korea to stem the tide, were easily overwhelmed by the Communists.
The military medical services charged with caring for these troops equally were not up to the task. The Navy Medical Department was a shadow of its former self. Whereas the number of naval hospitals had reached 83 during World War II, by 1950 this number had decreased to 26. Bed capacity had plummeted from 138,000 beds to just under 23,000. There was an equivalent decrease in medical personnel from 170,000 at the end of 1945 to 21,000 in early the summer of 1950. There was such a critical shortage of physicians that Congress passed Public Law 779, known as the Doctor Draft Law, in September 1950. This legislation provided for the drafting of physicians who had gone to medical school at government expense during World War II but who graduated after the war was over and whose services were no longer needed. Now they were required and many physicians were recalled to active duty. The physicians who had served as reservists during World War II, many of whom had combat experience, were not high on the priority list and would not see action in the new war.
Few if any of the new doctor draftees had any experience in combat medicine. The most seasoned may have had three years of residency. As a result, those with the least training and background ended up in Korea. More often than not pediatricians, gynecologists, and even dermatologists became surgeons once they reported to their units. With but the briefest exposure to surgery during their internships, many of these doctors found themselves debriding frostbitten tissue, amputating shattered limbs, suturing lacerated kidneys and perforated intestines, and extracting shrapnel and bullets from every part of the human body. Ending up in a field hospital as the first patient was a scenario few troops joked about. Yet despite the inexperience and shortages of medical equipment and supplies during the early months of the war, many of these neophytes quickly learned the skills they needed to save lives and return many Marines and sailors back to their units.
With a rugged, inhospitable terrain and climate that seesawed between very hot and extremely cold, Korea was also a very bad place to fight a war. Late fall and winter of 1950 in North Korea was the coldest in memory. In late November temperatures began plummeting. During the fighting at the Chosin Reservoir, improperly clothed troops had to fight their way out of Chinese encirclement in temperatures as low as 35 degrees below zero. Keeping alive, must less functioning, became anything but routine. For Marines fighting off hordes of Chinese, everything appeared hopeless. Weapons ceased to function. C-rations froze in their cans as did canteen water. Unable to drink, men sucked snow to relieve their thirst, further lowering body temperature and making them more susceptible to hypothermia. With inadequate clothing and the harsh conditions, frostbite downed more men than Chinese bullets. In fact, removing clothing to treat a wound was impossible.
Lt (jg) Henry Litvin, attached to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, described just how difficult practicing medicine in such an environment could be.
"If you were treating a wound, you’d cut through the clothing to where the wound was, or you’d put a battle dressing over the clothes and make sure the wound wasn’t leaking blood. It seemed that the intense cold inhibited bleeding. The wounds we saw had already been wrapped by corpsmen in the companies. If the battle dressing was in place, even over their clothing, and there was no leaking blood, we just checked the battle dressing and left the wounds alone."
As an exotic and underdeveloped nation, Korea presented a host of diseases many American doctors had only read about in medical school. Smallpox was endemic, as was typhus, cholera, malaria, tuberculosis, and Japanese B encephalitis. Poor sanitation and polluted water accounted for the more common maladies such as dysentery and other diarrheal diseases.
Despite these overwhelming challenges, by the second year of the war, Navy 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, and in sick bays of aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and other vessels patrolling offshore. Unlike Army nurses who staffed the Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (MASHs) in Korea, Navy nurses were assigned only to hospital ships, aeromedical evacuation squadrons, and Naval Hospital Yokosuka in Japan.
The five years that separated Korea from World War II represented a modest leap in the practice of military medicine. New so-called “miracle” antibiotics such as Aureomycin, chloramphenicol, Streptomycin, and Terramycin were now available; penicillin and the sulfas had been used since World War II. Other drugs that advanced the healing art included the anti-malarials, such as chloroquine and primaquine, the sedative, sodium pentobarbital (Nembutal), the anticoagulant, heparin, and serum albumin and whole blood to treat shock. During World War II, some surgeons experimented with repairing severed blood vessels as a means of restoring damaged limbs that routinely required amputation. In Korea, surgeons advanced this art of vascular repair, which restored circulation, and thereby saved many limbs.
Army mobile surgical hospitals and Navy medical companies deployed near the front enabled rapid surgical intervention. Getting the sick and wounded to MASH units or to hospital ships offshore by helicopter, often within an hour after they were wounded, resulted in mortality rates dropping well below those of World War II. In that war, 4.5 percent of the wounded reaching hospitals did not survive. In Korea, the proportion of patients surviving evacuation during the Inchon landing alone reached the remarkably high rate of 99.5 percent!
During World War II, amphibious landings in the Pacific required a fleet of hospital ships, which were often employed as ambulances to evacuate the wounded back to hospitals at island bases for more definitive treatment. In Korea, well-staffed and fully supplied hospital ships, as modern as the most advanced back in the states, provided definitive treatment. Rather than being evacuated to the naval hospital at Yokosuka, Japan or to stateside hospitals, many Marines, sailors, and UN troops were returned to duty. By 1951, Consolation, Haven, and Repose were either on station as base hospitals pierside in Pusan, anchored offshore, or cruising within range of UN operations ashore. And before long, all had been retrofitted with helicopter landing decks so patients could be flown aboard by helicopter. The marriage of hospital ship and helicopter truly revolutionized wartime health care.
Navy dental officers and technicians worked side by side with their medical counterparts throughout the Korean War. Wherever the Marines went, dental personnel were there, more often than not assisting with casualty care and treatment. The heroic performance
of Dentalman Thomas A. Christensen, Jr. was representative of the dedication and sacrifices of the men and women of Navy dentistry. He received the Navy Cross posthumously for valor demonstrated on November 6, 1950 while treating casualties.
Gallantry was conspicuous among members of the Navy Medical Department in the Korean War. Navy medical awardees including five of the seven Medals of Honor awarded to Navy personnel. The medical department recipients were: HM3 Edward C. Benfold, HN William Charette, HN Richard Dewert, HN Francis C. Hammond, HN John E. Kilmer. All but Charette would receive the award posthumously.
Nearly 1.5 million American men and women fought in Korea. Over 100,000 were wounded, and more than 33,000 killed in action. The Marines reported 26,038 wounded and 4,262 killed, suffering relatively heavier losses than any of the services. One hundred seven corpsmen died assisting wounded Marines, experiencing a higher rate of casualties than the Marines they were supporting.