Where there’s conflict there is always the need for medical care. The first shots of the American Revolution fired at Lexington and Concord on 19 April 1775 marked both the birth of a nation and the Continental Army. However, it was the British blockade of the American coast and the need to break that blockade that spawned the Continental Navy and Navy Medical Department.
In October 1775, the Continental Congress voted to fund the Continental Navy to augment the existing force of privateers and state vessels. The ships in this tiny fleet—Alfred, Andrew Doria, Cabot, Providence, Columbus, and Hornet—housed sick bays where Continental Navy physicians practiced their healing art. Surgeons and Surgeons Mates hired by the Continental Congress represented the early Navy Medical Department. Among these was Dr. Thomas Hore, one of 311 crewmembers killed during the Continental frigate Randolph’s engagement with HMS Yarmouth on March 7, 1778.
The Seminole Wars (sometimes known as the “Florida Wars”) was a series of territorial engagements fought against the Seminoles, a “loose association of diverse bands” of Indians and others in Spanish Florida. During the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), Dr. Frederick Leitner, a noted naturalist and an acting Navy surgeon, was killed by Seminoles near the Jupiter Inlet (present day Palm Springs, Fla.) while serving as a guide for U.S. forces.
Throughout the Civil War, Navy medical personnel served with the blockading squadrons, and took part in amphibious assault missions. Navy surgeons as well as Surgeon Stewards and Nurses (forerunners of Hospital Corpsmen) would serve with valor during the Battle of Mobile Bay, at the Battle of Hampton Roads, aboard USS Kearsarge during its engagement with CNS Alabama, and during the bombardment of Fort Fisher. Five of our physicians and six enlisted medical personnel were killed in the war.
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The longstanding differences between the United States and Spain reached a climax on February 15, 1898 when the armored cruiser USS Maine was destroyed by an explosion in the harbor of Havana, Cuba. Of the 355 Sailors, 39 Marines and 26 officers aboard the ship, 253 were killed outright and seven died later of extensive burns and compound fractures. Among these were two baymen and an apothecary, forerunners of Hospital Corpsmen. Spurred in part by this tragedy, the United States declared war on Spain on April 25, 1898.
On June 19, 1898, while serving on Guantanamo, Navy surgeon John Gibbs was killed. His death would soon after be the subject of an article by Stephen Crane.
|World War I||1917-1918|
In April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson called for a declaration of war against Germany, and American isolationism headed for temporary retirement. The United States was now committed to its first European conflict. In order to maintain the health of a rapidly growing wartime Navy and care for its sick and injured, the Navy Medical Department had to recruit and train hundreds of physicians, dentists, and nurses, as well as thousands of hospital corpsmen.
Even though the U.S. Navy never engaged a German fleet during its year and a half participation in World War I, Navy medical personnel served with Marine Corps units on the Western Front; aboard every man-of-war, troop transport, and supply ship; with submarine divisions, aviation groups; and with the United States Railway Battery in France. In 1917, the Navy deployed 38 physicians, 5 dentists, and 348 Hospital Corpsmen to France; nurses went as well. What they encountered were trench warfare’s frightful realities—trench foot, disease, rats, vermin, the complete absence of the most rudimentary hygiene, and the terrifying results of gas warfare—mustard, phosgene, and chlorine.
Those medical personnel with the Marine Brigade in France also had to deal with other war trauma—shrapnel, blast injury, high velocity projectile wounds, and psychiatric disorders, then collectively known as shell-shock. Twenty Corpsmen, one dentist and one physician were killed by German forces either on the battlefields of France or at sea, victims of the dreaded U-boats.
During the inter-war years, Navy Medical personnel participated in other foreign interventions, most notably in Haiti (1915-1932) and Nicaragua (1912-1933). Pharmacist’s Mate First Class Finis Whitehead would become a casualty of the U.S. intervention in Nicaragua on April 20, 1932.
|World War II||1941-1945|
“December 7, 1941” still represents the U.S. Navy’s greatest disaster. In just over two hours much of the Pacific Fleet had been destroyed or seriously damaged. Even before the last Japanese aircraft had disappeared over the horizon, what the raiders had accomplished by their surprise attack was catastrophic. The pride of the fleet—seven battleships that once projected U.S. might and prestige—either lay on the bottom or were too crippled to be of any immediate use. Bombs, torpedoes, and machine guns had taken a terrible toll, with the Navy alone losing 2,008 men including 26 Hospital Corpsmen, two dentists and two physicians.
The ensuing war—the largest in our nation’s history—would enact a devastating toll of life. Some 1,245 Hospital Corpsmen, 101 physicians, 22 dentists, and eight Hospital Corps Officers (forerunners of the Medical Service Corps) were killed in World War II.
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.
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, with Marine rifles companies, aboard three Navy hospital ships, and in sick bays of aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and other vessels patrolling offshore.
Over the span of the Korean War, 109 Hospital Corpsmen (including dental technician Thomas Christianson), and two physicians (Peter Arioli and James Crouch) were killed in the conflict.
In April 1965, 23,000 Marines and Army troops arrived in the Dominican Republic to protect U.S. interests in wake of political instability. While serving with the 10th Marines in Santo Domingo, Hospitalman Frederick Pitts would be killed by rebel forces.
In the summer of 1964, an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin had already turned the festering conflict in Southeast Asia into a full-blown war. On August 2nd, USS Maddox was on what was termed a routine patrol in international waters when three North Vietnamese torpedo boats commenced a high speed torpedo run on the destroyer. What resulted was the so-called “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution” passed by Congress on August 7th. This resolution gave the president the power “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” Escalation of the war in Vietnam was now assured.
As troop buildups continued and the war became more violent and widespread throughout South Vietnam, Navy medical personnel were continually entering “harm’s way” to take care of the sick and wounded. Over the course of the war, 645 Hospital Corpsmen and Dental Technicians, and eight physicians and one dentist (Lt. Robert Perry Mills) were killed in action.
At 6:20 am on 23 October 1983, a truck bomb detonated outside the First Battalion, Eighth Marines Landing Team Headquarters (1/8 BLT) at the Beirut International Airport. The resulting blast killed 220 Marines, 18 Navy Sailors and three Soldiers. Among the 18 Sailors killed in the bombing were 15 Hospital Corpsmen and one Navy Medical Officer.
The attacks of September 11th 2001 were traced to Al Qaida, an ultra-conservative Sunni Islamist terrorist organization and its leader Osama bin Laden. Requiring a base of operations, Al Qaida had associated itself with the Taliban, the fundamentalist religious and political movement then in control of Afghanistan. When the United States demanded that the Taliban give up Bin Laden and other Al Qaida members operating in the country, the Taliban actively protected and aided the terrorists in their struggles against the West. Left with no other choice the United States, allied with Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance and the local Afghan resistance, began combat operations against the Taliban on 7 October 2001. Over the course of this long war in Afghanistan 26 Hospital Corpsmen have been killed supporting Marines, Army, Special Forces and Allied forces. On March 27, 2009, Lt. Florence Choe, MSC, USN died of wounds suffered when an Afghan National Army soldier opened fire at the Combined Security Transition Command at Camp Shaheen, Mazar-E-Sharif.
The no peace—no war stalemate with Saddam Hussein ended in March 2003 when the U.S. invaded Iraq. As the Marines sidestepped some towns and fought their way through others on the way to Baghdad, Navy physicians, Corpsmen, dentists, and critical care nurses accompanying them, stabilized the critically wounded and coordinated their evacuation to facilities better equipped to provide further care. Throughout the war in Iraq, 24 Hospital Corpsmen were killed in action serving with Marine Forces in Anbar Province.
Navy physicians CAPT David Brown and CAPT Laurel Clark were part of the seven-member crew of Space Shuttle Columbia (STS-107), January 16th to February 1, 2003. After a 15-day mission in space, Brown and Clark were killed when Columbia disintegrated 16 minutes prior to its scheduled landing.