The WWII Naval Corpsman

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This page is dedicated to the WWII Navy Corpsman. The intention of this page is to educate others on the history, equipment and personal experiences of those who served with the US Marines during WWII as Navy Corpsman.

    Unlike the army, whose medical personnel were supplied from its own ranks, the navy supplied to the Marines medical personnel. Many of the navy corpsmen performed their duties on board the hospital ships, but the most important were those at the front lines, or in the beach evacuation stations. The corpsmen were well familiar with the amphibious island warfare that the Marines used in the Pacific Theater of WWII. These men first received medical training in naval hospitals, but then moved on to Marine bases to finish their instructions as corpsman. They trained under the same conditions as the men they would treat.


Marine Down!!....Marine Down!!....CORPSMAN UP!!

History of the Naval Hospital Corps

Field Equipment of the WWII Corpsman

History of the Naval Hospital Corps

    The Navy was organized in 1775. From the beginning it was deemed necessary to provide for the care of the sick and injured. The area of the ship assigned for the care of the sick and injured was designated the sick berth or sick bay. On the early wooden naval ships bracing structures separated the main deck guns. The space occupied by each gun was known as a bay. In the forward part of the ship guns did not occupy some of the bays. It became a common practice to use these empty bays for holding the sick and wounded. The sick were removed to this part of the ship with their hammocks and bedding. During a battle, however, another compartment came to be used. It was located below the waterline for protection from shot and shell. The compartment was called the cockpit. The cockpit was located below the gun deck.

    The first naval ships were manned with a ship's Surgeon and a Surgeon's Mate. The Surgeon’s mate was an appointed officer with the status of a warrant officer. Apparently during this early period of the navy, no one was trained in the care of the sick and wounded. It was a common practice to designate a number of the least needed crewmen to assist the Surgeon and the Surgeon's Mate. These crewmen were called landsmen . The landsmen were older worn out seamen who kept the cockpit scrupulously clean, well fumigated and sprinkled with vinegar. They were also sometimes referred to as waisters as the cockpit was located in the waist of the ship.

    The Ship’s Surgeon was responsible for the physical well being of the crew. He would inspect the sailors as they came aboard ship and helped fight the sailor's real enemy - disease. Regulations at the time dictated that the Ship’s Surgeon visit and tend to the men in sick bay at least twice a day. The Surgeon’s Mate would accompany him on these visits. The illnesses on board ship were basically routine and so were the methods of treatment. The two real enemies to health were scurvy and dampness. A diet lacking fresh vegetables and the intake of too much salted meat caused outbreaks of scurvy. Dampness caused colds, pneumonia, consumption and rheumatism

    When the ship prepared to do battle, the Surgeon and his mates reported to the cockpit to prepare to receive the wounded. As the wounded arrived, they would quickly evaluate the wounds and determine if amputation was required. If amputation was necessary, the victim was placed on the table and strapped down or held in position by two sailors. Due to the absence of any form of anesthetic and the terrific shock of the amputation, Surgeons were required to work quickly. A suitable amount of rum was given to the patient before the operation. If the sailor was of strong constitution, and blood poisoning or infection did not set in, he stood a good chance of recovering. For the seriously wounded, the prognosis was usually grim. Its estimated that one third of those wounded died.

    The evolution of the modern day rating of Hospital Corpsman started with the Surgeon’s Mate. The Surgeon’s Mates were medical men, and like the Surgeon, were considered non-combatant civil officers. Surgeon’s Mates were actually a combination of Yeoman, Corpsman and Leading Chief. They would keep a journal of diseases and treatments, weighed and accounted for all articles of medicine. They would dress wounds and ulcers and perform bloodletting. The Surgeon’s Mates would supervise the orderlies and Loblolly Boys.

    The Loblolly Boys first appear in Navy records in the 1798 muster roll of the USS Constitution. The name "Loblolly" was derived from the porridge served to the sick and wounded in the British Navy. Loblolly Boy was the title given to the man or boy who was first designated to specifically assist in the care of the sick and wounded. He was originally a boy or seaman who was not able to perform the demanding duties of handling sail or similar work. The Surgeon’s Mate would give the Loblolly boy all such liquors and comforts as are prescribed for the sick. The Loblolly Boy was not allowed to dress wounds or ulcers. Prior to battle he would provide the cockpit with water. Another duty of the Loblolly Boy was to provide the charcoal for heating the irons to sear the amputated stumps and heat the tar with which to stop hemorrhage.

    In 1839 the Navy established the Surgeon’s Steward rating. Surgeon’s Stewards were appointed by the Commanding Officer upon the recommendation of the Surgeon. Surgeons were required to select candidates, "having some knowledge of pharmacy and ordinary accounts and are industrious and temperate habits". The pay of the Surgeon’s Steward was first listed as being $18 per month and one ration.

    In 1861 that of male nurse replaced the title of Loblolly Boy. They were assigned one male nurse per 100 men in the crew. Then in 1861, the designation of persons serving as Surgeon’s Stewards was changed to Apothecary. To be appointed as an Apothecary, "candidate must be a graduate of some recognized college of pharmacy and must be between 21 and 28 years of age". The title of male nurse was change to bayman in 1873. Baymen were to be the personal attendants of the sick and wounded. They were given a course of instruction on board the receiving ship or at a Naval Hospital before being drafted for service on a seagoing ship. The duties of the Apothecaries and Baymen were limited, as the space allotted for the sick bay on a ship was small and the medical and surgical supplies were few.

    On June 17th 1898, the Navy’s Hospital Corps was created by an act of Congress and became an organized unit under the Medical Department. This action also provided appointment to the warrant rank for Pharmacist and established the following ratings: Hospital Steward, Hospital Apprentice First Class, and Hospital Apprentice.

    The first relationship between the Hospital Corps and the U.S. Marines was established in 1898, when Hospital Corpsmen were assigned to the Marine Corps Expeditionary Battalion which landed at Guantanamo Bay during the Spanish-American War.

    In the summer of 1902, the first Hospital Corps Training School was opened at the Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia. The purpose of the school was to provide uniform and systematic training for the new personnel entering the Hospital Corps. Many graduates of this school saw their first duty under fire with Marines at Haiti.

    The Hospital Corps was reorganized on August 29th 1916. It comprised of the following ranks and rates: Pharmacist, Chief Pharmacist, and Chief Pharmacist’s Mate, Pharmacist Mate First, Second and Third Class and Hospital Apprentice First and Second Class.

    During WWI the capacity of the Hospital Corps grew to include 94 officers and 16,000 enlisted men. The reputation of the Hospital Corps during WWI was enhanced by its performance in the field with the Marine Corps. For their actions during WWI, Hospital Corpsman won 2 Medals of Honor, 55 Navy Crosses, 31 Distinguished Service Medals and 460 other major awards and citations. In all, 16 Hospital Corpsmen were killed in action.

    The Hospital Corps expanded during the period between WWI and WWII. More schools were provided for training and qualifications for advancement in rate were raised. During this time of peace all members of the corps demonstrated a high degree of technical skill and knowledge.

    During WWII, Hospital Corpsmen served virtually on every front. Corpsmen were at the forefront of every invasion. They were involved in every action at sea. A total of 889 Corpsmen were mortally wounded. Others died heroically from diseases they were trying to combat. In all, the Corps casualty list contains 1724 names. During WWII, 7 Hospital Corpsmen received the Medal of Honor, 67 received Navy Crosses, and 464 Corpsmen received Silver Stars. As stated by Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal in 1945, "The Hospital Corpsmen saved lives on all beaches that the Marines stormed…You Corpsman performed foxhole surgery while shell fragments clipped your clothing, shattered the plasma bottles from which you poured new life into the wounded, and sniper’s bullets were aimed at the brassards on your arms." No other individual corps, before or since has been so singled out and honored.

    Starting in January of 1943, women were permitted to enlist into the Hospital Corps. A year later, the first Hospital Corps School for WAVES was commissioned at the U.S. Naval Hospital, Bethesda, Maryland. The first class consisted of 230 enlisted women. In June of 1948, the WAVES became an integral part of the regular U.S. Navy.

    At the start of the Korean Conflict in 1950, Corpsman again served in the field with the Marines. At this time the strength of the Hospital Corps was at 30,000 members. Schools at Camp Pendleton in California and Camp LeJeune in North Carolina were established to train Corpsman in the principles of field medicine. After graduation they were assigned to Fleet Marine Force units. During the Korean War, 107 Navy Corpsman were killed. Five Medals of Honor were awarded to Corpsmen.

    During the Vietnam conflict between 1963 and 1975, Corpsman were called to serve their country in Southeast Asia. During this 12-year conflict, 628 Corpsman were killed in action and another 3,353 were wounded in action. There were 3 Medals of Honor, 29 Navy Crosses, 127 Silver Stars, 2 Legions of Merit, 290 Bronze Stars and 4,563 Purple Hearts awarded to Naval Corpsmen.

    Since the end of the Vietnam conflict in April 1975, Hospital Corpsmen have continued to serve in many troubled areas of the world. During the recovery of the SS Mayaguez, 68 casualties were sustained, of which 4 were Hospital Corpsmen. When the Marine Barracks in Beirut, Lebanon was bombed by terrorists, 15 Hospital Corpsmen were killed. Finally, Corpsmen were present at sea and ashore when the United States took military action in Grenada, Panama, and especially during Operation Desert Storm/Shield.

    Historically, wherever you find the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Marines, there you will also find the Hospital Corps. In times of peace or in times of war, the Hospital Corps is ever present to support the life saving aspect it’s been train to do.

Source: Some information was based on an article written by then HMCM George B. Lusk, CMC, Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton

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