Medicine on the Frontlines

Margaret Dudley

Marine giving water to an injured buddy on Peleliu, 1944. Photo from the U.S. Naval Institute.

As Uncle Sam called upon young men across the United States to enlist in the months and years following the attack on Pearl Harbor, an equally desperate plea went out for young people of America to become nurses and corpsmen. Medical personnel remained a necessary component to the survival of American soldiers during World War Two. Corpsmen in the Pacific and European theaters alike served alongside their comrades and participated in every amphibious assault in the war. But unlike their counterparts in Europe, corpsmen in the Pacific were met with a different type of enemy at the hands of the Japanese soldiers.

According to the Geneva Convention, revised in 1929, medics and corpsmen were not permitted to carry weapons and had to be clearly identified by red cross insignia. Medical personnel were to be “respected and protected under all circumstances” by opposing forces as stated in Article 9 of the Geneva Convention. The Japanese forces, however, made an intentional effort to target American corpsmen. To keep themselves and their patients alive, corpsmen in the Pacific began to abandon their Red Cross insignia, and in addition to their medical bags, they started to carry M1911 pistols.

Corpsmen resting at a Navy Aid Station during the Normandy invasion, June 1944. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

Even under heavy fire, corpsmen were expected to triage the wounded and provide stabilizing treatment. Their resources were limited and rudimentary, minimizing the effective treatment that corpsmen were able to provide. Each corpsman carried morphine, bandages, and sulfanilamide “sulfa” packets along with wire splints, scissors, and plasma. Sulfa packets, recognizable in popular WWII movies, were torn open and poured over a wound to disinfect the area. Sulfanilamide provided a temporary alternative to penicillin, an antibiotic that was still new in the world of Medicine. Navy Corpsman Herman Billnitzer described the chaos he experienced while trying to treat a man who had been shot by Japanese machine guns on Guadalcanal:

I got out there to give him first aid, put the bandages on him, and give him a shot of whiskey. That was supposed to be a stimulant. Finally… he was really hurting bad because the morphine had not taken effect. He said, “Well Doc, just shoot me.” I wasn’t going to do that. I told him, “Listen, we are going to get you back there. You will get good help when you get farther back.”

Treating wounded men in the field mainly meant stabilizing them enough to safely transport them back to a field hospital. Once a patient was triaged and marked by how much morphine he’d received, the corpsman needed to move on, listening out for the calls of “Corpsman!” scattered across the field of battle.

Navy corpsman tends to wounded Marine at Okinawa. US. Marine photograph from U.S. Department of Defense.

When corpsmen weren’t serving on the frontlines, they were the main sources of medical care at each command post. While Portable Surgery Hospitals still followed the action on the frontlines, the hospital’s main focus was the triaged patients with serious wounds. Preventative care and basic medical services came directly from the corpsman stationed with each company.

Besides injuries sustained in active combat, corpsmen routinely treated diseases commonly contracted in the Pacific. Disease thrived in the tropical climates and became one of the leading causes of casualties on the Pacific Islands. Malaria posed one of the largest threats to Allied Forces with 572,950 American infantrymen contracting the disease between 1941 and 1945. Eight thousand men of the 1st Division Marines stationed on Guadalcanal in 1942 contracted malaria before they were relieved in December of that year. It is estimated that 60% of men serving in the Pacific contracted malaria at some point during the war, including corpsmen. Corpsmen could do little in the way of curing malaria once a soldier contracted it, but they attempted to prevent it with atabrine tablets. Once contracted, malaria was treated with an increased dose of atabrine and bedrest.

Atabrine Advertisement possibly at 363rd Station Hospital at Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Atabrine came into play in the Pacific after the Japanese assumed control of the Dutch colonies in 1942. Before 1942, the Dutch island of Java was the largest manufacturer of cinchona, the main ingredient found in quinine which was the leading antimalarial drug at the time. When the Japanese occupied the Dutch colonies in the Pacific, they cut off the flow of cinchona into Europe, preventing the manufacture of quinine for the Allied forces. Atabrine became the alternative antimalarial drug for the Pacific, famous for its horrible taste and tendency to turn soldiers’ skin yellow. Despite its unpopularity with the troops, atabrine kept malaria under control. The Japanese troops, however, suffered more casualties from malaria because they were without sufficient preventative medication and treatment. On Buna in Papua New Guinea, an estimated 45% of Japanese soldiers died from malaria. The use of atabrine coupled with a corpsman's care saved the lives of hundreds of American soldiers in the Pacific.

Hospital Apprentice First Class Fred Lester. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

Corpsmen put their patients first and continued to work, even ignoring their own health and safety to do so. The same was true during active combat. Carrying pistols, discarding red cross insignia, and going with troops into the heat of battle was all done for the sake of the men they served. Of the thousands of Navy corpsmen in the Pacific, seven were awarded the Medal of Honor. One recipient, Hospital Apprentice First Class Fred Lester was awarded the Medal of Honor for his service on Okinawa in 1945. Lester was shot twice by Japanese rifles while moving a wounded Marine. Knowing his injuries were too grave for treatment, he remained at the front and coached other Marines through first aid, stabilizing the wounded Marine he had dragged to cover minutes before Lester died from his own wounds.

James Forrestal, the Secretary of the Navy, acknowledged the bravery and selflessness of the Hospital Corps during a speech in 1945, summarizing the vast effect Navy corpsmen had on the progress of the Pacific War:

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.

Whether behind the frontlines or storming beaches, when called upon, corpsmen rose to meet and surpass every need presented to them.


Margaret Schedler, 2024 Summer Education Intern, National Museum of the Pacific War