Echoes of Navy Medicine’s Past
Part IV: Navy Medicine in the “Great War” and Inter-War Years, 1917-1941
By Jan Herman and Mr. Grog
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. From that terrible conflict in Europe, medical personnel became skilled in trauma resuscitation, the treatment of wounds and infectious disease, and war’s psychological wounds. disease, and the psychological wounds of war.
Because of the prevalence of communicable diseases, preventive medicine was a major component of a Navy physician’s daily routine. Indeed, illness could be acquired in places other than the battlefield. According to one Navy physician, venereal disease in wartime France increased because control of licensed prostitution had become less rigid. By his account, 50 percent of French prostitutes were infected with syphilis in its primary or secondary stages.
Aviation and submarine medicine were born during World War I. Both fields should not have surprised anyone for the airplane and submarines were, for the first time, used extensively by the combatants. During the 1920s and 1930s, these new technologies would keep many Navy personnel busy learning how to protect the human body in both hypobaric (aviation) and hyperbaric (undersea) environments. To support the American Expeditionary Force in Europe, the Navy established five hospitals. They included Navy Base Hospitals Numbers 1 and 5 at Brest France, Navy Base Hospital No. 2 at Strathpeffer, Scotland, Navy Base Hospital No. 3 at Leith, Scotland, and Navy Base Hospital No. 4 at Queenstown, Ireland.
Notable among these medical facilities were the base hospitals in Brest. That city served as a major port where American troops disembarked and thousands of wounded were sent home. Navy Base Hospital No. 5 had a minimum capacity of 500 beds and throughout the war it averaged 400 patients. During the influenza epidemic that number reached 800. The hospital had all the facilities necessary for providing advanced medical and surgical care and received patients from other naval stations in France, from the Merchant Marine, and from U.S. naval facilities of all classes. The hospital remained in operation until March 1919.
The Navy added to its “fleet” of hospital ships in 1918 with the acquisition of two former steamships, Havana and Saratoga, which became USS Comfort (AH-3) and USS Mercy (AH-4), respectively. Although provisions of the Geneva Convention protected hospital ships, Navy officials feared that the German government would not abide by these agreements. As a result, both vessels remained in American waters until the final month of the war when they were used as troop transports.
Navy medical personnel exhibited great valor during World War I. A total of 60 Medical Corps officers, 12 Dental Corps officers, and 500 hospital corpsmen were assigned to field service with the Marine Corps. By the time the war ended in 1918, two physicians, two dentists, and two hospital corpsmen had earned the Medal of Honor; 684 citations and awards were awarded to the 331 Navy medical personnel who served in France.
Navy Cross recipient Lena H. Sutcliffe Higbee (1874-1941), Superintendent of the Nurse Corps, was one such honoree. She helped pioneer a new training program to augment the number of nurses being deployed to France when trained nurses were in short supply. The “Vassar Training Camp” served as a finishing school for many of these nurses. During Higbee’s tenure, the Navy Nurse Corps grew from 160 in April 1917 to 1,386 by the Armistice in November 1918.
It has been said that the “war to end all wars” closed not with a bang but a “cough.” Even after the Armistice was signed, Navy medical personnel, including Higbee’s nurses, continued to combat the so-called “Spanish Flu” in the pandemic that ultimately killed between 22 and 40 million people worldwide.
A year after the Armistice, Navy medical personnel found themselves involved in another conflict that grew out of the Russian Revolution. When Allied forces intervened in a civil war between “Whites” and “Reds in post-Czarist Russia, the Navy went with them. Navy Medical personnel participated in other post-war foreign interventions, most notably in Haiti. During the U.S. occupation, which lasted from 1915-1934, Navy medical officers and hospital corpsmen served in the public health arm of the newly created Haitian gendarmerie supervising the drainage of low-lying areas, the cleaning of streets in cities and villages, and the control of disease-carrying mosquitoes.
Even though the period between the world wars saw a shrinking military, the United States was the only nation to maintain hospital ships. The aging and obsolete Solace was decommissioned in 1921 and replaced by Relief (AH-1), the first U.S. vessel to be built as a hospital ship from the keel up. She was commissioned on 28 December 1920 with a bed capacity for 500 patients, and served as the largest, most modern, and best equipped hospital ship up to that time. Relief also became the first Navy hospital ship to allow Navy (female) nurses aboard as regular staff.
The inter-war period also saw swift developments in military and civil aviation, which solved many problems concerning human endurance and the adverse effects of accelerative forces, anoxia, fatigue, and psychological stress. To deal with these aviation related issues, the U.S. Naval Medical School instituted a course in aviation medicine.
Japanese aggression in China, the rise of Nazism in Germany, and the threat of a new world conflict initiated a rebuilding program for the U.S. Navy in the 1930s. In a message to Congress, President Franklin Roosevelt recommended a 20 percent increase in our naval strength, and Congress took heed. From June 1939 to June 1941, the number of active duty Navy physicians went from 841 to 1,957; the Dental Corps increased from 255 to 511; the Nurse Corps increased its rolls from 439 to 524; and the Hospital Corps increased in size from 4,467 to 10,547. By the summer of 1941, the Navy had 23 hospitals in commission and two hospital ships. It was not enough. On 6 December 1941, who could have anticipated what lay ahead for a nation and a Navy unprepared for war.