Echoes of Navy Medicine’s Past
Part VI: World War II, European Theater
By Jan Herman and Mr. Grog
“To keep as many men at as many guns for as many days as possible.” This was the Navy Medical Department’s fighting motto during World War II. If the ultimate purpose of military medicine during this conflict was the same as in previous wars—to conserve the strength and efficiency of the fighting forces—Navy medical personnel worked diligently to accomplish that goal.
The ability and means to support the war effort was certainly not in evidence the day Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 and plunged the United States into World War II. In that year, the Navy had only 18 continental hospitals, 3 overseas hospitals, 2 mobile hospitals, and 2 hospital ships in commission. Approximately 13,500 physicians, dentists, nurses, hospital corps officers, and corpsmen—pharmacist’s mates as they were then called—manned these facilities.
In contrast, by 1945, the ranks had swollen to about 169,000 personnel, a staggering growth of 1,252 percent! They were assigned to 56 hospitals in the continental United States, 12 fleet hospitals, 16 base hospitals, 14 convalescent hospitals, 15 hospital ships, 5 special augmented hospitals, and many dispensaries.
The staggering commitment to winning the war would require all these resources. What transpired between 1941 and 1945 was a cataclysmic event made worse by the nature of the weapons used by the combatants. Although World War I had seen the widespread use of machine guns, submarines, airplanes, and tanks, World War II saw these weapons reach unimagined perfection as killing machines. In every theater of war, small arms, land- and sea-based artillery, torpedoes, and armor-piercing and anti-personnel bombs took a terrible toll in human life. In America’s first major encounter at Pearl Harbor, the victims of the Japanese attack could testify to what modern warfare really meant. Strafing aircraft, exploding ordnance, and burning ships caused penetrating injuries, simple and compound fractures, traumatic amputations, blast injuries, and horrible burns to name just a few.
Even though the story of Navy medicine in World War II is primarily a story of the Pacific war, the Navy not only played a key role in the liberation of North Africa, Italy, and France but also in fighting the U-boat menace in the North Atlantic and escorting convoys to Britain and Russia. Japan may have forced the United States into World War II, but American strategy for winning it focused on defeating Hitler first. Only when Nazism was on the run could the war planners in Washington take full aim at the Japanese.
The Americans who stormed Hitler’s “Fortress Europe” on 6 June 1944 were predominantly troops of the U.S. Army. But D-Day was not solely an Army show. It was Navy ships and personnel that brought the soldiers and their equipment from England, and Navy battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and rocket-firing amphibious assault vessels that pounded German fortifications and cleared the way into the beaches.
Navy personnel were also represented on the Normandy shore. They were not there in large numbers, but their unique skills were essential for the invasion to succeed. These were the men of the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Naval Beach Battalions, units whose mission it was to bridge the gap between sea and land and perform many other functions on the invasion beaches.
These highly trained sailors of the beach battalions had many functions to perform, not the least of which was to treat and evacuate casualties. The care givers—the physicians and hospital corpsmen—had to contend with every wound modern warfare could produce with anti-ship and personnel mines, high velocity small arms, and artillery fire inflicting penetrating wounds of the head, face, neck, and extremities, and fractures, burns and blast injuries.
As the first American troops went ashore at Omaha and Utah Beaches, Navy medicine was represented by these sailors who were dressed as soldiers and indistinguishable from their Army counterparts. Nevertheless, they performed bravely and efficiently, rendering first aid to American personnel, whether they were soldiers or sailors. Physicians provided rudimentary care where possible. Armed with litters, hospital corpsmen administered first aid—a battle dressing, a tourniquet, a morphine injection, a casualty tag—and then moved the wounded down to the water’s edge so they could be evacuated aboard the now empty landing craft heading back out to the transports. When that was not feasible, they sought shelter and set up aid stations above the high tide line.
The Navy was also responsible for returning the casualties from Normandy. Once evacuated from the American sectors of Utah and Omaha Beaches aboard smaller returning landing craft, the wounded were transferred to specially equipped LCTs (landing craft, tank) and LSTs (landing ship, tank) staffed by physicians and hospital corpsmen. Each LST had special brackets to accommodate 147 litters arranged in tiers 3 high on their tank decks. Here they would receive emergency treatment once the tanks and troops went ashore. Two Navy physicians, one Army surgeon, two Army operating room technicians, and 40 Navy hospital corpsmen staffed these versatile ships. They were equipped for providing first aid, stabilization, and an occasional surgery.
Once safely back in England, Navy medical personnel, including nurses, triaged patients, conducted emergency surgery, and stabilized the injured until they could be evacuated to other hospitals in Britain or back to the United States for more definitive treatment.
One of the hospitals designated to care for the casualties of the D-Day invasion was Navy Base Hospital Number 12. The facility occupied the thousand-bed Royal Victoria Hospital at Netley, adjacent to the major Channel port of Southampton and had a staff of Navy medical personnel. U.S. Navy physicians, nurses, and hospital corpsmen operated on patients night and day for the better part of a week. Their dedication and skill guaranteed that 97 percent of the wounded would live—a remarkable statistic.
Seventeen days after the initial landings at Normandy, the casualty evacuation system was working so smoothly that the naval beach battalions returned to England. Although their mission was completed, the cost had been heavy for these brave physicians and hospital corpsmen. Two physicians and 20 corpsmen of the 6th were killed in action. The 7th lost a physician and 10 corpsmen. At Utah Beach, where the invaders met lighter resistance, the 2nd Beach Battalion lost one physician and seven hospital corpsmen. Every bit as much as the soldiers and sailors who wielded the weapons of war, these Navy medical personnel helped insure the success of what Dwight Eisenhower called the “Great Crusade.” The long awaited turning point in the liberation of Europe had finally come.
Although Navy medical personnel were also present during the capture of Cherbourg and landings on the French Mediterranean coast, for the most part Navy medicine’s contributions to the liberation of Europe were over. The real focus of the Navy’s attention was the war against Japan.
Despite deteriorating relations with the Soviet Union and the beginning of the Cold War, dwindling military budgets translated into drastic reductions in resources and manpower for all the services. The Navy Medical Department shrank accordingly. Hospitals were decommissioned, hospital ships went into mothballs, and reserve physicians, dentists, nurses, and hospital corpsmen returned to civilian life. Who could have anticipated what would occur a mere five years later when the Cold War suddenly turned hot in Korea, a country few people could even find on a map.