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A few stories of military medical personnel who gave their lives saving others

Wounded U.S. Marines are helped to an aid station by Navy corpsmen and fellow Marines on Iwo Jima in February 1945. By the end of the 36-day battle, American casualties numbered more than 26,000, including 6,800 dead. (Department of Defense/Released)

Memorial Day is Monday, and because we owe a lot to medical professionals during the COVID-19 pandemic, we thought we would honor a few medics and corpsmen who sacrificed their lives while trying to save others on battlefields.

Navy corpsman and Army medical personnel have been around since the Revolutionary War. The combat medic was established during World War II. Prior to that, enlisted medical personnel served as hospital stewards.

The survival rate of soldiers wounded during World War II was 69.3%; during Korea, 75.4%; and during Vietnam 76.4%. Today, the survival rate for service members wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan has been as high as 90.7%. More soldiers are saved today because of advances in tactical combat casualty care techniques and technology. Here are a few amazing medical service members who gave their lives to save others and a synopsis from their citations for the Congressional Medal of Honor:

Extraordinary service

Pfc. Bryant H. Womack Army Medical Service

In Korea on March 12, 1952, Womack was the only medical aidman attached to a night combat patrol when sudden contact with a numerically superior enemy produced numerous casualties. Womack went immediately to their aid, although this necessitated exposing himself to a devastating hail of enemy fire, during which he was seriously wounded.

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While he was aiding one man, he was again struck by enemy mortar fire, this time suffering the loss of his right arm. Although he knew the consequences should immediate aid not be administered, he still refused aid and insisted that all efforts be made for the benefit of others that were wounded. Although unable to perform the task himself, he remained on the scene and directed others in first-aid techniques. The last man to withdraw, he walked until he collapsed from loss of blood, and died a few minutes later.

Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class William D. Halyburton

Serving in a rifle company with the 5th Marines on Okinawa, Exposed to enemy fire, he rushed to aid a fallen Marine the farthest away. Shielding the man with his own body while administering aid, Halyburton was mortally wounded.

Hospital Apprentice 1st Class Fred F. Lester

On June 8, 1945, Lester served with an assault rifle platoon on Okinawa. Spotting a wounded Marine beyond the front lines, he crawled to him, despite being hit twice by enemy gunfire, and pulled him to safety. Refusing medical treatment for his fatal injuries, Lester guided squad members in providing medical treatment on the rescued Marine, and to others, before dying shortly thereafter.

Pharmacist’s Mate 1st Class John H. Willis

On Iwo Jima on Feb. 28, 1945, while aiding fallen Marines during a fierce action, he was wounded and ordered back to the battle-aid station. Disregarding his injuries, Willis returned to the battle area to resume casualty assistance. He was helping a wounded Marine when the enemy attacked with hand grenades. After throwing eight grenades back at the enemy, he was killed when one exploded in his hand. The Marine he was caring for survived.

Cpl. Thomas William Bennett

The second conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor died at age 21 while rescuing wounded soldiers in Vietnam. On Feb. 9, 1969, his unit came under intense fire, and Bennett risked gunfire to pull at least five wounded men to safety. That evening, his platoon sergeant recommended him for the Silver Star. Over the coming days, Bennett repeatedly put himself in harm’s way to tend to the wounded. On Feb. 11, while attempting to reach a soldier wounded by sniper fire, Bennett was gunned down.

Capt. Ben L. Salomon

Posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in May of 2002.

Salomon was serving at Saipan in the Marianas Islands on July 7, 1944, as a surgeon. U.S. troops were attacked by a force estimated between 3,000 and 5,000 Japanese soldiers.

As the perimeter began to be overrun, it became increasingly difficult for Capt. Salomon to work on the wounded. He saw a Japanese soldier bayoneting one of the wounded soldiers lying near the tent. Firing from a squatting position, Capt. Salomon quickly killed the enemy soldier. Then, as he turned his attention back to the wounded, two more Japanese soldiers appeared in the front entrance of the tent. As these enemy soldiers were killed, four more crawled under the tent walls. Rushing them, Capt. Salomon kicked the knife out of the hand of one, shot another and bayoneted a third. Capt. Salomon butted the fourth enemy soldier in the stomach and a wounded comrade then shot and killed the enemy soldier. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Capt. Salomon ordered the wounded to make their way as best they could back to the regimental aid station, while he attempted to hold off the enemy until they were clear. Capt. Salomon then grabbed a rifle from one of the wounded and rushed out of the tent. After four men were killed while manning a machine gun, Capt. Salomon took control of it. When his body was found, 98 dead enemy soldiers were piled in front of his position.

Salomon, a graduate of USC, is the only dentist to receive the Medal of Honor to date.

Although submitted for the Medal of Honor in 1944, it wasn’t until May 1, 2002, that it was finally awarded.

The modern medic and corpsman

The modern-day interpretation of the U.S. Army doctrine requires medics to carry weapons. It is also common to find American combat medics who are no longer wearing the red or white cross.

The corpsman is part medic, part nurse and part pharmacist, who serves in the Navy and on its ships, but also deploys with Marines. 2,012 corpsmen were killed in action in the history of the U.S., with 42 of those lost in Iraq and Afghanistan.

U.S. Air Force aerospace medical services technicians have frequently served attached to U.S. Army units in recent conflicts.

Since 2005, the U.S. Department of Defense has moved most medical training for all branches of the armed forces to Fort Sam Houston of Joint Base San Antonio. Although each service has some training particular to its branch, the bulk of the course material and instruction is shared between medical personnel of the different services. The Navy Corpsman school is approximately 19 weeks and requires a five-year enlistment obligation.

More than 20 Congressional Medals of Honor have been awarded to corpsman and more than 50 have been awarded to Army medical personnel for heroics on the battlefield.

Sources: Selective Service System, U.S. Army, We are the Mighty, U.S. Navy, U.S. Army Medical Department Museum, Department of Defense, Department of Veteran’s Affairs, Congressional Medal of Honor Society

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© 2020 The Orange County Register