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Pentagon Panel Project: Navy Medicine in the Korean War

When North Korean troops invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950, only five years had elapsed since the end of World War II.  Nevertheless, the condition of the U.S. Armed forces had so deteriorated in numbers and training that those troops who were dispatched to Korea to stem the tide, were easily overwhelmed by the Communists.

The military medical services charged with caring for these troops equally were not up to the task.  The Navy Medical Department was a shadow of its former self.  Whereas the number of naval hospitals had reached 83 during World War II, by 1950 this number had decreased to 26.  Bed capacity had plummeted from 138,000 beds to just under 23,000. There was an equivalent decrease in medical personnel from 170,000 at the end of 1945 to 21,000 in early the summer of 1950.  There was such a critical shortage of physicians that Congress passed Public Law 779, known as the Doctor Draft Law, in September 1950.  This legislation provided for the drafting of physicians who had gone to medical school at government expense during World War II but who graduated after the war was over and whose services were no longer needed.  Now they were required and many physicians were recalled to active duty.  The physicians who had served as reservists during World War II, many of whom had combat experience, were not high on the priority list and would not see action in the new war.

Few if any of the new doctor draftees had any experience in combat medicine.  The most seasoned may have had three years of residency.  As a result, those with the least training and background ended up in Korea.  More often than not pediatricians, gynecologists, and even dermatologists became surgeons once they reported to their units.  With but the briefest exposure to surgery during their internships, many of these doctors found themselves debriding frostbitten tissue, amputating shattered limbs, suturing lacerated kidneys and perforated intestines, and extracting shrapnel and bullets from every part of the human body.  Ending up in a field hospital as the first patient was a scenario few troops joked about. Yet despite the inexperience and shortages of medical equipment and supplies during the early months of the war, many of these neophytes quickly learned the skills they needed to save lives and return many Marines and sailors back to their units.

Herman, Jan K. and André B. Sobocinski. Brief History of Navy Medicine. Washington, DC: BUMED, (2006)
Herman, Jan K. Frozen in Memory: U.S. Navy Medicine in the Korean War, (2006)

Additional Literature Information:
November 17, 2011: Psychiatry in the Korean War; Perils, PIES, and POWs Article
November 16, 2011: Wounded Warrior Experience invited talk by Charles Norman Shay Indian Island, Penobscot Indian Nation
November 4, 2011: Psychiatry in the Korean War; Perils, PIES, and POWs Powerpoint

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