Hello, Midway Family! Welcome to Karl’s Korner, a historical blog written by myself, Karl Zingheim – Ship Historian of the USS Midway Museum. Each month, I share a new ship story with you, so be sure to check out the rest of my blogs here.
During these unique times, our healthcare and frontline heroes have been at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, I am taking a look back at the evolution of the Navy’s Enlisted medical titles; from Loblolly Boys to Devil Docs, keep reading…
The Navy has always been a technical service, with specific names for personnel assigned to ships who perform their specialized tasks. In addition to the ordinary hazards of operating at sea, the exposure to combat assured an ongoing medical presence for sailors on men-of-war. In the age of fighting sail, even if a warship’s crew were fortunate to have a surgeon assigned, assistants were needed and were often culled from the rest of the crew. Combat duties included holding down thrashing patients undergoing an amputation or being sutured, and pouring sand to keep the surgeon’s traction on a blood-soaked deck. Between battles, these assistants washed instruments, threw severed limbs overboard, and tended to the diseased and wounded in Sick Bay.
One such task was feeding a warm porridge to patients, called in British service, “loblolly”—a combination of English slang for boiling and thick fluids. As this service became an everyday chore, the surgeon’s assistants took on the appellation “Loblolly Boys.” When an American naval service emerged during the Revolution, many British naval customs and habits were naturally incorporated, Loblolly Boys being one of them. Indeed, the term was eventually sanctioned in the 1814 U.S. Navy Regulations.
Throughout the rest of the 19th century more dignified terms came and went, including “Bayman,” but dramatic advances in medical science demanded more extensive training for medical personnel, and the terminology changed to reflect this.
Changes in the Navy Cause System Change
As the Navy changed from sail to steam, the title of Surgeon’s Steward, reserved for more senior medical assistants, became Apothecary, which required education in pharmacology. However, as the Army and foreign navies became more systematized in enlisted medical practices, the Navy Department in 1898 instituted the Naval Hospital Corps, with three enlisted pay grades: Hospital Apprentice, Hospital Apprentice First Class, and Hospital Steward. By World War I, this structure was changed to two junior rates: Hospital Apprentice Second and First Class, while petty officer equivalents became Pharmacist Mates Third through First Class, and Chief Pharmacist Mates. The sleeve insignia for rated personnel followed the familiar eagle (universally called a “crow”) and chevron pattern for other naval ratings but with a red cross inserted between them.
During both World Wars, Navy Pharmacists Mates served afloat and ashore at burgeoning medical facilities. Smaller ships often did not rate a physician, so most medical needs were addressed by a Pharmacist Mate instead. Submarines were a unique challenge since referral to a doctor was impossible while on patrol. Three recorded instances of appendectomies were performed by Pharmacists Mates aboard submarines, prompting a depiction of such an operation in the wartime submarine drama Destination Tokyo in 1943. Pharmacist Mates also served alongside Marine combat units, where they were commonly referred to as “corpsmen” because of their attachment to the Hospital Corps. Two Medals of Honor were awarded to Corpsmen on the Western Front in World War I, and seven more during the Marine campaigns on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. (*see annotation below)
From Change Comes Hospital Corspman
The nomenclature changed yet again in 1947 when the Navy Department rationalized the common wartime reference for enlisted medical personnel to Hospital Corpsman (HM). The following spring, the rating insignia design replaced the red cross with the ancient winged caduceus symbol. Today, the Hospital Corpsman rating is the largest occupational specialty in the Navy, with some 25,000 personnel serving in a wide array of medical applications. Additionally, qualified corpsmen can attain highly specialized certifications in fields such as aviation and diving.
A reflection of the nature of 21st century conflicts is the extension of martial training to corpsmen serving alongside the Marines. While medical personnel were traditionally permitted to carry sidearms for personal protection in the combat zone, infantry-bound corpsmen now receive intensive 8-week courses at the Field Medical Training Battalion in developing skills in weapon familiarity, physical endurance, and comprehension of field tactics. Cutting edge advances in emergency medical intervention are also mastered. The training seamlessly weaves Navy medical personnel into Marine combat units. This martial interchange between warriors and medical specialists has been extended with the Special Amphibious Reconnaissance Corpsmen who attain full weapon and tactical mastery as well as their medical skills.
In addition to a uniform that closely resembles the Marine pattern, corpsmen in combat assignments qualify for the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) badge. However, there is an unofficial moniker that transcends even service qualifications. Dating from the harrowing days of action on the Western Front, the sobriquet “Devil Dogs” became attached to Marines, purportedly as a derivation of teufelhunde from their German opponents. With the formalization of intensive training and the sharing of all the dangers of combat on the modern battlefield, it did not take long for corpsmen to be referred to as “Devil Docs” by their admiring Marine comrades. However, to qualify, the individual corpsman must attain the Marine Combat Action Ribbon, signifying experience in the real deal. So, from Loblolly Boys to Devil Docs, the Navy’s enlisted medical personnel have endured an arcane odyssey of titles and references from the shipmates they serve.
That’s all for now, Midway Family- thank you for reading! Please leave me a comment below and tell me what you thought of this month’s Karl’s Korner. Do you know anyone who served in the U.S. Navy in a medical role? Leave me a comment and let me know!
Launch em’… until next time,
*As a reflection of the dangers inherent in Navy medicine, enlisted medical personnel in the nation’s wars have official been credited with 23 Medals of Honor, 174 Navy Crosses, 31 Army Distinguished Crosses, 946 Silver Stars, and 1,582 Bronze Stars. Some 2,012 corpsmen have been killed in action, including fifteen lost in the Beirut Marine Barracks bombing in 1983.