10 Heroic Battlefield Medics

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When we study war in history class, we learn about kings, presidents, and generals. It's a shame we don't get to learn about the many everyday people who step up and do extraordinary things, like the medical workers who perform heroically under terrible conditions. Here are a few of those extraordinary people.

1. U.S. Civil War: Mary Edwards Walker

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was the only woman in her medical school class in 1855. Her medical practice floundered because few people trusted a female doctor. Walker volunteered her service to the Union Army, but was not allowed to enlist, so served as a volunteer. She was not allowed to serve as a doctor, either, so she served as a nurse -at first. Walker ministered to the wounded at the First Battle of Bull Run and worked her way into the position of a field surgeon's assistant. She was awarded an army commission 1863, but was still technically designated as a civilian worker. Walker was taken by the Confederacy as a prisoner of war for several months in 1864 and was accused of being a spy. She continued to serve until the end of the war. In 1865 Walker became the only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor, for her efforts at the First Battle of Bull Run. After the war, she campaigned for women's rights, temperance, and even ran for political office -before women even had the right to vote.

2. WW I: John Simpson Kirkpatrick

In 1910, Englishman John Simpson Kirkpatrick was a teenage deserter from the British Merchant Navy who found himself stranded in Australia. He enlisted in ANZAC, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps as John Simpson in 1914 and was designated a stretcher bearer. His medical ship was sent to the Gallipoli Penninsula of Turkey in 1915, during the battle in which 130,000 men died. Simpson rounded up a few donkeys to use in carrying the wounded over the rough terrain, and spent 24 days ferrying casualties from the battlefront to the seashore, often under fire. Simpson and the donkey he named Duffy were called "the bravest of the brave" by soldiers of the various nationalities in Gallipoli. He carried out his rescue missions day after day until he was killed by a sniper on May 19, 1915. Simpson was 22 years old at the time of his death.

3. WW II: Rex Gregor

Twenty-one-year-old Navy Pharmacist's mate Rex Gregor was assigned to the Marines fighting on the island of Vella LaVella in 1943. Gregor was fearless, retrieving the wounded under fire as a matter of course. In one instance, he raced through Japanese fire to a blazing ship full of ammunition in order to save the medical supplies he needed. In another instance, he could not find a doctor for a Marine who needed an immediate leg amputation, so he did it himself. Later, he got word from a field hospital that his surgery was adequate and the patient would be OK.

4. WW II: Desmond Doss

In 1945, then-Private First Class Desmond Doss became the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor. Doss was a devout Seventh-day Adventist who was willing to serve his country, but refused to kill. He prayed constantly and wouldn't work on Saturday, with the exception of tending to the wounded. His commander tried to expel him on a Section 8 charge, and the other soldiers resented him. But Doss refused to admit mental instability and proved his bravery as a medic on the field of battle in both Guam and Leyte. The Medal of Honor came for Doss' actions in Okinawa in May of 1945. Over three weeks of fighting, he retrieved approximately 75 casualties under artillery, mortar and machine gun fire. According to his Medal of Honor citation, on May 21st, Doss was wounded by a grenade while carrying out another retrieval mission. He dressed his own injuries while waiting five hours for someone to retrieve him. Meanwhile, Doss still attended other wounded soldiers on the field, even directing the litter bearers to aid other men first. A sniper then shot him in the arm, breaking the bone. Doss made a splint out of a rifle stock and crawled 300 yards to the aid station. Desmond Doss' actions were the subject of the 2004 documentary The Conscientious Objector.

5. WW II: John Bradley

Navy corpsman John Bradley was renowned as one of the six men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima and contributed to the most iconic image of World War II. But he shunned the fame that came from that event. He also shunned any recognition of the Navy Cross he earned for heroism on the battlefield, and his family only learned of the award after his death. Bradley enlisted in the Navy at age 19 and became a Pharmacist's mate. The Marines took him as a corpsman to the islands of the Pacific Theater. On Feb. 21, 1945, he rushed to the aid of a Marine wounded by machine gun fire on Iwo Jima. Under fire, he rigged up an immediate plasma transfusion and bound the Marine's bleeding wounds, while shielding the patient's body with his own. Only then did he drag the Marine thirty yards through an enemy barrage to shelter. A few days later, Bradley was on Mount Suribachi for the flag-raising, then was wounded by shrapnel and evacuated.

6. French Indochina: Geneviève de Galard

French Air Force Lieutenant Genevieve de Galard-Terraube went to French Indochina (now Vietnam) as a medevac flight nurse in 1953. In March of 1954, she was stranded with troops in Dien Bien Phu during heavy fighting when her plane was damaged, so she volunteered to work in the field hospital. She was the only female medical worker there. De Galard retrieved fallen soldiers from the battlefield, assisted in surgery, and ministered to the wounded of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, eventually running a 40-bed ward containing the most gravely wounded soldiers. The French considered the battle lost on May 7th, but de Galard stayed until the medical staff was finally evacuated on May 24th. De Galard was dubbed l'ange de Dien Bien Phu (the Angel of Dien Bien Phu) and became a media sensation. You can see her return to France in this video.

7. Vietnam: Charles L. Kelly

Major Charles L. Kelly was a medevac pilot in Vietnam and the Commanding Officer of the 57th Medical Detachment. He flew constant rescue missions from January to July 1964, even at night with low visibility. On July 1st, he was warned not to enter a "hot zone," but went anyway to pick up the wounded. When asked when he was going to return, he said, "When I have your wounded." Those words became the slogan for the medevac corps. Shortly afterward, he was shot through the open door and died when his helicopter crashed. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

8. Vietnam: Thomas W. Bennett

Corporal Thomas W. Bennett was assigned as a medical aid to the 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, fighting in Plieku province in Vietnam. On February 9, 1969, Bennett braved enemy fire to pull at least five wounded men to shelter during a battle in the Chu Pa area. He repeatedly retrieved the wounded over the next two days, until he was shot and by a sniper while pulling another wounded soldier towards safety. Bennett died from the wound. Bennett received the Medal of Honor posthumously, presented to his parents by president Nixon in 1970. Bennett had enlisted in the army as a conscientious objector, since he opposed killing on religious grounds, but was willing to serve his country in another capacity -that of saving lives.

9. Afghanistan: Sally Clarke

Lance Corporal Sally Clarke of the British Army was 22 years old and serving in Afghanistan in 2009. A Taliban rocket-propelled grenade hit her unit on patrol in Helmand province, exploding shrapnel three times and wounding eight soldiers, including Clarke. A piece of shrapnel was embedded in her back, but the other soldiers were more seriously wounded. Clarke rushed from one patient to the next, binding up wounds until the soldiers could be evacuated. Clarke refused evacuation herself, as she was the only medic in the patrol unit and felt responsible. She was treated at a nearby aid station. Clarke later received the Queen's Commendation for Bravery.

10. Afghanistan: Monica Lin Brown

Army Spc. Monica Lin Brown was an 18-year-old medic serving the 82nd Airborne in Paktia province, Afghanistan, in 2007. A roadside bomb went off as her convoy was passing, wounding five soldiers and setting their Humvee on fire. Brown ran through gunfire and mortars to reach the solders, who managed to leave the burning vehicle, and shielded them with her body. Brown received a Silver Star for her bravery -and was also pulled out of Paktia because of regulations barring women from combat.

This brief list is far from comprehensive. The many other medical workers who perform heroically during wartime could fill books -and may fill another list like this in the future.

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September 22, 2011 - 6:23am
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