The Battle of Bunker Hill as seen from Easy Medical Company (part one of three)
When the Reds came down the pike on the afternoon of 15 August 1952, I’d been with Easy Medical Company of the First Medical Battalion, First Marine Division, for about two months. The tent hospital was located just north of the Imjin-gang, in what was left of Munsan-ni. Prior to that I’d been a battalion surgeon for seven months with the Third Battalion of the Fifth Marines.
As I sat in my command post, one of the two Korean houses left in Munsan, I heard the roaring flap of a helicopter settling onto the landing strip about 30 yards from my sliding paper door.
Only minutes later a new roar filled the sky as a second chopper sailed overhead, banked and circled, waiting for the corpsmen to race up the little hill behind the security Marines’ tents to mark the second strip with flashlights. Then it, too, settled in with the distinctive and familiar flapping sound.
I was sitting back with my feet up on a desk made of packing cases from an artillery shell shipment. The Time magazine on my lap lay open to an account of the war in Korea. Although I was right in the middle of the war, I knew very little about what was really going on. I had to read John Osborne’s editorial about the waiting, fighting 8th Army in order to comprehend the total picture.
I resisted the urge to run out and help unload the casualties. There were many eager young Hns (hospital men) who would look askance at a skipper doing their work. But then, over the purring of the two whirlybirds I could hear a third chopper circling the hospital. Running feet pounded the paths as doctors and corpsmen headed for the triage tent. I grabbed my fatigue cap ó no helmets back there ó and ran after them.
Trotting down the path from the doctor’s tent were Lee Yung-kak and Bill Ogle. I joined them and said, Looks like no sleep tonight.
Won’t be the first time, Bill said, but it’s been a little dull around here lately.
It was an unfortunate remark and I cringed. I remembered that I’d caught myself thinking the same thing nine months before when I first arrived up on the lines, so I bit back the sharp retort that formed in my mind. Because of his skills in surgery, Ogle hadn’t had the customary tour of duty in a front line outfit, which may have caused him to identify a little less with the wounded men.
However, for myself, and the majority of doctors and corpsmen at Easy Med, each wounded Marine might have been a buddy in the trenches who knew about cold bunkers and dirty foxholes and fluttering mortars; about singing bullets, flying steel and white phosphorus; about long convoys and clanking tanks and rumbling trucks, and about loneliness, boredom and the infinite patience of the trenches.
We shared the knowledge that death comes to the wary and the unwary alike.
The frontline doctors and corpsmen knew these things and did not have to voice them. They knew how thin the line was that separated life from death, and how quickly a startled, angry heart could be calmed by the softly beating wings of silent peace.
I pulled Bill back as the others went on and said, Knock off that kind of talk, Bill, it doesn’t sound too good. I know what you mean, but most of the guys who just came off the lines won’t.
Sorry, Skipper, I didn’t mean it the way it sounded.
I know, Bill. Forget it.
Both patients from the first chopper were already in the triage ward, a 16×32 squad tent. Their stretchers lay on the double row of foot-high wooden rails that ran the length of the tent on either side. Within a few moments, two more were brought in from the second chopper.
Dr. Lou Shirley, a general practitioner from Louisiana, got up off his knees where he’d been working on one of the wounded men and turned to Bill Ogle. Belly wound, Bill. Chunk of omentum poking through. Not much loss of blood, I’d guess, ’cause his pressure and pulse are real good. One for you?
Bill nodded. Yeah, let’s go, unless the other one’s worse off.
I don’t think so. Looks good. Multiple small shrapnel wounds, but nothing important that I can see.
Two corpsmen picked up the stretcher and gently lifted it until its short bent-steel legs cleared the rails, then slid it forward, the back man stepping carefully over the rails. They carried him down the long ward and then turned left into the connecting operating tent.
I walked over to the other Marine.
Hi, Mac, I said with a grin, how’re things going?
Great, Doctor. Got a powerful bellyache though. He was a real giant of a man.
I knelt down beside him and pulled his dungaree jacket up and his pants down. Half a dozen ragged holes were scattered over his abdomen and lower chest.
Tell me where it hurts, I said. My fingers prodded the outer edges of his abdomen without response, but when I touched the central area around the navel, he tensed his muscles involuntarily and grunted, Right there, Doc, real sore right there.
Looks like one of these fragments might’ve gone into your belly. I looked at his EMT. Jesse Carter*, eh? Where you from, Jesse?
Hey, I know that town real well. Interned at Cook County Hospital.
His eyes lit up. You gotta be a good doctor then!
Jesse, we may have to take a look inside there later. Right now it doesn’t look too bad. We’ll keep a close eye on you.
I looked up, found HM3 Don Flau standing beside me. Take Jesse on down to the holding tent. We may have to operate on him later.
A truck rumbled up outside the tent. A few moments later in came 11 walking wounded with bandaged arms, heads and legs. OK, guys, I said, you can sit down over along the wall. Korbis, go rout out the day crew and then make sure all the doctors are on their way. Dr. Lee, you start at one end and I’ll start at the other and we’ll get these men triaged.
Even as I spoke, another chopper settled onto the strip near my command post, a jeep ambulance squeaked to a halt outside the tent, and a few moments later four more stretchers were brought in and laid on the rails.
Lou, I barked, take a look at those fellows, will you? Let me know if you need any help. I’ll try to move these walkers on out as fast as I can.
While I sorted them out, I was able to piece together what had happened up on the line. All the wounded were from the 7th Marine Regiment, which held an S-shaped, two-mile-long front that included Siberia, Bunker Hill, Reno and Carson. My former regiment, the Fifth Marines, was on their left flank and the Commonwealth Division on their right.
No one knew why the gooks were coming down the road like they wanted those hills. They already had Tae-dok-san, a 775-foot-high hill that dominated the lines in that area.
I got to work triaging the wounded. I sorted them into categories: those who could be operated upon under local anesthesia, those who needed general anesthesia, and those who could safely wait for several hours or even longer while the more urgent cases were taken care of.
There was a fourth group, though. They would wait; wait only for death. There weren’t very many, but in every big firefight there were badly wounded men who didn’t die right away. If the numbers of casualties were few, and there was a surgeon free, and anesthesia was available, these men were given the benefit of heroic measures. Once in a great while one of these hopeless cases could be pulled through, but when casualties flooded the hospital and every doctor and anesthetist were needed for urgent cases which had a good chance for survival, it was an accepted maxim that occasionally you literally had to put some unfortunate men aside and let them die.
Nobody talked about those boys. They were usually unconscious or, at least, deep in shock. They couldn’t even say, Save me. There were no relatives present to plead their cases. The doctor would complete his exam, bow his head in thought, or in prayer, and then make his decision.
I was looking at just such a case now. A corpsman. He’d been down on his knees working on a wounded man when a enemy soldier with a burp gun came up behind him and pumped four .45 slugs into his back with one burst. Buuurrrrp had gone the gun, and the four bullets stitched themselves across the corpsman’s back, traveling upward through this kidneys, stomach, diaphragm, and into the lungs. The corpsman was unconscious, his pulse uncountable and his blood pressure unmeasurable.
If he had been the only casualty there, he would have gotten the works. As it was, I said to Don Flau, Put him in D ward. No surgery contemplated.
The number of wounded men who died in Korea after reaching the hands of the medical service was less than 2%. In WWII it was 4%, and in WWI, 8%. The reasons: helicopter evacuation from the battlefield; blood, serum and plasma given early (plasma was often given in the field before evacuation); antibiotics; improvements in life-saving techniques utilized by the corpsmen and doctors, and bringing specialists into the Marine Medical Companies and the Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals close to the front lines.
I moved on down the line of stretchers. Flau stayed with me while another corpsmen, J.P. Holliday, worked just ahead of us cutting off or unwrapping bandages from the wounds so I could inspect them.
Rarely did we do anything to the wounds during this first exam. Another corpsman, Hn Brandt, followed us and rewrapped them to await definitive surgery. We gave blood to those who needed it, started IVs with normal saline if the patient was headed for major surgery, put down naso-gastric tubes for belly wounds, gave tetanus toxoid to everyone, and did other necessary procedures to treat shock and ready the men for definitive treatment in the operating tents.
We saw every conceivable type of war wound in the triage ward at Easy Med. Shrapnel and bullets hit without foresight and at random, sometimes injuring vital structures and sometimes missing them by fractions of an inch. A man with a broken arm from a rifle bullet was sent to the holding ward with his arm splinted to await surgery. The next two cases had multiple shrapnel wounds all over the body, but without major wounds requiring general anesthesia; they were sent immediately to the minor operating tent to await debridement. The next man had a major part of his left thigh torn away by a fragment of an artillery shell; he went to the holding unit to await surgery. The next man had a buttocks wound with the frayed handle of a Chinese potato masher grenade still sticking out of the jagged hole; he was sent back to minor surgery for its removal.
The hours ticked by rapidly. By 0200 on Saturday the 16th, nearly 100 wounded men had been admitted, and more were on the way. Most of the walking wounded waited outside the admitting and triage tent, having been examined and found not to need urgent surgery.
I went into the holding ward to check the patients there. Two of those who had been in good shape when they were sent there had deteriorated and were given immediate priority. The corpsman I had sent to D Ward died moments after being transferred.
On another ward check about 0400 I stopped again to see Jesse, the Marine who’d had the powerful bellyache.
He was dead.
I was shocked and heartsick. I called the corpsman in charge of the ward over and asked, When’d you see this guy last, Frank?
Fifteen, twenty minutes ago, Doctor.
He looked down at Jesse and looked up at me with real pain in his weary eyes. He’s dead? He stooped over and flicked an eyelid. Still unbelieving, he put a hand over Jesse’s mouth. He is, isn’t he?
He put a foot up on the rail and leaned forward on his elbows. I was just talking to him. He asked when we were gonna get to him. I said real soon now.
Frank wiped the back of his blood-smeared hand across his forehead. He needed to talk this out and I let him go. I asked him if he felt worse. He said ëNo.’ I didn’t take his blood pressure. He wasn’t sweating or thirsty or cold or anything. God Almighty!
He looked up at me and the agony I read there made me look away. What happened, Dr. Dibble?
Look at his conjunctivae, Frank.
Frank pulled down Jesse’s lower eyelid and exposed the stark white membrane. He bled to death, didn’t he, Doctor? Right under my eyes. Right here in front of me. God, I’m sorry, Doctor!
Not your fault, Frank. Mine, if anybody’s. Must have a small hole in his aorta. Only thing I can think of.
Even though I was only four years older than he was, he needed the comfort of a fatherly hand on his shoulder. I reached out to him and did just that. Come on now, let’s get back to work.
He gripped my arm just above the elbow, smiled weakly with trembling lips and tear-blurred eyes, and moved off slowly, shaking his head. I watched as he started preparing another Marine for surgery. He worked slowly at first then more rapidly and soon was working at top speed again. I knew he hadn’t forgotten what had happened.
I never would.
I can still picture the entire scene:
The body of Jesse Carter lay on a stretcher, about halfway down the ward on the west side of the tent. On his left was a Marine with his left hand mangled by shrapnel. On his right, a Marine clutching a bandage over his right eye. Frank, the corpsman, stared at Jesse, unbelieving.
Jesse’s face hung in my mind’s eye, his eyes half open, sightless.
By 0600 the steady flow of wounded men had slowed down a little, but there was a backlog of almost 50 cases to be operated on. Some of the more serious cases, like belly wounds and compound fractures, were waiting too long for surgery. It had long been Medical Battalion policy not to evacuate men parallel to the lines, that is, from one front line medical company to another, and there were no trained surgeons back at Able Med, but it seemed to me that now there was adequate reason to change the policy.
I got on the EE-8 field phone to the CO of the 1st Medical Battalion, Commander Bill Ayres at Able Med, to convince him we needed help. I could see in my mind’s eye the usually jolly, round, Charles Laughton face blinking the sleep out of his eyes and thinking hard.
Yeah, all right, he said, finally. I knew he was shouting at the top of his lungs but I had to strain to hear him. The little black phone l ine strung by the communications people didn’t have relays and it was 10 miles back to Able Med.
It was good news to me as Ayres shouted, OK, Dr. Dibble, we’ll clean you out, but not to Dog or Charley. I’ll send up some Sikorskys and ship ‘em to the Consolation.
The Navy Hospital Ship Consolation lay off Inchon. She rotated with two other U.S. Navy ships, the Repose and the Haven, and with the Jutlandia, a converted Danish cruise ship.
Thanks, Skipper, I yelled.
Hurriedly I re-examined all the serious patients in the holding ward, working down the line of stretchers perched a foot off the floor on their wooden rails. I marked 12 of the most seriously wounded men for chopper evac, the rest for holding to be operated on at Easy.
It was obvious that Bill Ayres believed in the maxim that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing now. I had just barely finished when a big Sikorsky landed on the strip down by my command post and the corpsmen began loading stretchers into it. It could take six at a time. Shortly afterwards another came in and took the rest of the men I’d tagged.
* Not his real name.