The men and women of the Navy and Marine Corps are brothers and sisters in arms within the Department of the Navy. The Navy’s mission is to maintain, train, and equip combat ready Naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression, and maintaining freedom of the seas. The Marine Corps mission is to defend America at home, protect her interests abroad, and project Naval power ashore. It is a team effort.
It is difficult to describe the avant-garde nature of the Naval establishment. Not all of our lessons have been easily learned but I think the Navy and Marine Corps are blessed with top-notch people who always strive to leave their service in better shape than when they joined it. There are several examples of this, but the one I want to write about today involves the Navy Hospital Corps.
In the Old Navy, medical services were provided to ship’s company by surgeons and randomly selected crewmen detailed to assist him. In those days, it was common to find surgeons and his assistants toiling under the most deplorable of conditions. Expediency led to frequent amputations; lacerations were often cauterized with heated irons. Sand was thrown down to keep the surgeon from slipping on the bloody deck.
In those early days, the surgeon’s medical assistants were called Loblolly boys, an expression that originated in the Royal Navy indicating the daily ration of porridge fed to the sick. The phrase “loblolly boy” was incorporated into US Navy Regulations, 1814. The terminology changed several times over many decades: Surgeon’s Steward (1841), Nurse (1861), Apothecary (1866), and Bayman (1876).
By the 1880s, medical science was progressing at a rapid rate, prompting Navy Surgeon General J. R. Tyron to petition the Navy Department for advanced training for enlisted medical personnel. With the advent of the Spanish-American War, Congress passed a bill authorizing the establishment of the Navy Hospital Corps, passed into law by President William McKinley on 17 June 1898. As a result, three naval ratings were created: hospital apprentice, hospital apprentice first class, and hospital steward (a chief petty officer). Additional ratings were added in 1916 and these would remain in effect until 1947.
The U. S. Navy Hospital Corpsman has distinguished himself aboard ships at sea, on submarines, and at every Navy Base around the world. During World War II, Hospital Corpsmen performed many heroic life-saving feats, often under the most appalling conditions, from treating burn victims to preparing sailors for evacuation from sinking ships. In some instances, these Corpsmen performed life-saving surgeries when there was no medical doctor available. Throughout all these ordeals Navy Corpsmen never broke faith with their motto: Semper Fortis — Always Courageous.”
Perhaps at no time has the Navy Hospital Corpsman better acquitted himself than when assigned as a Field Hospital Corpsman with the U. S. Marines. The Marines loved their corpsmen; they didn’t worry about such things as ratings and ranks —they simply called him “Doc.”
Hospital Corpsmen served alongside the Marines in every conflict since the Spanish-American War. They have become part of the combat unit’s table of organization. During World War II, “Doc” landed on every hostile beach along side “his” Marines. In fact, one of the individuals helping to raise the flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima was Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class “Jake” Bradley.
Throughout all of these battles, the Field Hospital Corpsman responded to every call for assistance. It never mattered whether the Marines were engaged in a firefight; when the call went out Corpsman Up, Doc always responded. If he didn’t respond, he was already dead. It is no surprise, then, that Marines always take care of their Doc … and no one ever messes with a Hospital Corpsman when the Marines are around —nobody. One demonstration of the uniqueness of the Field Hospital Corpsman and the Marines is that all U. S. Navy medical personnel serving with Marines are authorized to wear the Marine Corps uniform, exchanging Marine Corps rank insignia with that of the U. S. Navy.
“Doc” has been cited many times for heroism: 22 awards of the Medal of Honor, 174 Navy Crosses, 945 Silver Stars, and nearly 1,600 Bronze Star Medals. During the Vietnam War, 639 Navy Corpsmen lost their lives: here is the story of one of those.
David Robert Ray was born on February 14, 1945 in McMinnville, Tennessee, the largest town in Warren Country, just 70 miles northwest of Chattanooga. Ray received a scholarship to attend college upon graduation in 1963 and attended classes at the Knoxville campus from 1963 until March 1966, when he enlisted in the U. S. Navy. Following graduation from boot camp, Ray attended the Naval Hospital Corps School in San Diego, California. His first tour of duty was served aboard the USS Haven (AH-12), a World War II vintage hospital ship. Subsequently, he served at the U. S. Navy Hospital, Long Beach, California until May 1968.
Having requested assignment with the Fleet Marine Forces, Ray was ordered to attend Field Hospital School for battlefield training at Camp Pendleton, California. Upon arrival in Vietnam, Ray was assigned to Battery D, 2nd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment at An Hoa, South Vietnam.
In the early morning of 19 March 1969, an estimated battalion strength North Vietnamese unit attacked Fire Support Base Phu Loc Six, which was adjacent to Liberty Bridge near An Hoa in Quang Nam Province. During the initial assault, the NVA penetrated the fire base perimeter, gunning down many of the Marines assigned to that sector. Doc Ray moved from parapet to parapet during the attack, rendering medical aid to wounded Marines. In the process of providing this aid, he too was struck by enemy fire. Even though Field Hospital Corpsmen are designated as non-combatants, they are armed for self defense and the protection of their wounded patients. It was under these circumstances that Petty Officer 2nd Class (HM2) Ray engaged the enemy with his sidearm, killing one and wounding and incapacitating another.
Although Bobby Ray was gravely wounded, he refused medical evacuation. Through the darkness of night, through the hail of bullets that surrounded him, Doc Ray continued working to save the lives of “his” Marines. It was at this time that an NVA grenade landed within the parapet where Doc Ray was performing life-saving procedures. Without hesitation, Ray fell upon the enemy explosive and absorbed the full effect of its detonation.
In recognition of this selfless act of heroism, David Robert Ray was posthumously awarded our nation’s highest award: the Medal of Honor. Ray was one of four Navy Corpsmen so decorated during the Vietnam War.