By André B. Sobocinski, Historian, BUMED
On the night of April 17, 1918, the ammunition ship SS Florence “H” caught fire while moored in Quiberon Bay in the south coast of Brittany, France. As the ship’s crew hurriedly pushed crates of smokeless powder off their decks the combustible cargo soon ignited unleashing a series of deadly explosions. In its wake was the sunken hull of the Florence “H” surrounded by a half mile of burning wreckage and flammable debris.[i][ii]
Among the first responders to this scene was Pharmacist’s Mate 1st Class Louis Zeller, an Independent Duty Corpsmen (IDC) from USS Christabel (SP 162). Zeller maneuvered through the devastation to retrieve survivors, even diving through flames to rescue a badly injured Sailor. For his heroic efforts, Zeller was awarded the Navy Cross.[iii]
By the First World War, IDCs like Zeller were mainstays across the Navy serving aboard some 100 ships in the war zone.[iv] And whether rescuing survivors of the Florence “H” or attending to sick and injured sailors at sea, these IDCs more than proved their mettle in some of the most trying circumstances. As Lt. Cmdr. George F. Cottle, Medical Corps, USN, related at war’s end:
“On board destroyers, cargo boats, and other small craft which carry ordinarily no medical officer the more experienced men of the Hospital Corps . . . represent the medical department of the Navy on the high seas, and they stood the severe test of caring for the sick during the influenza epidemic. Here they administered the first aid and nursing care needed and no indication has been received from vessels of this type to indicate that a single patient suffered from lack of proper attention or care. What little information in regard to the work of these men at sea has reached the Bureau [of Medicine and Surgery] has proven that they performed their duties not only with the spirit, willingness, and intelligence.”[v]
Although, IDCs—i.e., corpsmen serving on ship and/or station independently of medical officers—have long played crucial roles in the operational Navy, their exact date of origin remains elusive. What we know is in the first years of the Hospital Corps requests for experienced corpsmen to alleviate the burdens of shipboard physicians and pharmacists grew as the Navy expanded.
In January 1909, Passed Assistant Surgeon R.R. Richardson of USS Albany (CL 23) recommended that Hospital Stewards (equivalent to the rate of E-7)[vi] be placed in charge of medical departments aboard torpedo destroyers like USS Perry (DD 11) where they were to “instruct the crew in ‘First Aid’ and ‘Resuscitation of the Apparently Drowned,’ keep [a] rough Medical Journal and the proper and necessary forms and returns.”[vii]
The very same year, Assistant Surgeon James Duhigg, the Pacific Torpedo Flotilla Medical Officer, suggested that “a hospital apprentice be assigned to each torpedo boat, and one hospital steward be retained to assist in paper work.” Duhigg defended his position by stating, “It is believed that this number of hospital corpsmen is not excessive, considering that there are about 900 men on 13 different boats, which necessarily increases the difficulty of caring for the sick and injured on this type of vessel. With this arrangement, much greater efficiency can be maintained and complete and accurate medical records kept.”[viii]
The ability to provide medical coverage across the fleet was a significant challenge for the Navy of 1909. Out of the 221 Navy physicians on active duty in January 1909, 124[ix] were assigned to take care of the complements of over 290 commissioned ships—ranging in size from battleships, armored cruisers and torpedo destroyers to gunboats, yachts, and tugs.[x] In 1909, three junior physicians alone were required to oversee the medical care for 14 active torpedo destroyers and 18 torpedo boats across three flotillas! This imbalance necessitated new responsibilities for skilled enlisted personnel and for this the Navy initially turned to Hospital Stewards—then the most senior rate in the Hospital Corps.
The use of IDCs aboard ships like torpedo destroyers in 1909 proved to be such a success that Rear Adm. Presley Rixey, the Surgeon General of the Navy, remarked, “It is gratifying to report that the department’s plan of assigning a hospital steward to each of the large destroyers has been a success, and the experience so far indicates that these men are doing good work and have demonstrated their usefulness as a part of the complement.”[xi]
Over the next two decades the Navy’s utilization of IDCs only grew.[xii] And to ensure that these corpsmen had the required skillset, the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED) established the Pharmacist’s Mates School in Hampton Roads, Virginia, in 1917, the first advanced school for training prospective IDCs.[xiii]
In 1923, IDCs were serving aboard ships with a “crew of less than 125 men,” small detachments of Marines, and at isolated shore stations.[xiv] By the mid-1920s, the improvements in the design and capability of submarines (e.g., “V” Boats) coincided with the advent of the first sub IDCs.[xv]
Today, IDCs are an exclusive community comprised of 1,600 men and women[xvi] who serve in four recognized Navy Enlisted Codes (NECs)—Submarine Force (8402), Fleet Marine Force (8403), Surface (8425) and Deep Sea Dive Technician (8494). And whether embarked on a surface ship or submarine, supporting Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams or salvage operations, deployed with Special Forces, Marine units or SeaBees, IDCs continue to build on a proud history and truly represent the “pinnacle of the Hospital Corps.”[xvii]
[i] Blythe, S.G. “The Breton Patrol.” The Saturday Evening Post, December 7, 1918, vol. 191, No. 23.
[ii] “USS Christabel,” Dictionary of American Fighting Ships. Retrieved from https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/c/christabel.html.
[iii] Louis Zeller Navy Cross citation. BUMED Archives.
[iv] Annual Report of the Surgeon-General, U.S. Navy, Chief of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery to the Secretary of the Navy for the Fiscal Year 1919. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1919.
[v] (Cottle, p107. The Supplement to the United States Naval Bulletin Published for the Information of the Hospital Corps of the Navy. April 1919, No. 9, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1919).
[vi] In 1909, the Hospital Corpsmen were limited to serving in three rates: Hospital Apprentice (E-2), Hospital Apprentice First Class (E-4) and Hospital Steward (E-7). The rates of E-3, E-5, E-6 did not exist until 1916.
[vii] P.A. Surgeon R.R. Richardson, USS Albany, to SG, (January 25th, 1909). (#117224). BUMED Correspondence. Record Group 52, National Archives, Washington DC.
[viii] AS James Duhigg, Flotilla Medical Officer (USS Hull) to SG (10 May 1909). (#117224). BUMED Correspondence. Record Group 52, National Archives, Washington DC.
[ix] “Medical Corps.” Register of the Commissioned and Warrant Officers of the United States Navy and Marine Corps, January 1, 1909. Washington, DC” Government Printing Office, 1909.
[x] “List of ships of the United States Navy.” Register of the Commissioned and Warrant Officers of the United States Navy and Marine Corps, January 1, 1909. Washington, DC” Government Printing Office, 1909.
[xi] “Hospital Corps,” Annual Report of the Surgeon-General, U.S. Navy, Chief of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery to the Secretary of the Navy for the Fiscal Year 1910. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1910.
[xii] The establishment of the Naval Overseas Transportation Service (NOTS) for transporting troops in World War I further necessitated the need for skilled independent duty corpsmen.
[xiii] Unlike today’s IDC School at the Naval Surface Warfare Medical Institute (SWMI) in San Diego, Calif. (which offers a fixed curriculum over 12 months) the course length of the Hampton Roads School was designed to compensate for any deficiencies of knowledge and varied in length for each student. Upon acceptance, candidates for IDC were required to pass through an examining board (AKA, “clearing house”) who evaluated their experiences, reviewed their service records and gave them an oral examination on the major duties of their rate. Candidates were then then placed into ten different groups. With Groups I through V being identified as qualified for study and assigned special courses to strengthen weak points they may have. Source: Halsey, W.H. Training School Number. “The Training of Pharmacist’s Mates at Hampton Roads, VA.” The Supplement to the United States Naval Bulletin Published for the Information of the Hospital Corps of the Navy. July 1918, No. 6, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1918.
[xiv] Saunders, N.L. “Duty Independent of Medical Officers.” Hospital Corps Handbook United States Navy. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1923.
[xv] Shilling, CW and J.W. Kohl. History of Submarine Medicine in World War II. Report No. 112, Vol. VI, No. 3, 25 May 1947.
[xvi] Out of the 30,000 Corpsmen worldwide
[xvii] The motto of today’s IDC community.