The Enduring Journey: A Historical Review of Medical Readiness through Training

By André B. Sobocinski, Historian, BUMED

With the pressing need for skilled medical personnel in the Korean War the Navy established Field Medical Service Schools (FMSS) in Camp Lejeune, N.C., and at Camp Pendleton, Calif.[i] Between October 1950 and July 1953 over 5,000 Hospital Corpsmen trained as field medical technicians at these schools, among them four individuals who later received the Medal of Honor for their heroic deeds on the Korean peninsula.[ii]

Field medical service schools (now known as the Field Medical Training Battalions East and West)[iii] were nothing new by 1950. Similar institutions, albeit “temporary,” had existed for the duration of World War II and the idea of teaching vital operational skills for deployment with the Marines was already evident in World War I when a forward-thinking physician named Lt. Cmdr. William Mann (1884-1953) helped to pioneer the concept at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.[iv]

In this post-National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) world, achieving operational readiness and all that it entails garners much attention. It is at the heart of today’s Hospital Corpsman (HM) level I trauma training initiative, the inherent mission of the new Naval Medical Readiness and Training Commands (NMRTCs) as well as many of the programs that fall under the Navy Medicine Operational Training Center (NMOTC) in Pensacola, Fla. And whether born out of the necessity of circumstance or the desire to build that specialized community, it has long been part of the Navy Medical narrative and extends deep into our history.

In fact, almost as long as there has been a Navy Medicine our medical personnel have sought to achieve what we would now call readiness.

In 1823, a War of 1812 veteran and Navy surgeon named Dr. Thomas Harris (1784-1861) remarked to the Secretary of the Navy that: “Many of the Surgeon’s Mates, as well as younger Surgeons of the Navy manifest, at present, a very laudable anxiety to acquire an intimate knowledge of their profession.”[v] Harris presented a plan for a special school that provided newly commissioned Navy physicians advanced clinical knowledge, instruction on military surgery and lectures on the practice of “nautical medicine.” Over the next 20 years, the Harris School (AKA, the Naval Medical School) oversaw the training for nearly all of the newly minted physicians in the Navy, many of whom would apply their skills aboard ships, shore and in the Mexican War and Civil War.[vi]

The Naval Medical School[vii] was re-established in Washington, D.C., in May 1902. Over the years the school’s curriculum changed to correspond with the emerging needs of the service; and the emphasis on clinical training and surgery was gradually eclipsed by instruction in laboratory sciences and the study of infectious disease. In the first decades of the twentieth century, under the direction of the esteemed Drs. James Gatewood (1857-1927) and later Edward Stitt (1867-1948) the Naval Medical School was recognized throughout the world for its tropical medicine program.[viii]

Many of the Naval Medical School’s graduates deployed across the globe where they served on the frontlines in the fight against diseases like malaria and dengue; the first graduates led efforts to eradicate typhoid from the Navy and Marine Corps, and developed the fields of preventive medicine and public health in the military. And perhaps it is little surprise that one of the school’s first graduates, William Mann (“Class of 1908”), went on to apply much of his training on deployments to China, Haiti, and the Philippines and later be credited for introducing field sanitation techniques to expeditionary units.[ix]

In many respects, readiness has always been Navy Medicine’s North Star, providing guiding light for the way ahead. This journey has never been (and will never be) without challenges and concerns about the future, but one thing remains certain if the past is indeed prologue: the journey towards readiness will continue for as long as there is a Navy Medicine.

[i] Emanuelli, F.J. Field Medical Service School Camp Lejeune, N.C. The Medical Technicians Bulletin.  Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, May-June 1951.

[ii] Edward Benfold (1951), William Charette (1952), Francis Hammond (1953) and John Kilmer (1952). Richard Dewert was the only Korean War HM Medal of Honor recipient who did not go through Field Medical Service School prior to deployment with the Marines.

[iii] The Field Medical Service Schools were renamed Field Medical Training Battalions in 2007.

[iv] “Special Investigations.” Report of the Surgeon-General U.S. Navy to the Secretary of the Navy, 1902.  Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1918, p28.

[v] Roddis, Louis. “Thomas Harris, M.D.  Naval Surgeon and Founder of the First School of Naval Medicine in the New World.”  Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Summer 1950.

[vi]  The end of the school’s run coincided with Harris’s appointment as Chief of BUMED in 1844.  The school was established in Brooklyn in the 1880s and later re-established in Washington, D.C., in May 1902.  In 1942, the school relocated to the National Naval Medical Center where it existed until 1972.

[vii] Although initially established for the instruction of newly commissioned Navy physicians, the Naval Medical School would later oversee medical and training needs for the entire Navy Medical Department.  The first medical enlisted “C” Schools in the Navy were established at the Navy Medical School in the 1910s.

[viii] Sobocinski, AB. Navy Medicine Engagement in Global Health.  Stars & Stripes, January 2018. Retrieved from: https://okinawa.stripes.com/community-news/navy-medicines-engagement-global-health

[ix] Phalen, J.M. “Obituaries:  Rear Admiral William L. Mann, U.S. Navy, Ret.” The Military Surgeon.  The Journal of the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States.  Volume 113, July-December 1953.