Navy Corpsmen in the Vietnam War by Harry Spiller

Harry Spiller’s Navy Corpsmen in the Vietnam War: 17 Personal Accounts (McFarland, 215 pp. $35, paper; $21.99, Kindle) contains just about everything you need to know about the U.S. Navy enlisted medical specialists who served with U.S. Marines in the war. Spiller, who served ten years in the  Marines with two tours in Vietnam, put together this book primarily with interviews of 17 corpsmen whose combat duties in the war stretched from July 1967 to October 1970. Seven of them were in-country during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Spiller has written 17 books, including  World War II and Korean and Vietnam War oral histories. A former sheriff in Illinois, he was an associate professor of criminal justice at John A. Logan College.

Although the 17 corpsmen in the book enlisted in the Navy as sailors, in Vietnam they primarily performed as infantrymen in I Corps, exchanging fire with the enemy until somebody called, “Corpsman up,” which meant someone had been wounded and needed immediate medical attention. After completing medical studies in the Navy, the corpsmen underwent Marine Corps field medical training. That training strengthened them physically, familiarized them with weapons, and taught them how to perform medical procedures in combat with an emphasis on keeping their butts down at the same time. To a man, they saved lives—and became Marines at heart.

Spillman tells each man’s story in a chapter of its own. The men’s recollections of caring for the wounded and dead fascinated me because on the Corpsmen’s high degree of selflessness as they came to the aid of others. In their minds, they felt they never did enough and believed there was always one more person they should have helped or saved.

As former Corpsman John Cohen puts it: “I would just go into a mode of not paying attention to what was going on around me” as he performed first aid and triage seemingly endlessly. Paul McCann and Leon Brown say they maintained “tunnel vision,” disregarding what was going on around them. “Fighting sometimes lasted for hours, and sometimes for days,” Leon Brown says. His twin brother Loren Brown, who served side-by-side with him, said, “All the combat just made us numb, with no grief.”

The book overflows with remembrances of battles. As soon as he arrived at Da Nang, for example, Lamar Hendricks says his commander put him on a helicopter and dropped him into a rice paddy where his new company was in a firefight. Corpsmen suffered high losses and were in great demand. “The chances of getting killed at Con Thien,” Paul Douglas Reininger says, were “about 50 percent.” Little wonder the Marines nicknamed the DMZ the “Dead Marine Zone.”

Although all of the men experienced unusual combat situations, Daniel Milz provides the book’s most gruesome accounts. Coming upon a burned-out crash site, he says, “There were 17 briskets that looked like people in the helicopter.” He also remembers a priest at a helicopter pad who performed last rites for men leaving on a mission. Dennis Kauffman tells of operating from patrol boats as part of the Mobile Riverine Forces, a job that came with many types of of saving and killing.

Occasional Combined Action Platoon duty pleased all of the corpsmen, particularly doctoring children, because it provided tangible help to relatively helpless people.

Navy Corpsmen in the Vietnam War is an insightful collection of exciting, happy, and heartbreaking tales that played out in an environment that should be wished upon nobody. Corpsmen faced limitless responsibilities in the midst of almost indescribable chaos. They were fighting men who saved other fighting men under horrendous conditions.  

—Henry Zeybel