You rarely hear a veteran talk about actual combat. My theory: the experience is so intense, so extreme that any attempt to convey the reality is inevitably inadequate. Unless you've been there, you cannot apprehend the situation. Leonard Adreon, who was a Marine corpsman during the Korean war, has now, sixty years after the experience, made the worthy attempt to tell those of us who weren't there what it was like.
Navy corpsmen serve as the medics for the Marines and in 1951 Adreon was assigned to an infantry company in the 1st Marine Division. Almost as soon as he arrived in Korea—unprepared and virtually untrained—he was in the middle of combat:
"About halfway to the top of the hill I heard my first yell of 'Corpsman!'. . . The wounded man screamed in pain as he rolled side to side, gripping his midsection. I took out my scissors, cut away his jacket and shirt, and pulled up his undershirt so I could see the wound . . . To calm him, I injected morphine into his arm and grabbed some bandages, pressing them firmly against the wound . . . I took the Marine's M1 rifle and jabbed the bayonet into the ground, placing his helmet atop the rifle. That signaled stretcher teams that a wounded man needed transport. I filled out an EMP (emergency medical tag) that spelled out the treatment I'd given, hoping that would help those at the forward aid station know what was needed . . . ."
The 30 chapters are relatively short and Adreon breaks up the war stories with anecdotes about his military background—such as it was—before Korea and after. The chapters are not arranged in strict chronology, but that's fine. Every chapter subhead identifies the place and year, and each brief chapter is complete in itself.
By the time Adreon arrived in Korea in the spring of 1951, the conflict had settled down into a war of attrition. The Chinese were on one side of the Main Line of Resistance; the Marines, US Army, and Republic of Korea Army were on the other. The Chinese would attack, we would resist, try to kill as many Chinese as possible, withdraw if necessary, then counterattack days later and take back the ground we'd lost.
I was interested to learn that after the medics treated the American wounded, they treated the Chinese left behind and sent them back south where they eventually became POWs. We buried the dead Chinese and left no Americans behind unless we were entirely overwhelmed.
I was also interested to read that Hospital Corpsman Third Class Adreon, in addition to his med kit, carried a loaded carbine with extra ammunition, a .45 pistol with a bandolier of ammunition, and grenades. He was not only armed, but used the weapons when his platoon was attacking a hill. His sergeant told him to aim as an enemy's face with the carbine because you couldn't be sure the bullets would penetrate the white padded parkas the Chinese wore.
Adreon includes two helpful addenda to Hilltop Doc: the costs of war and a very brief history. Something like 1.8 million US servicemen and women served in Korea. Of those 103,284 were wounded; 33,739 died on the battlefield while another 2,835 died from other causes. The war never ended. The UN forces signed an armistice, but there has never been a peace treaty with North Korea.