The ‘Docs’ of the Marine Corps
William R. Charette, age 79, died on March 18, 2012, in Lake Wales, Fla. It is likely that very few outside his own circles have ever heard of him and that is a shame. In 1951, Charette enlisted in the United States Navy and was trained as a hospital corpsman, or medic.
On March 27, 1953 he was a hospital corpsman third class with Company F, 2nd Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment when Chinese Communist forces attacked the Marines at Outpost Vegas in western Korea. The attack escalated into an hour and a half brutal hand-to-hand fight.
As Marines were wounded, the cries for a corpsman rang out and Charette answered. When a grenade landed near the wounded Marine he was aiding, Charette threw himself over the wounded man. The blast tore through Charette’s face, blew off his helmet, and destroyed his medical kit. Undaunted, Charette tore his own uniform into bandages and continued to tend to the wounded Marine.
Charette went on to the next seriously wounded Marine whose armored vest had been torn from his body. Charette took off his own vest and placed it on the wounded Marine. One Marine had a leg wound. Charette, exposing himself to enemy fire, stood up with the Marine up to tend to his wound. He went on to care for several wounded Marines before the fight was over.
For his actions on that day, Charette was awarded the Medal of Honor. He was one of five hospital corpsmen who were awarded the Medal of Honor during the Korean War and the only one who lived to wear it.
Charette retired from the U.S. Navy as a master chief hospital corpsman. Five years after the war, Charette was one of the Korean vets chosen to select the World War II remains of an unidentified American to be placed in the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery.
The Marine Corps League (MCL), a congressionally chartered veteran’s organization, has strict, but simple, requirements for admission: one must be a veteran of the United States Marine Corps who has been honorably discharged. While others can be associate members, no one else can be a full member. There is, however, one notable exception. United States Navy hospital corpsmen who have served with the Fleet Marine Force are openly and gratefully welcomed as full members.
The corpsmen wear the same uniform, can hold any and every office, and, on their MCL covers (caps), wear the coveted eagle, globe, and anchor — the symbol reserved only for Marines. The Marines earned their eagle, globe, at Parris Island, San Diego, or Quantico — the FMF corpsmen earned theirs on the battlefield.
If you see a MCL member in uniform, you can’t tell a Marine from a corpsman. And that’s the way the Marines want it.
Hospital corpsmen serving with combat Marines have, over and over again, in every clime and place have proven and demonstrated their courage and selflessness thousands of times on the battlefield as, at the risk of their own lives, they tended to “their Marines,” as corpsmen refer to them. The Marines warmly refer to their corpsmen as “Doc.”
While Hospital Corpsman Charette won the Medal of Honor, his commitment and bravery is the norm and not the exception. Some corpsmen have been conscientious objectors and declined to carry a weapon. They, too, served with honor and sometimes died alongside “their Marines.” FMF corpsmen have exemplified the Marine Corps motto, “Semper Fidelis.” They have been “always faithful” to “their Marines.”
In the local organization of the Marine Corps League, the Clyde Thomason Detachment #1325, there are about 60 members. Two of those members are corpsmen. They can’t be distinguished from the other members, all Marines — except, of course, when a Marine calls out the affectionate greeting, “Hey Doc!” It’s a badge of honor that only an FMF corpsman can wear.
[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277. Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m. (www.ctkcec.org). He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese (www.midsouthdiocese.org) and is the associate endorser for U. S. military chaplains for his denomination, and is a member of the Marine Corps League. Some of the material for this article was taken from the obituary of William R. Charette in Leatherneck magazine, May 2012.]