Remember the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps on Memorial Day

history Memorial Day Military

Memorial Day is meant to honor those who lost their lives while serving in the Armed Forces. We must always remember that the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) Commissioned Corps has been militarized during many of the great wars, and USPHS officers have lost their lives.

USPHS officers first entered war during the Spanish-American war in 1898. They weren't officially militarized at that point, but it called into the question the role of the Service during wartime. The government essentially didn't want to compromise the primary role of protecting the Nation's public health while still utilizing the Service's valuable support for wartime efforts.

Accordingly, the President was given power to militarize USPHS during times of war which happened for WWI, WWII, and Korea. While not officially militarized by executive authority, USPHS officers also served on surgical teams in Vietnam and in various hospitals throughout the Gulf War era.

The last documented time that a USPHS officer was killed in action was WWII. Most USPHS officers who served with the Armed Forces (more than 600 officers) were assigned to the U.S. Coast Guard though some still served with the Army and Navy.

At least 14 officers died while on active duty during WWII. Six were killed in action mostly while on USCG cutters. A USPHS surgeon --Harry M. Levin-- died while aboard the USS Serpens (name inscribed in Arlington memorial pictured below). The ship exploded while carrying a large amount of ammunition and was considered to be the biggest single disaster for USCG during WWII.

USPHS officer Harry M. Levin died during WII on USS Serpens

There were six USPHS medical officers assigned to the Phillipines during WWII. The officer-in-charge 
Dr. Howard F. Smith was re-assigned as medical aide to General Douglas MacArthur and traveled to Borneo, New Guinea, and Australia. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, however, the other five USPHS medical officers were captured as prisoners of war in the Phillipines. Two of them died as POWs, Drs. Floyd W. Hawk and Fred Black (Dr. Black is pictured below).

usphs officer fred black
Memorial Day is about remembering those who died while serving in the Armed Forces. The USPHS Commissioned Corps has served in many of the great wars, but what about the officers who have died while fighting the silent war against disease?

USPHS Assistant Surgeon Milton Rosenau once wrote,

"The doctor who battles against the microbe is not as picturesque or as romantic a figure as the soldier who dies fighting on the field of battle, though each may be fighting to save his country against an invading foe. Bacteria are as deadly as bullets and many a medical officer has fallen from the infection of disease in saving his fellowmen."

Indeed, USPHS medical officer Thomas B. McClintic (pictured below) was a Virginia med school grad and 12 year USPHS veteran. McClintic silently earned his valor in 1911 when he was detailed to Montana to research Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and succumbed to the disease at age 38.
USPHS officer TB McClintic

The idea of health care professionals being heroes is not a new one. It was thrust into the public consciousness during the influenza pandemic of 1918 when all health professionals were on guard. The reality is that this idea of health heroism has been baked into the USPHS Commissioned Corps since at least its inception in 1889. That is the value of having a uniformed health service.

I don't think we can ever downplay the sacrifice and courage it takes to go to war. It's nearly impossible to compare that heroism to the kind you find in USPHS officers who are willing and ready to fight deadly diseases. USPHS is unique in that you can find both types of heroism in its history.

1. PHS Military History (thanks John Parascandola)

2. Military Coalition Letter (thank James Currie)

3. USPHS History Book by Bess Furman

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