By André B. Sobocinski
Historian, U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery
For as long as there has been a U.S. Navy, ships have been named after military heroes, politicians, and individuals who have made important contributions to the service.1 USS Litchfield (DD-336) is one of hundreds of ships to follow this practice. But unlike those commissioned before or after, the Litchfield holds the distinction as the first ship ever named in honor of a hospital corpsman.2
John Russell Litchfield – or “Russ” to his friends and family – was one of thousands of newly minted sailors in 1917 eager to do their parts in the Great War. Having just turned 18 years of age, Litchfield had only begun to embark on his life story.
Litchfield had been a product of small towns – born in the village of Flanagan, Ill., he would later move Blackwell, Okla. The local Main Street, family and patriotic duty would all play big roles in Litchfield’s life. When the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917 there was no question that Litchfield would join the cause, taking the train to Oklahoma City to enlist in the Navy.
Following boot camp he attended Hospital Corps School at Great Lakes and then was sent to the new Marine Corps Base at Quantico, Virginia, in August 1917 for field medical training. At Quantico he would be assigned to the 74th Company, 6th Marine Regiment, and he deployed with his unit to France in September 1917.
Many of those Corpsmen sailing across the Atlantic were young men just like Litchfield. Then as now, great responsibility would be placed in the hands of these young medical providers who would serve as the frontline first responder and “life link” to so many Marines and Sailors in the direst of conditions.
For Lt. Joel Boone, the regimental surgeon, Litchfield’s youthful appearance did not instill him with great confidence of going to war. His first impressions of the young HM was that he was “skinny, undernourished. . .[and a] puny-looking youngster.” But the doctor’s first impressions were soon shattered.
Serving alongside Litchfield at Verdun, Chateau-Thierry, Belleau Wood, and Soissons, Boone would later relate: “I found this youngster always busy, rather in a sense a lone wolf, but always doing something . . . As time went on and we got into the battle areas, he was very popular among officers and men of the company to which he was attached.”
Those who served with him would recall Litchfield’s “driven and energetic nature” and “utter fearlessness.” After a battle, when the night sky cloaked the carnage of the day, Litchfield could sometimes be seen prowling “No Man’s Land” looking for wounded soldiers and Marines.
This daring behavior and his dedication to his duty would also lead to an untimely end.
On Sept. 15, 1918, while serving on the eastern flank in the allied offensive during the battle of St. Mihiel, Litchfield was killed when taking a wounded soldier from a trench to the rear.
Although initially laid to rest at the St. Mihiel American Cemetery, his body would later be reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery.
For his actions in the war, Litchfield would be posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, two Silver Star Citation Stars (later Silver Star), the Distinguished Service Medal and a Purple Heart.
Commissioned on May 12, 1920, USS Litchfield would have a life worthy of her medical namesake. Over her first decade of service she would partake in several humanitarian efforts, including the evacuation of 262,000 Armenians from Turkey. Later the ship was used to repatriate the remains of George Dilboy, a World War I Medal of Honor recipient interred in Turkey.
Remarkably, when she finally decommissioned in 1944, USS Litchfield had a longer naval career than her namesake had been alive.
- There is no denying that the Navy is still rooted in its superstitious past. In addition to identifying a ship, the namesake holds the same implicit purpose as figureheads from the age of sail—harkening a spiritual guide to oversee a ship’s safety at sea. From 1902 to the present, destroyers are given a name in honor of a deceased member of the Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard.
- In 1919, Litchfield was one of three members of the Navy Medical Department honored as a ship namesake. Clemson-class destroyers were also named for the Navy’s first Surgeon General (William Wood) and the World War I dentist and posthumous Medal of Honor recipient (Weedon Osborne).
Boone, Joel T. Memoirs (Unpublished), Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Boxes 44-46.
The Dictionary of American Fighting Ships, 1959-1981. Retrieved from: https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/l/litchfield.html
Lejeune, John. Letter to Mrs. Martha Litchfield, February 17, 1926. Retrieved from: www.ancestry.com.
Strott, George. The Medical Department of the United States Navy with the Army and Marine Corps in France in World War I: Its Functions and Employment (NAVMED 1198). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1947.