Remembering the “33”: Looking Back at Navy Cross Corpsmen of Vietnam

By André B. Sobocinski, Historian, BUMED

Petty Officer Third Class William Barber deployed to Vietnam in June 1968, a little less than two years after enlisting in the Navy.  When arriving in theater he was assigned to India Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, 3rd Marine Division.  Months into his deployment, his unit was tasked with securing an abandoned landing zone in northwest South Vietnam.  It was not long before the position was overrun by North Vietnamese Army (NVA), which forced Barber and his unit to seek cover in a nearby wooden area.  Disregarding his own safety Barber ran back into the fray to attend to four fallen Marines.  As Barber later described:

“I crawled down the trail and got to the first Marine.  He was dead.  I dragged him back.  Then I went out the second time and got the second man.  He had been shot in the leg.  I brought him back and stabilized him with a rifle as a splint.  Then I went out and got the third guy and brought him back.

Being stupid, I went back out a fourth time. . . all of a sudden, all hell broke loose again.  As my senses returned, I figured I had better get the hell out of there.  I began crawling down the trail dragging the wounded Marine . . .to the safety of the bush.  It may have been 100 degrees that day, but as I came out of shock, I was shaking as if I had a good case of pneumonia.”

This action later earned Navy Cross.  At 19, Barber was one of the youngest corpsmen to receive the Navy Cross.

The Navy Cross is the second highest combat honor given to Navy personnel for “extraordinary heroism.”   Since February 4, 1919, when the award was first approved by Congress, a total of 199 Navy Hospital Corpsmen have been recipients of this honor.  Seventeen percent of these (or 33 individuals) were awarded Navy Crosses for their efforts in Vietnam alone. All were FMF Corpsmen, most attached to the 3rd Marine Division.

Like Barber, HM3 Alan Gerrish of Woburn, Mass., enlisted in the Navy in 1966 out of high school.  He too found himself in Vietnam less than two years later.  On August 23, 1968,  while attached to the Third Military Police Battalion, Force Logistic Command, Fleet Marine Force Pacific, in a combined United States Marine Corps and Army of the Republic of Vietnam combat sweep near DaNang Airfield, Gerrish’s unit came under intense machine-gun fire and grenade attack. Without hesitation, he responded to the pleas for aid from wounded Marines.  Despite being struck by exploding shrapnel and heavy fire Gerrish crawled to a wounded Marine  and shielded him from gunfire while administering first aid.   Gerish later died of his wounds on September 7, days before reaching his 20th birthday.  He was one of 22 Navy Cross corpsmen who received the award posthumously in Vietnam—and one of 645 corpsmen killed in action during the war.  Eight of the posthumous recipients were 21 years old or younger at the time of their deaths.

Ten Corpsmen received the Navy Cross for actions in 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive.  Almost all of the Navy Crosses were bestowed between 1966 and 1970, most posthumously.  The outlier in this group is HM3 Kenneth Braun of Eden Prairie, Minn., who was awarded the Navy Cross nearly 40 years after his action near Hill 70 in Quang Tri Province in March 1967.   While attached to Command Group, India Company, Third Battalion, Ninth Marines, Third Marine Division (Reinforced), Braun’s unit came under heavy fire. Despite incurring shrapnel wounds from the initial firefight, he began administering medical aid to those around him.  With casualties stacking up, Braun’s unit began to pull back.  Not wanting to leave wounded Marines behind, Braun exposed himself to enemy fire to treat the wounded.  His citation noted that “Time and again, he dragged the wounded across open terrain, shielding them from fire with his body while pulling them to safety. Trading his pistol for a rifle, Petty Officer Braun fought his way back down the hill to where Marines were pinned down and suffering heavy casualties; moving from Marine to Marine, with total disregard for his own safety, he fearlessly and skillfully administered medical aid to the wounded while simultaneously engaging the enemy. With enemy forces in position, Petty Officer Braun did not withdraw, but continued to treat the wounded and though armed with a malfunctioning weapon was able to kill two enemy soldiers while protecting his Marines. Maintaining the tenuous position while assisting a seriously wounded officer, and with enemy troops all around him, Petty Officer Braun held his position, continued to treat the officer, and held off the enemy with his weapon until shot three times.”

Remarkably, Braun survived this encounter and accepted the award in a ceremony held in 2005.

Those 33 Navy Cross Corpsmen also include:

  • HM3 Billie Holmes of Hidalgo, Texas.  Attached to an 18-man reconnaissance patrol in 1966, his unit one of the most highly decorated Marine unit in history (receiving in total one Medal of Honor, four Navy Crosses, 13 Silver Stars, and 18 Purple Hearts).
  • Hospitalman Phil Isadore Valdez of Dixon, N.M. While with the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, Fleet Marine Force, Valdez was assigned as corpsman with the 3d Platoon when that unit was flown in by helicopter to provide support for the embattled Company “H,” 2d Battalion in 1967.  Again and again, Valdez braved heavy gun fire to assist wounded Marines until he himself was mortally wounded. Valdez was later honored as the namesake of the Knox-class frigate USS Valdez (FF-1096) in 1973.
  • HM2 Donald Rudd of Tecumseh, Mich..  Rudd was directly responsible for saving the lives of five wounded Marines in operations north of Khe Sanh in 1969. Rudd was later honored as the namesake of a clinic at the Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay, H.I.
  • HN Robert Casey of Guttenberg, N.J.  While attached to Company G, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division (Reinforced) in 1968, Casey’s unit was overrun by 200 NVA regulars.  Despite his own severe wounds, Casey was determined to aid as many wounded Marines. He continually refused to leave the battle area until all of the Marines were evacuated. Casey ultimately incurred mortal wounds in the battle.  He was later honored as the namesake of the Naval Family Branch Clinic at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan.

These Navy Cross Corpsmen each embody the very tenets of service, sacrifice and heroism.   But as to why they did what they did in the moment, perhaps William Barber summed it up best.  When reflecting on his own actions, Barber later remarked: 

 “I went back onto the LZ.  I don’t know why. Maybe because there were Marines still there and we lived by the code that we wouldn’t leave anybody out there.  Maybe the answer is simple.  It was my job.”

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