‘Hilltop Doc’ – Memories of a Korean War Combat Corpsman

A Sikorsky H-5 evacuates wounded from a Korean War battlefield. A veteran corpsman from the conflict shares his experiences treating casualties. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“We scrambled to stop the bleeding and give morphine shots to relieve the pain.”

Some have called it the “Forgotten War.” But to the nearly 2.5 million men who fought in Korea between 1950 and 1953, the memories of the conflict there will never go away. Leonard Adreon certainly remembers. The 90-year-old grandfather of six spent 13 months in-country as a combat corpsman dragging shot-up soldiers from battlefields all along the 38th Parallel. It took 60 years for the St. Louis native to come to terms with what he saw on the front lines. Now he’s compiled his experiences in a book entitled Hilltop Doc: A Marine Corpsman Fighting Through the Mud and Blood of the Korean War. Adreon offered MilitaryHistoryNow.com an excerpt to share. Here it is:

By Leonard Adreon

THE FIRST FRIGID winds of winter had swept across the hilltops at the 38th Parallel in Korea. The war raged on with the Americans and the Chinese fighting to take and hold the high ground. I was a corpsman with the First Marine Division. My company was D (Dog Company). I was in the 2nd platoon. I was a third-class petty officer. That rank is equivalent to a Marine corporal. We were the grunts on the field of battle in Korea.

My job was to treat the wounded. Despite the conditions of weather or enemy fire from their burp guns, grenades or rifles, I answered the call for help from a fallen Marine whenever and wherever he was hit. When the battle for a hill began, all marines were equal. Rank did not matter. The lieutenant led the platoon; the sergeant shouted orders to his squad, the corporals and privates along with the corpsmen moved in unison to accomplish the mission of the engagement. We were all in it equally and together.

We assembled at the bottom of the hill before dawn. Our orders were to take the hill held by the Chinese. We could feel the hill looming in front of us but the darkness prevented us from seeing the obstacles ahead. We checked our gear. I carried two 30 round clips for my carbine and had plenty of ammo for my .45 pistol. On my web belt were two med kits fully loaded with bandages, morphine syrettes, iodine tubes, tape, tourniquet bands and more. I was ready for a tough fight. I even had several grenades on my belt in case they were needed.

The cold penetrated my winter gear, the sky colourless. It was wet. It wasn’t rain. It wasn’t sleet. It wasn’t snow. Icy pellets fell from the heavy grey. The pellets stung as they pummelled my face. I lowered my helmet. I looked up but couldn’t see the top through the mist and fog but knew the Chinese were there.

The sergeant yelled, “move out.” We started up the hill. At first it was quiet and the climb wasn’t bad. We dodged loose rocks as they tumbled down but the slope wasn’t steep. About a third of the way up all hell broke loose. The Chinese started firing. Visibility worsened amid exploding shells and the barrage of gunfire. We ran, hit the ground, fired at the flashes of light from above as our fire teams ran and crawled in coordinated stages.

“Corpsman!” someone yelled 30 yards ahead and to my right. I put my head down and followed the sound. A marine lay face down in the muck, not moving. A corporal and I turned him over but the fixed stare told us we were too late. He was our lead lieutenant.

Dog Company spent many hours making our way up the hill. We ran, crawled and slithered through the mud. Our forces finally got far enough to attack their machine gun nests. We used bazookas, Browning automatics, flame throwers and grenades to stifle the rapid firing that had taken a toll on our men.

I threw grenades at the machine gun embankments and repeatedly fired my carbine. When we got close enough our flamethrowers moved in to finish the job spewing a mixture of oil and gas into a fierce yellow flame. The sight of a Chinese machine gunner running out of the barricade on fire, his face blackened by the flames always sickened me. Watching him fall, his body shaking, was a brutal image of this war. Somehow, I felt better each time the shaking stopped. I knew that for him the war was over.

It took about eight hours to get to the top. My fellow corpsman and I could barely keep up. We scrambled all over the hillside working to stop the bleeding and give morphine shots to relieve the pain. A parade of stretcher-bearers struggled down the hillside carrying the wounded to the forward aid station at the bottom of the hill. We then did our best to treat the wounded Chinese left behind by their retreating comrades. Our stretcher-bearers then carried them down the hill as POWs.

By any measure this was a rough day. Two hundred and ten started up the hill, 87 reached the top.

We owned the hill. We paid too much.

Leonard Adreon, who is 90-years-old, recently published a book called Hilltop Doc, A Marine Corpsman Fighting Through the Mud and Blood of the Korean War. Information on the book is available at hilltopdoc.com.

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