Dr. William Latham

1st Marine Regiment

1st Marine Division

U.S. Marine Corps

By the time I was in the sixth grade, I knew what I wanted to be in life—a doctor.

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Beginning in July of 1943, I received some of my Pre-Med education at the University of California, Berkely, under the Navy V-12 program. I was then sent to San Leandro Naval Hospital (CA) with six other men, as a corpsman, in late January 1945—until V-J Day. Then we were all assigned to medical schools. Within a week, I was on my way to Louisiana State University Medical School. As a Naval Cadet, I was there until June of 1946, when I transferred to the University of California Medical School, in San Francisco—graduating in 1949.

After completing a years internship, I was in residency when I received a telegram from Western Union in October 1950; the Department of Navy was recalling me to active duty. At first, I was loaned to the Army to open a medical facility at Camp Cook—now Vanderburg Aero-space Station. Six months later, I was transferred to the Naval Receiving Station in Seattle, Washington. On a Friday night, in October 1951, I received orders to report to Camp Pendleton by the following Monday.

While there, we were the second group to have “cold weather training.” We trained at Pickle Meadow, located on the east side of the Sonora Pass—in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. After the first winter in Korea, the Marines were soon aware of the casualties inflicted by the cold. With six weeks of tough, Marine Corps training, we sailed to Korea aboard the troopship USS William Weigel.

Approximately two weeks after leaving California, we reached the Korean shore. Once ashore, I had to give up my M-1 for a .45 caliber pistol. Yes; even medical personnel had to carry a weapon in this “Police Action.” I have to say having never seen a .45, within six hours I was very familiar with it.

I was one of ten doctors who went ashore on January 1, 1952. We stopped at Division Headquarters, and drew straws to see who was to stay there—it wasn’t me. We marched on as the battle drew closer, and we doctors were dropped-off at different locations. There were no more straws—I was at the front.

I ended up at a Forward Aid Station and our medical supplies, food and ammo, were flown in by helicopter and carried to our location by South Korean men. Within twelve hours after arriving, I saw my first casualties. We varied anywhere from none to ten (plus everyday illnesses) casualties per day. Due to the extreme cold, approximately zero, the following morning the frozen bodies of three enemy soldiers were found within fifty feet of my bunker.

My job was to triage soldiers, and evaluate them for evacuation. The ones I thought could be saved were taken by helicopter to hospital ships; the others were taken, by ambulance, to M.A.S.H. units. One must realize we were located twenty-five miles in front of the M.A.S.H. units.

My bunker-mate flew a Piper Cub as a forward air-observer. At night he would radio in coordinates for bomb support. Having plenty of corpsman to cover sick call, I asked him if he would like to fly me to Pusan. Here we could go aboard the hospital ship Repose to get a hot shower and clean clothes. We only had melted snow, and icy stream water to clean up with. Pusan was roughly two-hundred seventy-five miles due south of our position.

He told me that he wouldn’t be able to get a plane to fly to Pusan. I told him to leave everything to me. The sergeant in charge of the planes asked me for my requisition. Asking what one was, he informed me that I needed a permit from the colonel. I told him I was going for medical supplies; he didn’t care. So, I tried a little bartering—Marine style. I offered to bring him back a fifth of Brandy; soon, we were flying to Pusan.

In the spring, after five months at the front, I was evacuated with the first case of malaria after the rice paddies had thawed out. I spent the next six months, on the west coast; in the area of Inchon.

Being a doctor, I was able to move about and had the use of all modes of transportation. From Ascom City, I frequently flew by helicopter to the hospital ship. Even though I didn’t treat any of the patients, I evaluated which patients could be taken to Kimpo Air Base to be evacuated to Japan.

I had heard about a leper colony, so I went to visit. It was an experience from Biblical times. It was located in a small valley surrounded by a fence with iron gates. The patients lived in meager conditions. The amazing part was the UN had supplied them with the latest and best medications for the treatment of leprosy.

Also, when I had free time, I treated children under the care of Sister Philomena at the Star of the Sea Orphanage, in Inchon.

Finally, I would be assigned to the 1st Marine Shore Party BN aboard the USS Sicily. The shore party is a support and training unit specifically for high risk units. I am particularly proud of the amphibious and helicopter landing sequences we practiced. The dates we were training reserve units of the 1st Marine Division landing combat troops by helicopters is missing from military history.

After spending eleven months in Korea, I returned home and set up a family practice. My only ties to Korea after returning home, was with Sister Philomena and her children. For about five years, captains of ships docking in the Port of Stockton would visit my office on behalf of the Sister. I would send her boxes of pediatric medical supplies—mostly samples from salesmen.

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As a guest of the Korean military, which sponsors visits by forty Korean War Veterans three times a year, I returned to Korea in 1996.

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