His Marines Called Him 'Gunny'
by U.S. Navy Gene Hughes, Personnel Command
January 7, 2021
Navy Corpsmen are known as “Devil Docs” to the Marines with whom they serve, and according to some Marine combat veterans, they are held in the highest respect.
In every clime and place, they exercise, march, go to the rifle range and deploy with them. They wear Marine uniforms with Navy insignia.
The bond between combat Marines and their Navy Corpsmen is battle tested, and history is replete with tales of both putting themselves in harm’s way, even at the cost of their own lives, to protect each other; truly an iron-clad brotherhood among the sister services.
Chief Hospital Corpsman Warren G. “Lou” Legarie, who passed away on September 10, 2020 at the age of 95, exemplified this bond during savage engagements – in three wars – now legendary among those who wear the Eagle, Globe and Anchor.
“His fearlessness in combat was well-known,” said retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Michael A. Hough. “He was most respected for his leadership and his expertise as a corpsman on the battlefield.”
Admired by those who knew him, and the Marines who served with him, Legarie, born into a poor, Rhode Island family during the Great Depression, tried to join the Corps, but was too young. He enlisted in the Navy at 17 and served aboard USS Nitro (AE 2) before reporting to Field Medical Service School at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina in 1943.
He then reported to Recon Company, 6th Marine Division, serving in the second battle of Guam, and the bitterly fought invasion of Okinawa. After the Japanese surrender, he deployed to China for three years, serving with three Marine regiments before joining Fleet Marine Force Pacific Headquarters, San Francisco.
He landed at Inchon, South Korea in late 1950, and cared for his 1st Division Marines during the brutal 17 Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, facing a Chinese adversary, rough terrain and minus 36-degree temperatures. Recalling his Northeastern background, Legarie told his Marines to fill their gloves and boots with air-supplied shaving cream, knowing the lanolin would protect his comrades’ hands and feet from the bitter cold.
For actions on Dec. 7, 1950, Legarie received the Silver Star and Purple Heart for repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire so he could render first aid to his wounded Marines. Although taking shrapnel in his back and legs, and suffering grenade concussions, he refused medical aid and continued to treat and evacuate casualties.
Years later, several Marines would give testament to Legarie’s heroism in an attempt to have his Silver Star upgraded to the Navy Cross, which had been the original nomination.
“One Marine, named Newman, had both legs damaged with massive blast injuries and Lou placed tourniquets on him and dragged him out from under fire behind a truck,” wrote Joseph Griswold, then a corporal. “Shortly after this firefight began I was wounded in the right thigh and received a severe bruise to my left hip. Lou ministered to both problems with a shot of morphine and a bandage. He dragged me to an area out of the line of fire, giving me comfort and telling me all would be OK.”
“(Shortly afterwards) I heard someone shout that Lou had been hit by a rifle grenade. I crawled around the truck to see Lou pick himself up and continue to take care of us. He was dragging one of the wounded away from the impact area when two Chinese soldiers rushed toward him firing their weapons. He took one of the carbines, shot both of them and went back to getting the wounded man behind cover. It must have been about 40 below zero the whole time. Lou did his best to provide what medical aid he could, and his rapid actions saved several lives that morning.”
“The enemy kept directing a lot of their small arms fire toward areas where corpsmen were giving medical aid to the wounded,” wrote Cpl. Richard Jackson. “It took a lot of courage to go into open areas without any cover to bring some of those wounded men back to a staging area for evac. He even crawled to some sites to pull casualties, lying exposed to deadly machine gun fire, to cover.”
When the firefight ended, the Marines rushed to check on their corpsman. He indicated that he had severe headaches, neck and back pain, as well as severe ringing in his ears.
“We told him to turn himself in, but he said he didn't want to be evacuated,” Griswold wrote. “Lou insisted we not mention his concussion injury so he would not be evacuated and leave the battery without a corpsman.”
“He saved numerous lives and his personal acts of valor inspired everyone,” wrote Vincent Mosco. “His actions placed him in great danger and he achieved more than anyone thought possible, given the circumstances.”
After the Korean fighting ended, Legarie served with the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, California, and the 3rd Marine Division in Okinawa. He also acted in several medical training films, and even portrayed a Marine machine gunner in the 1952 film “Retreat Hell.”
Legarie once again went into battle alongside his Marine brothers during Vietnam. He was chief corpsman for the 5th Marine Regiment at An Hoa, Phu Bai and in Hue City during the 1968 Tet Offensive.
As in the two previous conflicts, Marines serving alongside Legarie loved, admired and respected him almost as much as he did them, so much so that they called him “Gunny,” rather than “Doc.” One was Brenton MacKinnon, an infantryman who worked for the corpsman while receiving treatment for rabies.
“Since I had to report to the hospital clinic every day, my rear job as gopher went smoothly until the second day,” he said. “Three medivac choppers landed on the helipad carrying casualties from Operation Dixie. Overhead, another copter flew east -- in the direction of graves registration.”
Legarie yelled for a gurney and led the way to the transports.
“First off was a burn victim from the flamethrower team,” MacKinnon said. “Doc Lou shot him up with morphine until the screaming stopped. Hard to tell with the burns and all, but he looked like Tony from the flame team. Through groans and tears, he told the story, ‘Our Armored Personnel Carrier hit a mine and the diesel fuel tank exploded. Blew me into the river. The rest of them didn’t make it. Only me.’”
“Thankfully, he passed out. Lou yelled at the chopper pilot through the cockpit side window. ‘Got enough fuel for Da Nang? OK. Take this guy to the trauma unit.’ We loaded Tony back on the bird, watched it lift off and fly east towards the coast. Lou had tears in both eyes.”
Legarie was also the corpsman who left everyone laughing, as remembered by American Legion Post 630 Commander Jim Meyers, then a young first lieutenant.
“I'm sitting in ‘Doc’ Tom Viti’s hooch in An Hoa, and in walks Chief Hospital Corpsman Lou Legarie,” he recalled. “Tom had told us of this ‘more Marine than Corpsman’ who walked out of the 'Frozen Chosin' with Chesty Puller and is already highly decorated.”
Hearing Legarie’s name, the young officer asked if he or any of his family spoke French. When the corpsman replied that he did not, Meyers said that if time allowed, he would be only too happy to teach him some so he could surprise his family when he went home.
“That night, or the next (not clear in my mind), there’s a mortar attack on our base,” he remembered. “My platoon has part of the panhandle security of the battalion aid station (BAS) area. Mortars are impacting in the battalion area, including the BAS area. So as we’re making our way to man our positions, Chief's head pops up and he says to me, ‘Hey, Lieutenant Meyers, would now be a good time to start those French lessons?’"
His actions in Southeast Asia earned him the Bronze Star with combat ''V,'' the Navy Commendation Medal with combat ''V,” and the Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry.
“All combat Marines loved and respected our Navy medics,” MacKinnon said. “Lou was in charge of the hospital but often helicoptered to the field when there were many casualties. He didn’t have to. We obeyed Lou instantly out of love for his exposure to danger and respected him.”
His final tour was at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. Upon retirement in July of 1972, he continued to serve his beloved Marines for another 20 years, managing the station’s club systems and receiving an award for outstanding club management. Two years later, he was honored at a Sunset Parade at Marine Corps Barracks 8th & I, in Washington, D.C.
At the age of 70, Legarie was personally selected to play a round of golf by President Bill Clinton (who also did the driving), who also invited him to sit with him in the reviewing stand during a parade in the President’s honor.
“Your reputation became bigger than life, as your battalion called you not "Doc" but "Gunny," a mark of respect that was unprecedented,” Hough said in his eulogy. “I know that many of the combat commanders requested you by name to be their senior enlisted advisor on enlisted matters and to be their senior enlisted liaison to other commands. Throughout, you remained Chief Corpsman "Gunny" Legarie, and simply did your job modestly, humbly, and expertly in the manner expected, taking credit for little or nothing.”
"My whole life has been dedicated to the United States Marine Corps," Legarie said in a 1990 interview. "And when I die, I have a Marine Corps uniform I'm going to be buried in. When you love the Marine Corps and what it stands for, let me tell you, there's nothing like it."
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