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Medical Improvements Saved Many Lives During World War II
by Dave Vergun, DOD News
March 19, 2020

 From the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to the day Japan's emperor signed the surrender, more than 400,000 U.S. service members were killed during World War II. About 70% of those were combat-related, and the rest were accidents or illnesses. More than 670,000 were wounded.

Only the Civil War resulted in more total deaths: 750,000 for both North and South.

Providing first aid to sailors and marines on the front line were Navy corpsmen. Medics did the same for soldiers. Army and Navy doctors and nurses were also forward stationed as well as at U.S. installations worldwide.

Corpsmen rest at a Navy aid station on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, June 9, 1944. (U.S. Navy photo)
Corpsmen rest at a Navy aid station on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, June 9, 1944. (U.S. Navy photo)

Battlefield medicine improved throughout the course of the war.

At the beginning, only plasma was available as a substitute for the loss of blood. By 1945, serum albumin had been developed, which is whole blood that is rich in the red blood cells that carry oxygen and is considerably more effective than plasma alone.

Also, this was the first major war in which air evacuation of the wounded became available.

During the war, surgery techniques such as removing dead tissue resulted in fewer amputations than at any time. To treat bacterial infections, penicillin or streptomycin were administered for the first time in large-scale combat.

A Navy corpsman tends to a wounded Marine on Okinawa, Japan, in May 1945. The corpsman is using the rifle as a plasma holder. (U.S. Marine Corps photo)
A Navy corpsman tends to a wounded Marine on Okinawa, Japan, in May 1945. The corpsman is using the rifle as a plasma holder. (U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Service members with combat fatigue, which later became known as post-traumatic stress disorder, were given a safe place to stay away from battle zones with plenty of food and rest. This resulted in about 90% of patients recovering enough to return to the fight.

In the tropical islands of the Pacific, malaria was a serious threat. Service members received atabrine — a group of medications used to protect against malaria — before going into affected areas.

Service members were also inoculated with vaccinations for smallpox, typhoid, tetanus, cholera, typhus, yellow fever and bubonic plague, depending where they were sent.

Other improvements during World War II included improved crash helmets, safety belts, flak jackets and other preventive measures.

Combat medics help an injured soldier in France after the June 6, 1944, Allied landings at Normandy, France. (National Archives photo)
Combat medics help an injured soldier in France after the June 6, 1944, Allied landings at Normandy, France. (National Archives photo)

Because of improvements like these and others, the survival rate for the wounded and ill climbed to 50% during World War II from only 4% during World War I, according to Dr. Daniel P. Murphy, who published a paper on "Battlefield Injuries and Medicine."

Battlefield medical advances continued after the war. By 2016, a service member wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan had about a 92% chance of making it home alive, according to retired Army Lt. Gen. Nadja Y. West, former Army surgeon general and commanding general of the Army Medical Command. Some of the reasons West cited for the improvement are better lifesaving techniques and training and rapid response and care.

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