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Air Force Medicine in the Korean War

  • Published
  • By Peter Holstein
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
The Air Force Medical Service (AFMS) became independent from the U.S. Army in 1949, just four years after the end of World War II. The Korean War, just a year later, was the first opportunity for the new medical arm of the U.S. Air Force to demonstrate its value in a wartime situation. Many of the lessons learned and process developed in that conflict are still vital to the AFMS mission today.

When North Korean troops invaded South Korea in June 1950, Far East Air Forces (FEAF) had only about 85 medical personnel. Within two months, heavy U.S. and United Nations casualties almost overwhelmed the meager Allied medical resources in the Far East. FEAF medical personnel soon increased to more than 600.

Early in the war, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps preferred evacuating most casualties by rail and sea. The war soon showed that aeromedical evacuation, proven valuable in World War II, was ideal for evacuating all U.S. casualties. Army and Air Force helicopters, and Air Force C-47s and C-54s, evacuated most of the Korean War's casualties.

Evacuating casualties from the warzone by air reduced the casualty death rate by 50 percent from World War II, less than 10 years previous. Today, Air Force aeromedical evacuation assets are still the primary way to move casualties from warzones for care, and have contributed to the highest survivability rate of any conflict in history.

In the summer of 1950, to cope with the rush of casualties, Air Force H-5 rescue helicopters went into action as front-line medical craft. Air Force C-47 transports carried aeromedical crews into forward airstrips under enemy fire, saving many American lives. The Air Force's 801st Medical Air Evacuation Squadron was one of the first units to receive a Distinguished Unit Citation, evacuating more than 4,700 casualties from the Chosin Reservoir.

At the start of the war, the Air Force did not have full responsibility for aeromedical evacuation. Army and Marine units were responsible for forward medical evacuation with their own aeromedical helicopters. The Air Force supplied longer-range aeromedical evacuation. In December 1953, however, the Air Force began organizing and staffing aeromedical staging facilities in forward combat areas.

To complete the increased medical mission during the Korean War, the AFMS began building hospital facilities at each Air Force base around the world. The first major USAF hospitals completed were at Elmendorf, Travis, Andrews, and Lackland Air Force Bases. The size and scope of these facilities vary to this day, depending on the medical requirements of each conflict.

The Korean War also showed the Air Force's need for better field hospitals. Medical facilities in Korea were clinically adequate but not standardized, and often built out of shell buildings and Quonset huts. In August 1953, the AFMS tested a standard 50-bed field hospital, which a C-119 could fly 1,000 miles overland to deploy. In 1955, the Air Force procured the first airborne medical assemblages, containing 36 beds. In the decades to come, the AFMS continued to develop ways to modularize and tailor portable medical assemblies to meet the precise needs of each deployment.