Dr. Joseph Juan Alcedo Jr.
U.S. Navy – Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class
USS Tryon (APH-1), Attached to 7th Marine Regiment,1st Marine Division
World War II (1942-1945)
U.S. Navy – Chief Warrant Officer, Korean War (1950-1953),
Vietnam War (1963-1965) & Navy Reserve (1965-1984)
Dr. Joseph Juan Alcedo Jr. was born in San Antonio, Texas, on July 16th, 1924. He entered the U.S. Navy as a hospital corpsman in 1942, and subsequently served in the Navy for forty-two years. During that time he served in three wars; WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Dr. Alcedo was 18 years old and had just started college when he enlisted in the Navy. He said that he chose the Navy because his family’s military history included a number of sailors and merchant marines. He remained in the Navy until 1984, pursuing his education in the years between wars and persevering until he had earned his doctorate in psychology.
Dr. Alcedo’s basic training began at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois. Asked if the training was effective, Dr. Alcedo replied, “I think that everyone who takes basic training figures that there’s a lot that you don’t know, that you haven’t been told. There’s just too much to encompass in eight weeks, or twelve weeks, not to mention the fact that it’s on land, it’s not at sea. So it’s the minimal dose that you can get, and get some idea of what it is to be a sailor, wanting being at sea.”
After training at Great Lakes, Dr. Alcedo was sent to Treasure Island Naval Station in San Francisco for more basic training, and then to the San Diego Naval Training Station, where he began to get specialized training for the hospital corps. This training lasted about twelve weeks. The amount of time taken for such training varied dependent on the urgency for replacements in the field, which was determined by casualty rates. “The biggest urgency was for the Marines because they had the highest casualty rates at that point in time.”
Dr. Alcedo’s rank on completion of training was Hospital Corpsman Second Class. He was assigned to the USS Tryon, which was an evacuation transport. Dr. Alcedo explained, “This is not a hospital ship in the terms of having a cross on it. But it was a hospital ship in everything else but. We carried weapons and we were expected to make landings with the Marines and then remove casualties.” There were three ships in the Tryon class: the Tryon, the Rixey, and the Pinckney. “There were a couple of other ships that were not necessarily classified as hospital transport assaults that could [act as evacuation transports] if we were full.”
While Dr. Alcedo was finishing his training, the 1st Marines Division invaded Tulagi, Guadalcanal, Efate, and one or two other smaller islands in the South Pacific. These invasions were in progress when Dr. Alcedo went aboard the USS Tryon in Noumea, New Caledonia. “Those three (Guadalcanal, Tulagi and Efate) were pretty much all Solomon Islands, Guadalcanal and Tulagi being the biggest, and Efate. And then there were a couple of small islands which we didn’t fool with too much. Destroyers and other smaller craft would go in and bomb them every now and then, to kind of discourage them, and allow us some time to try and get people out.” Dr. Alcedo and the Tryon were immediately sent to the South Pacific to assist the Marines. “Peleliu was an island that we invaded… There were three, Tinian, Peleliu and Angaur and then along with them was Saipan too. They weren’t very big islands but they were very highly fortified and we had to go into them, for the Marines. And that was about ‘43, ‘44.”
The duties of a hospital corpsman were to go onto the beach and triage and retrieve the injured and casualties. Wounded soldiers would be picked up by small boat and taken to the Tryon,. Once on the ship, the wounded would be classified and put in particular areas depending on their injuries. “And then the small craft that brought them out would go back in with supplies for the casualties as well as for the Marines who were on the beach already. And that would cycle as long as we were there…”
A typical day for a hospital corpsman would start early, about 4:30 or 5:00. They would feed the casualties and then have a meal of their own, after which they would begin picking up casualties. “Some instances, dependent upon the situation out on the beach, we would be loading and unloading casualties all night and it’s just a routine that you would get into… We just tried to keep them going as fast as we could.”
The hospital corpsmen all took shifts at the different tasks assigned to their group. “Everybody rotated, everybody did the same thing. You give people experience around different operations and you get people off the ship too, to work on the beach. Because what happens on the beach is completely different than what happened on the ship, or on the way from the beach to the ship.”
At times, when evacuating wounded, the hospital corpsmen were under attack from aircraft or from Japanese small craft. Being under attack and dealing with the unknown elements in war made each day different. “It’’s a highly variable thing. It’s not just, ‘Okay, today we’re going to do this.’ You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
When asked if hospital corpsman were armed when they went in for an evacuation, Dr. Alcedo answered, “Well, yes, but technically we weren’t supposed to be. And for the first few months of the Guadalcanal, Tulagi invasions, we even had red crosses on our helmets, which we got rid of real quick. It’s a target. And we had increased our casualty rates. And we took them off after all, not too long after that. But we only had a given number of corpsmen. We couldn’t just lose ‘em all, you know.”
Sometimes other servicemen, seamen or firemen, could switch to the hospital corps when needed, but to get hospital corps replacements from the states took a long time. “It was a long ways from San Francisco and San Diego and Seattle, which were the three ports where we departed from… and it’s a long ways to the South Pacific. And also assume training time on the beach in the states, you see, and that time and the time in transit. Just coming out there after boot camp and hospital corps school doesn’t do anything for you, just another body out there. And so you have to indoctrinate people faster than you get them killed.”
Dr. Alcedo explained the procedure of island evacuation. “We pulled in a landing craft that could carry twenty five wounded, and eight or ten hospital corpsman going back out to the ship. You went back to the ship, unloaded, then brought back some more supplies and so on and then went back in to the beach. You worked around the clock, as much as you could. And this was qualified by the fact that you had weather and you had all kinds of other factors. So it wasn’t just a real routine thing of going in, picking up, go back out and go back in. There were such things as people out on the ocean that came off the beach to counter us too. And between trips crews would have to be changed sometimes. They had already made three or four trips and probably hadn’t eaten. None of these operations are really very smooth, and you don’t just do this and do that.”
To get the casualties from the landing craft up onto the Tryon they used pulleys and cranes. “We had kind of like pulleys. The person that’s in the stretcher, they’re lashed in, and then they’re attached to the humped pulleys and they’re brought up the side of the ship, and most of the ships, that type of ship, have open doors on the side and you get them up from the landing craft, up to the side, and they’re hauled in and then the next one goes in. So it’s pretty efficient except sometimes people are shooting at you at the same time, which made it a little more difficult.”
Dr. Alcedo was asked if they always had enough room for the casualties. “Well, we made room and we knew exactly what our capacity was, particularly when we had people on board already who had not been discharged at some other place. Yeah, it really went pretty smoothly. By the time you had three loads or so on, you knew that this was your last load and prepared for the next load, you see.”
“And when you went to the beach you knew what you could support on the run back to the ship, so many casualties, and that’s all you’d take because you had to have so many people to take care of them from the beach to the ship. And it’s not a standard distance. The ship might be this much further out or this much further out, and remember the ship is under attack at the same time probably, and they’re defending themselves. And it depends on the weather too… There’s so many variables that you have to factor in. Each time is probably different and you do the best that you can.”
Once the wounded were on board the ship, they were carried from the place where they were brought in to a ward where they were put into a bed or a stretcher. Then the people on the ship would take over, the inside corpsmen. “The inside people would give you the unloaded stretcher, and clean it up as much as they could and then put it back on the landing craft. And it wasn’t really very highly neat, you know, because you didn’t have a lot of time. And you needed to get back as soon as possible… If you were going to change crews, then the people who took that load of patients and ran the landing craft would shift, and they’d go in and eat and maybe shower or whatever and then take a turn again.”
Asked how he felt about retrieving casualties while under fire and the courage that took, Dr. Alcedo replied, “Well, that’s what you’re there for. You’re not ever going to be out there if you had trepidations about that. They seem to screen you out pretty well. This is what your job is… Part of the whole training from the beginning of boot camp is to prepare you to be doing that, you see.”
When the Tryon was loaded to capacity, the ship would leave the area and sail to one of several hospital facilities. “We’d go sometimes to the Hebrides, sometimes to Caledonia, sometimes all the way down to New Zealand, sometimes Fiji. There are a whole area of support facilities that could take casualties and we knew at all times how many they could take.”
Wellington and Auckland, New Zealand were main locations that had evacuation hospitals. “Wellington and Auckland, New Zealand were the first two big evacuation places. Then we went south because there wasn’t anything in the middle of the ocean after that for a long time until you get close to the Hawaiian Islands or over to New Guinea.” There were also islands further south that had facilities to take casualties.
Altogether, Dr. Alcedo was a hospital corpsman in the Pacific during WWII for about four and a half years, mostly without any leave. After two years without a break, the Tryon went to New Zealand for repairs, and the crew was able to have leave for a week. During these years on the ship, the crew was only able to communicate with their families in the states by letter, which was unreliable. “Well, you could write letters but you didn’t know whether they were going to get to them. Mail was not a very highly functional thing. In fact we suspected that some mail never got anywhere beyond the ship. Which would be expected.”
Asked if most of his friends on board were other medics, Dr. Alcedo said, “Not all of them. I knew enginemen and firemen and shipfitters and so on. Everybody, particularly on the bigger ships, they knew people in other areas because people slept in different compartments. There weren’t all corpsmen in one compartment. Or there weren’t all shipfitters in one compartment. In certain areas, like enginemen, people who ran the ship, they were close to the engine rooms and to the boiler plants just for a matter of convenience. If they needed to have repairs while we were underway they could get to them fast, not to go from one end of the ship to the other one.”
In the summer of 1945, after Japan had been bombed and WWII ended, Dr. Alcedo was discharged from active duty but remained in the Naval Reserves. He was sent to epidemic disease control school in Bethesda, Maryland and continued his education. In 1950 he was recalled to active duty during the Korean War.
“Well, I had an undergraduate degree by that time and I was starting graduate school. And then Korea started and two weeks later I was at sea. But they flew us out to Japan, and then from Japan to Korea and we were mainly on hostile activities, receiving casualties from the 1st Division and the 3rd Division, they’re the first two divisions that were recalled and then a couple of army divisions. And that wasn’t very long. That lasted about two years.” Dr. Alcedo was both on warships and in hospitals during the Korean War.
After his service in Korea, Dr. Alcedo returned to school and was on active duty in the reserves, usually for two to four weeks each summer, but sometimes for three to six months. “By that time I was an officer and I was also in research. I had to go to research school at that point.”
He was then recalled to active duty during the Vietnam War and served on submarines as a Squadron Medical Element, a paramedic competent in advanced levels of emergency care.
After his discharge from active service, Dr. Alcedo worked at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories and with the Army Supply Corps. He specialized in biochemical agents. An interesting story that Dr. Alcedo told was about being bitten by a laboratory rat at one of the research facilities and getting bubonic plague. He had been inoculated for the disease and after a few weeks in isolation on a course of medicine, he was well and able to return to work.
When Dr. Alcedo was working on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, he became friends with Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. He said that as they passed in hallways, he would greet the admiral, and “one day he stopped and he said, ‘Say, young fella, you seem to know who I am, but I don’t know who you are.’ So I told him and so on, so he said, ‘I want you to meet Mrs Nimitz.’” At that time the Nimitzes were living in Berkeley, but soon after this incident they moved back to Treasure Island where Mrs. Nimitz (who was an avid swimmer) could use the nearby pool.
After Admiral Nimitz died, Dr. Alcedo said, “They had the biggest funeral I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world and navy people from all over the world came.” Dr. Alcedo was asked to be the aide to the Venezuelan Chief of the Navy because of his ability to speak Spanish. About the funeral he said, “They had a very nice service with two or three different chaplains. When the funeral was over, they started out the front gate of Treasure Island and by the time the first funeral car got to Golden Gate the last one hadn’t left.”
Dr. Alcedo retired from the navy in 1984. “They had to let me go, although they had me around every now and then for something or other.” He had specialties that they could use, such as his knowledge of biological and chemical warfare. He also did work in program facilities and trained young people. Dr. Alcedo earned his PhD in clinical psychology from Sylbrook Institute in San Francisco.
Asked what the most memorable experience of his service was, Dr. Alcedo said, “The thing I would say if anything; being around people that I knew I could depend on, under any circumstance, allowed me and other people to say, ‘Gee that was the most memorable experience that I didn’t get killed at that time.’ Because what can you say? A lot of other people were getting killed. Why weren’t you? Well it was a miracle or it was god driven or who knows what.
“I think the main thing is, looking at it again, in kind of a different context; in the Marines and submarines you had the most highly trained people anywhere, under any circumstance, and they helped you and your friends, your colleagues to stay alive. I know that I always knew what I was doing, and I was pretty sure all the rest of the people around me knew what they were doing and part of my job was to help them to stay trained, so that I would stay alive and so they would stay alive. There’s no assurance of that. You walk out on the porch, you can get struck by lightning too, you see. And what can you do about that? And there’s no sense in worrying about it. Because that’ll make you crazy.”
Asked for his reflections on his service, Dr. Alcedo told the story of how early in his career in Chicago, he had worked for Dr. Bruno Bettelheim, the famous children’s psychologist. He remembered that Dr. Bettelheim would say that most of the time, he didn’t really think that he was doing that much good, but that he prayed that a little bit of good had taken place. “And I think that’s probably the way I’d like to look at it,” Dr. Alcedo concluded.
Interview by Michael Assmus on December 1, 2013.