Remembering medics who served: Navy Hospital Corpsman John E. Kilmer

Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class John E. Kilmer, a hospital corpsman, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism in combat on Aug. 13, 1952, while serving with the 1st Marine Division in Korea. This photo was taken in August 1951 after he reenlisted. Photo by U.S. Navy.

Medics are vital members of the team when you’re in battle. When casualties are mounting, their skills are crucial to helping service members survive.

While serving as a hospital corpsman in Korea, Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class John E. Kilmer gave his life to save his comrades. He was only 21, but his effort and courage were unquestioned, and they led him to posthumously earn the Medal of Honor.

Kilmer was born Aug. 15, 1930, in Highland Park, Illinois, but his family moved him and his brother to San Antonio while they were still kids. Kilmer’s teenage years unfolded during and directly after World War II. Patriotism was incredibly high at that time, so on Aug. 16, 1947 — the day after Kilmer’s 17th birthday — he dropped out of high school to join the Navy.

Kilmer, who went by the name Jackie, graduated from Hospital Corps School in 1948. When the Korean War broke out, his four-year stint as a sailor was almost up. But he wanted to put his medical training to good use, so he reenlisted in August 1951.

According to the Sextant, a Naval History and Heritage Command blog, Kilmer had an undisclosed dispute with a superior officer at some point after reenlisting. Because of that, he asked for a transfer to the Fleet Marine Force, which provides support to Marines during action and reconnaissance operations. After completing Field Medical School, Kilmer was transferred to duty as a hospital corpsman attached to the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

Shortly after, they deployed to Korea.

Navy corpsmen administer plasma to a Marine wounded in the battle for Bunker Hill in Korea in 1952. Photo by the U.S. Marine Corps.

On Aug. 12, 1952, U.S. Marines were involved in a bitter fight to take over an area called Bunker Hill, a crucial hill that was in the hands of Chinese enemy forces. If the U.S. took the hill, it would enable them to observe movement from far away.

The Chinese were initially caught off guard by the attack. Kilmer’s rifle company had dug in well forward of the main line of resistance early in the day, expecting a counterattack. It came later than they expected — in the early-morning hours of Aug. 13.

Shortly after midnight, large swaths of enemy forces started assaulting the rifle company with mortar, artillery and sniper fire. Kilmer moved from one position to another, helping wounded Marines and carrying many men to safety, despite putting himself in harm’s way.

Eventually, Kilmer noticed a seriously wounded Marine lying in a field, so he started to crawl toward the man. Another Marine saw the intensity of the gunfire and tried to stop him, but Kilmer pushed on anyway with only his duty on his mind.

Halfway to the man he was trying to rescue, Kilmer was badly wounded by mortar fragments. However, he continued on, inching toward the man despite all the enemy shells falling around them. Kilmer started to give the Marine first aid when another barrage of fire exploded. Thinking only of his patient, Kilmer threw himself on the other Marine to form a human shield. In doing so, the young corpsman was hit by flying shrapnel.

The Marine he shielded survived. Kilmer died just two days short of his 22nd birthday.

Kilmer’s body was eventually returned home and buried in the family plot at San Jose Burial Park in San Antonio.

John Rodriguez, right, a Marine Corps veteran, salutes as a Navy Medicine Training Support Center color guard presents the colors for the national anthem during an Aug. 15, 2017, graveside memorial service in San Antonio. The yearly service honors Petty Officer 3rd Class John E. “Jackie” Kilmer, a hospital corpsman who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor after giving his life in battle in 1952. Photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Gary Ward.

For the extraordinary valor he showed during battle, Kilmer received the Medal of Honor. Navy Secretary Robert B. Anderson presented it posthumously to his mother, Lois Kilmer, during a Pentagon ceremony on June 18, 1953.

Kilmer’s legacy lives on. Many Navy hospitals, clinics and other medical facilities across the world have his photo placed prominently on walls they have as memorials. The Navy Inn at Naval Support Activity Mid-South in Millington, Tennessee, was named Kilmer Hall in his honor in 2003.

Every year, on the anniversary of the young corpsman’s death, several instructors, staff and students from Joint Base San Antonio’s Navy Medicine Training Support Center gather at Kilmer’s gravesite. Along with local veterans’ organizations, the crowd holds a remembrance ceremony to honor the brave soul who gave his life to save others.