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PROFILE OF A KOREAN WAR VETERAN: J. BIRNEY DIBBLE, M.D.

J. Birney Dibble, M.D., fishing in Wisconsin in recent years

J. Birney Dibble, M.D. was born in Madras, India in 1925. His father and mother were Methodist missionaries, a pastor and a nurse respectively. When he was four, the family moved back to Illinois. He later graduated from East Aurora, Illinois High School, where he served as Class President in his junior year, and President of the Student Council in his senior year. He excelled at sports: a three-letter man all four years, and co-captain of both track and football his senior year.

After graduation, Birney enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He served from 1943 to 1945 as part of the V-12 College Training Program at Duke University until May, 1945, when he was ordered to the U.S. Naval Hospital at the Camp Lejeune, NC Marine Base. He served as ward corpsman there until the war ended. As he recently commented, wryly, “I joined the Navy to help rid the world of dictators, but it didn’t work.” After his discharge, he attended medical school at the University of Illinois Chicago Campus from 1945 to 1949. Upon graduation in 1949, he married Edna Frances Baird. They had two children, Eric and Barbara, and remained married for 52 years, until Edna’s death in 2001.

Birney interned at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital from 1949 through 1951. He was recalled to active duty that year, and spent the next sixteen months as a combat surgeon with the 1st Marine Division in Korea. His first duty assignment was as Battalion Surgeon with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines.

Birney on the rim of “The Punchbowl,” January, 1952

In February, 1952, Birney was sent up to the front lines to evaluate a wounded Marine for possible helicopter evacuation. His Jeep ambulance driver, Sergeant John (”Gump”) Gumpert, had been wounded for the third time just a few months earlier, when he and his fellow Marines won the battle for “The Punchbowl.” Gump and Birney drove as far as they could up the reverse slope of Hill 812 and then continued on foot.

Sergeant John Gumpert, USMC

They were scrambling the rest of the way upslope to the frontline bunkers when they suddenly came under Chinese mortar fire. As they dove into a deep crater for cover, they were both wounded, neither seriously, by fragments from a nearby blast. As Birney was dressing Gump’s minor head wound, the sergeant said, “This is my fourth wound, Doctor — but please don’t put me up for another Heart!” When Birney asked why not, Gump replied, “They’d transfer me to some rear-echelon billet.” Birney held up his right arm, bleeding from a half dozen small pieces of shrapnel and said, “Well, then I won’t report my wound either.” The doctor later elaborated, explaining that if he had written himself up for the award, he would been compelled to write Gump up as well. And Gump would have been forced to reluctantly leave his brothers in arms at the front for a safe post in the rear. That’s the story of why Dr. Dibble did NOT receive a Purple Heart. At least not until decades later, when his children, aware of this story, urged him to apply for the medal. Birney did so, and finally received his Purple Heart. Better late than never.

Dr. Dibble, CO of Easy Med, August, 1952

Easy Med

In late July, 1952, Birney was promoted from Lieutenant (J.G.) to full Lieutenant, and became Commanding Officer of E Company, 1st Medical Battalion, 1st Marine Division, commonly referred to as “Easy Med.”

An amputation in Easy Med during the Battle of Bunker Hill

This was the period when the Marines were fighting a series of hotly contested hill battles not far from Panmunjom and the 38th Parallel. During the bloody Battle of Bunker Hill, just north of the Jamestown Line, Dr. Dibble described the grim results of the ferocious fighting during just one weekend of the August, 1952 battle:

“1,004 wounded men were triaged from Friday night to Monday afternoon, 142 major operations under general anesthesia—belly, chest, and amputations—better than one an hour. We evacuated 153 walking wounded to Able Med for minor debridement, shipped 288 severely wounded men to the hospital ship Consolation in Inchon Harbor—48 Sikorsky helicopters with six stretchers in each. We lost 21 men during or after surgery. Three men came in DOA. That means we operated on 397 WIAs in the Minor Tent. A high percentage of these minors were multiple shrapnel wounds—5, 10, 20, even 30 wounds in a single body, but none of them breaking bone or penetrating the belly or thorax. All of the surgeries in the Minor Tent were performed with only local anesthetic. Many would have been called ‘majors’ in a stateside hospital.”

For consolation throughout his wartime service, Birney always carried with him a treasured photo of him and his wife Edna Baird, taken on a sunny day in Chicago before he left for Korea.

Birney and his first wife Edna

Coming Home: Birney’s ship approaching the Golden Gate Bridge

Birney returned from Korea in 1953. He received sixteen medals in all, including the Bronze Star and Letter of Commendation, both with Combat “V,” as well as the very late-arriving Purple Heart mentioned above. Upon his return to civilian life, he served as a surgical resident at Cook County Hospital from 1953 to 1957. He was certified as a Diplomate of the American Board of Surgery in 1959. He practiced surgery in Eau Claire, Wisconsin from 1957 to 1980, with time out for three years at a Lutheran mission hospital in Tanzania. He was also Chief of Surgery for three years at Luther Hospital and seven years at Sacred Heart Hospital.

From 1980 to 1998, Birney lived and did surgery overseas. He worked in Guam and Saudi Arabia, as well as at mission hospitals in a half dozen nations in Africa and Latin America. He finally decided to ”frame the last scalpel,” as he described his retirement, in 1998. Since then, he has devoted himself to reading, writing, hunting, fishing, racketball, gardening, and making firewood. He has published three novels, four books of non-fiction, and several hundred pieces in regional and national magazines. He is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the National Platform Association, the United Methodist Church, and the Emmaus Community, as well as a former member of the National Writers’ Club. Birney and his second wife, Margaret, have been married for seventeen years.

Birney and his second wife Margaret

Birney has two children, three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
J. Birney Dibble, M.D.: Korean War veteran, surgeon, husband, father, friend, and so much more. A life well-lived — and still being well-lived.

Birney (far right) and friends at a recent get-together

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