Thoughts from Dr. Joe: The heroism of Hirschhorn

When I was 16, I read Henry David Thoreau's “Walden.” I read about living deliberately and sucking the marrow out of life. Such musings led me to study philosophy. I learned that a deliberate life meant following a heroic life.

In the “Hero's Journey,” Joseph Campbell asserts that the goal of a heroic life is not to become a hero. Instead, the goal is to live a lifestyle that makes you as ready for heroism as you can be. It's about the way you live, not the end result.

Heroes are essential to the continuance of civilization. Emerson wrote, “The hero kindles a great light in the world and sets up a blazing torch in the darkness for men to see by.”

I've always had a fascination with heroes. In my journal, “1970,” I recorded the accounts of many. However, I never knew Corpsman Joseph Sheldon Hirschhorn. Corpsman Hirschhorn's daughter, La Cañada resident Bonnie Marshall, briefly spoke about her father one morning at Starbucks. I listened to Marshall reminisce and realized his story should be told.

He is gone now, but a long time ago, his hand shaped the course of events. And although his demise was nondescript, Corpsman Hirschhorn, an ordinary boy, stepped up during a horrific time. It turned out his life was anything but ordinary.

During a presidential motorcade traveling down the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, Joe jumped onto the running boards of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's limousine. The president greeted him, igniting a patriotic fervor that would send this young man toward events that would define his life.

Joe was too young for the fight against Japan. However, he served on the aircraft carriers S.S. Saratoga and Valley Forge during the occupation of Japan after the war, having lied about his age and joined the Navy at 17.

In Thomas Carlyle's “The Hero,” we learn that men who achieve heroic stature are imbued with sacrifice and selflessness. They possess a determined spirit and are loyal to a cause. Typically, such individuals rush toward the sound of the guns.

Once again America found itself at war, and once again Joe answered the call, shipping out with the first battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment. He was a corpsman, a “doc” responsible for the immediate first aid of wounded and dying Marines.

In the Corps, it is understood that the worst job possible relative to life expectancy is a naval corpsman assigned to the Marine infantry.

When the bullets are flying and the trigger pullers are burrowing themselves into the dirt, it is the corpsman who must rise and face the fusillade and tend to a wounded Marine.

The 5th Marines had pushed the North Korean Army to the Yalu River on the border of China, prompting the 9th People's Volunteer Army to enter the war. The Marines were surrounded by 10 battle-hardened Chinese divisions.

At the Chosin Reservoir, with temperatures well below zero, the Marines began to fight their way through the Chinese lines. Joe continued to distinguish himself while tending to the needs of the wounded. Suffering frostbite and bullet wounds, Corpsman Hirschhorn said, “Stitch me up and send me back to my men.”

All analysis of heroism is incomplete without a depiction of loyalty. Joe could have gone home, but he chose to stay and tend to the Marines. One can only guess how many lives he saved.

Joe didn't receive the medals that he earned and he didn't speak of Korea. However, the week prior to his death, Bonnie procured his decorations from the department of the Navy. In his final days he mesmerized his nurses and doctors, telling his story of being at the Chosin Reservoir.

Admiral Halsey best expresses the nature of the hero and of Corpsman Hirschhorn. “There are no great men, only great challenges that ordinary men rise up to meet.”

Good job, Doc.

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at

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