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50 states, 50 heroes: A corpsman’s courage

Born Aug. 8, 1924, in Ogden, Utah, George Edward Wahlen dreamed of being an aircraft mechanic. When he enlisted in the Navy in 1943, he hoped he would get the opportunity to work on planes, but was selected for medical corpsman training instead. Wahlen protested to his commanding officer, who hinted that if Wahlen excelled in his training, he might be able to get a position working on aircrafts. But when Wahlen placed near the top of his class at the Naval Hospital Corpsman School in San Diego, he was informed that the Navy would not give up one of its best corpsmen and was attached to Second Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment, Fifth Marine Division as a Pharmacist’s Mate Third Class.

Wahlen and his unit were shipped to Hawaii. In 1944, they boarded a ship bound for the fighting on the island of Guam. While they were en route, military commanders decided they were not needed and the ship was sent back to Hawaii. On Nov. 1, 1944, Wahlen was promoted to Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class and assigned to Fox Company of the 26th Marine Regiment.

On Feb. 19, 1945, Wahlen went ashore on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. It was the beginning of the deadliest battle fought by the Marine Corps in World War II; of the 240 men in Wahlen’s company, only five would make it through the battle unharmed (counting replacements brought in during the fighting, the company suffered a 125 percent casualty rate).

On Feb. 26, after one week of constant fighting, Wahlen was treating a wounded marine when an enemy grenade exploded nearby. The explosion sent shrapnel into his face and temporarily blinded him. He refused to be evacuated and continued to help the wounded, including running through heavy enemy fire to carry a wounded marine to safety. At one point during the day, the corpsman from a nearby platoon was killed, prompting Wahlen to rush through heavy mortar fire to assist. He treated 14 wounded marines before returning to his unit.

Wahlen was wounded in the back on March 2, but again refused evacuation. The following day, his company began an assault against a fiercely defended Japanese position. As Wahlen rushed forward through more than 600 yards of open terrain, he was shot in the leg and unable to walk. Despite his injury, he crawled forward about 50 yards to treat a wounded marine.

Wahlen was evacuated from Iwo Jima and recovered from his wounds in hospitals at Guam, Hawaii and Camp Pendleton. While at Pendleton, he was awarded two Navy Crosses and received orders to the White House. On Oct. 5, 1945, President Harry Truman presented Wahlen with the Medal of Honor. During the presentation, Truman told Wahlen, “Well, I’m sure glad a pill pusher made it up here.”

Wahlen was honorably discharged from the Navy on Dec. 19, 1945. In 1948, he enlisted in the Army and was later commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. He served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars and retired as a Major in 1968. Aside from the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross, Wahlen also received four Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star.

Wahlen worked with the Veteran’s Administration during civilian life. In 2004, President George W. Bush signed legislation naming the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City. The act required a special exemption from Congress as federal buildings cannot be named after living individuals.

Wahlen passed away on June 5, 2009, in Roy, Utah. He is buried in the Memorial Gardens of the Wasatch in South Ogden.

George E. Wahlen Park in Roy is named in his honor.