This Devil Doc Jumped on a Live Grenade in Vietnam to Save His Beloved Marines

The relationship between Marines and their Navy Corpsmen affectionately referred to as, “Doc”, is unique to say the least.  The Marine Corps prides itself on their infantry who tackle any clime and place in order to gift violence to the enemy.  But if a Marine should fall in combat, the first words you will hear out of their mouths is the call for “Doc!”

United States Navy Corpsmen, who deploy with the Marines will find themselves on patrol, moving from house to house in urban warfare, and grunting it out with the Marines they swore to protect.  As a result, Marines often lend the hard earned title of Devil Dog to their beloved Corpsman by calling them Devil Docs.  And few Corpsmen embodies the full spirit of the Devil Doc like HM3 Donald E Ballard who threw himself on a grenade in Vietnam to protect his wounded Marines.

The outcome would surprise everyone and Donald E Ballard would go on to receive the Medal of Honor for his action in the jungles of Vietnam.

Quang Tri Province Vietnam

Born in 1945 Kansas City, Missouri, Donald Ballard enlisted in the United States Navy at the age of 20 in 1965.  The Vietnam War was steadily picking up steam and Ballard opted to join the ranks of those who would deploy with the Marines right in the middle of the fight.

After attending the Naval Hospital Corps School in Great Lakes, Illinois, he was initially assigned to the Naval Hospital in Memphis, TN.  By 1968, he had been attached to Headquarters and Service Company for 3rd Battalion 4th Marines for a deployment to Vietnam.

No longer just Naval medical personnel, he would join the ranks of the Devil Docs as he would serve with Company M for 3rd Battalion 4th Marines in heavy combat throughout the Quang Tri province.  Where the Marines went, he went also and while he couldn’t fire a weapon unless it was to protect the wounded, Bullard would prove his worth as a Devil Doc to the Devil Dogs themselves.

Quang Tri was the northernmost province of South Vietnam directly across the border from the North.  When the North Vietnamese launched their 1968 Tet Offensive, Quang Tri was one of the heaviest hit.

Residents of Quang Tri Province fleeing the fighting in 1968 via
Residents of Quang Tri Province fleeing the fighting in 1968

The initial surprise attack of the Tet offensive in January of 1968 is the most well-known, but the North Vietnamese would continue to press the attack throughout 1968 in what is often referred to as phase 2 and 3 of the Tet offensive.  On April 29th of 1968, up to 8,000 North Vietnamese-backed by artillery from across the DMZ threatened American positions in the Quang Tri province.

By May, the second phase was launched as over 100 targets were attacked simultaneously in what is referred to as “Mini-Tet.”  It was during this offense that Devil Doc Donald Ballard would leap into halls of military history.

Protecting His Marines at All Costs

On the afternoon of May 16th, 1968, Ballard along with Company M was moving to join the fight in Quang Tri province.  The heat had taken its toll on the men and two Marines suffered from heat-related injuries requiring evacuation.  Ballard saw to it that the Marines were treated and evacuated.

As he was moving back towards his platoon, the company was ambushed by the North Vietnamese.  Small arms, machine guns, and mortars began to rain down on their position taking a heavy toll on the Marines.  Ballard immediately leaped into action braving the heavy fire to treat the wounded Marines.

In the case of one particular Marine treated by Ballard, he required evacuation and Ballard called 4 other Marines to move the wounded man to a more secure position.  Just as the Marines arrived to carry their wounded comrade to safety, a North Vietnamese soldier leaped out and threw a grenade that landed right beside the wounded Marine.

Donald E. Ballard
Donald E. Ballard

Without hesitation, Devil Doc Donald Ballard did what few could imagine and threw his body onto the live grenade to shield his wounded Marine from damage.  Inviting near certain death, Ballard covered the grenade and waited. In the history of jumping on grenades, most die while there is still a decent chance of surviving albeit with horrible injuries.  Knowing the consequences, Ballard awaited his fate and then the inexplicable occurred.  The grenade didn’t go off.

After enough time had passed, Ballard rose to his feet, wiped the sweat from his brow and carried on with the mission of treating wounded Marines as if nothing had occurred.  He performed one of the most heroic acts one can commit in the course of war and apart from likely needing a change of underwear, walked away unharmed.

Ballard would continue the battle and finish out his tour in Vietnam.  In 1970, Devil Doc Donald Ballard received the Medal of Honor from President Nixon.

A Lifetime of Service

Recipient Donald “Doc” Ballard. By Medal of Honor Project – CC BY 2.0
Recipient Donald “Doc” Ballard. By Medal of Honor Project – CC BY 2.0

After Vietnam and receiving the Medal of Honor, he enlisted in Army officer candidate school and was eventually commissioned in the Army.  It is reported that General Westmoreland offered Ballard a direct commission, but he refused for reasons he deemed personal.

He joined the Kansas National Guard in 1973 and would go on to serve in various medical roles in the Army as an officer.  Rising to the rank of Colonel, Ballard retired in 2000 some 32 years after his life likely would have ended next to a wounded Marine in Vietnam.

The United States Marine Corps is an elite club of warfighters who pride themselves on their esprit de corps to win battles.  But if you think their beloved Devil Docs are not considered one of their own, then just try just watch Marines stand in defense if anyone should deride their beloved Doc.

Because the few, the proud, the Marines never march into battle without their Devil Docs and men like Donald E. Ballard show you exactly why that is so.

Jeff Edwards

Jeff Edwards is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE