USMC Hospital Corps Knife (aka Corpsman Bolo)


  • Model: RHKCORPSK

This is a USMC "Village Blacksmith" Corpsman Knife.  Sometimes also mislabeled a USMC Bolo machete.  Made between 1943 and 1945.  The knife is in as-is condition.  It has not been cleaned, but it is hair-shaving sharp.  The scabbard is also in almost excellent condition.  However, we did give the sheath a good rubdown with Renaissance Wax to keep it from drying out further and to lightly remove some of the "green" encrustations growing around the rivets.  The shape is somewhat unusual and does not match other samples with a blunter tip.  It is possible this one is more akin to the machete shape being contracted by the Marine Corps.  We still have not found out what the CR marking on the obverse of the blade is.

Here is an article we found with more information:

     "United States Marine Corps, Hospital Corps Knife: It is a knife not a bolo and not a Medical Corps knife. The correct nomenclature is arrived at logically; the Naval Medical Corps designates its members as Officer's. Physicians who might use a scalpel, letter opener or a pocket knife but not a large knife such as this. The medical enlisted personnel, Navy Corpsman, who would use this knife, are in the Hospital Corps hence the proper name, Hospital Corps Knife.

     That little bit of trivia has bothered us for many years. It is just a fact of life that the proper nomenclature will most likely never be correctly associated with the knife much like the V-44 and the Pilot Survival knife / Mark 1. We just had to get that out, it had been kept inside us too long and was bursting out at the seams, now on with the article.

     According to good friend Carter Rila's research the Hospital Corps Knife was adopted in 1915 for issue by the USMC for Naval Hospital Corpsman serving on field duty with the Marines. The Hospital Corps Knife was issued parallel to the Marine Corps Intrenching Machete during those early years using the same folded fiberboard under cloth duck scabbard. Both were made in a very similar way using the reduced thickness tang. The early Hospital Corps Knives we have observed were made by Plumb using this method with the early Village Blacksmith (Watertown-Wis) models using a tapered tang. Both machete and knife used the same type and shaped handle. The Marines issued it on a very limited basis until June 20, 1942 when the Commandant of the Marine Corps authorized the Hospital Corps Knife as a replacement for the Machete, Intrenching the square tipped short machete in use since 1912. Many of the uses would be the same but the construction of the new piece was very different consisting of a full width tang and a much more square handle. Although of Marine design and issue, the main forces to which it was issued were from a sister service, the U.S. Navy.  For those of you that don't know it the Navy supplies all the medical personnel to the Marine Corps.  They are permanently assigned to the Corps, they train together, eat together, fight together and bleed together but they are still in the Navy and do not wear the Marine Corps emblem, the Eagle Globe and Anchor. That is the rule.... now ask anyone who has had his or her life saved by a Navy Corpsman and you WILL get a different story! But now the knife was also to be issued to fighting Marines, one per four-man squad according to the Tables of Organization and Equipment then in effect. So although it is named a Hospital Corps Knife it was also to become a tool for Marine use in combat.

     The knife was designed for use specifically for the field medical situations. The rounded point most likely influenced by the Army Model 1904 Hospital Corps Knife. The long rounded point 2 3/4" in radius is sharpened on both sides and around the point to a false edge on the top. The Army M1904 is a chisel grind being sharpened on one side only. Most folks when thinking of the Hospital Corps and a knife think amputations. When they see this knife, and to tell the truth it is an inside joke I use whenever the situation arises, you should see the size of the eyes on the unsuspecting guy at a gun or knife show when that comes up in conversation! Mainly it is used for clean up duties such as clearing out debris from waterlogged fields, swamps and just large mud holes. Stagnant water breeds mosquitoes, which in turn cause and carry disease. Disease is a bigger killer in war then bullets. This is the main job of the Hospital Corps, prevent spread of disease through proper sanitation. Straddle pits are easily dug with the sharp rounded edge. Field stretchers could be improvised with the use of branches and a poncho or shelter half.  This type of use meant the knife needed to be able to cut branches of a decent size, shy of using an axe.  This is the reason behind the durable construction of the knife. It is heavy enough to handle the work of an axe and yet light enough to handle the work of a machete. The knife measures 11 3/8" in length and 2 1/4" in width while the handle is 5 3/8" long, yielding an overall length of 16 3/4".

     We can note many companies were in on the manufacture of the Hospital Corps Knife. By way of construction we would conclude that the first examples were made by Plumb. They are the only ones to create the handle in the same way as the sister Machete, Intrenching. This was a much more labor-intensive design then the later plain flat method used. With this in mind it is thought that the design was originally taken from the earlier tool. The "who came first" is merely speculation at this point between Plumb and possibly Village Blacksmith. Others, including John Chatillon & Sons, Charles D. Bridell, Inc., and Clyde Cutlery Company manufactured the Hospital Corps Knife. Variations in the manufacturing of the Hospital Corps Knife included the number of rivets in the wood handle. Some are found with three while others have four. Some rivets were steel while others were brass (Brass was a restricted item during 1943, anything that could be used in place of brass was tried. Remember the steel pennies). Type of wood called for in the original specifications was Applewood, where that one came from is any ones guess! We have never heard of Applewood specified for anything! Must have been someone who had an investment in Applewood that wrote the original specifications. In a letter to the USMC Quartermaster dated incidentally December 8, 1941, John Chatillon & Sons requests that the specification be altered to include birch, beech, or maple as a substitute for the hard to obtain, specified Applewood. Most of the Hospital Corps Knives were manufacturer marked as well as having USMC in large letters deeply struck in the upper flat of the blade. Only one style is said to exist that has no manufacturers markings, that one is most likely a Clyde product as they used an etch as opposed to a stamping. This etch wore away quickly and left a knife that was unmarked. Buyers beware.

     The Intrenching Machete, as discussed above, shared the original scabbard for the Hospital Corps Knife. From an outward appearance the scabbard looks to follow the design of the Model 1910 bolo scabbard. This is strictly an illusion as the two are very different. The canvas cover is riveted in place and not removable like the 1910. More importantly the materials used are vastly different. The scabbard is formed from a piece of paper fiberboard folded in a triangular fashion, covered in cloth duck and seam covered in leather. A pleasant looking scabbard and light in weight but not at all durable. The knives and machetes survived the abuse of wear and tear but few of the original scabbards did. The heavy leather sheath for this knife was just as heavy duty and durable as the knife. The throat is made of brass and riveted on. The M1910 double hook is attached to the body by a billet that is sewn and riveted to a reinforcing piece which is then sewn to the sheath body. This hangar setup attachment is identical to the M1939 leather machete scabbards also manufactured by Boyt. The Boyt Harness Company manufactured it in several variations if you count markings as differences. Those of you wanting an example of every type will no doubt love the dating of the scabbards. Be on the lookout as the orientation of the stamping could also be off 90 degrees! Another variation for those of you counting. Ironically the only other difference was the number of rivets found on the blackened brass throat of the sheath, aside from that and the markings they are virtually identical. The earliest pattern had two attaching rivets on either side of the throat while the later pattern had an added third rivet in the center of the throat to keep it in contact with the leather. You can see on the early pattern sheaths that the leather would sometimes fold and not allow the knife to be inserted, the additional rivet solved that problem, just like it did on the Model 1872 Intrenching Tool scabbards. Scrimping on one rivet per side... The scabbards were all marked on the back with Boyt and the date of manufacture, 42, 43, 44, or 45. The 42-manufactured piece did not have the USMC over Boyt marking, but did have "US / Boyt / 42."  Why the Marines didn't catch that earlier is a mystery. It is rare that you find a Marine Corps specified implement that is not USMC marked. In 1942 alone, the Marine Corps ordered 83,650 sheaths from Boyt at a cost of $1.30 each.

     In December 1942, the Hospital Corps Knife was reviewed by the Marine Corps due to the adoption of the then new M1942 18" machete resulting in the cancellation of the Hospital Corps Knife contracts. In a letter from the Marine Corps to The Village Blacksmith, one of the manufacturers, it was asked to cancel two contracts amounting to 45,500 knives. The Marine Corps did state that other options could be arranged if the knives were made or steel and supplies were already secured. We also find a reply from John Chatillon & Sons dated December 1942 so we can conclude that all the Hospital Corps Knife manufacturers must have received the same cancellation letter from the Marine Corps. The reply stated:

     Incidentally, we cooperated with your Department in revising the specifications on the Hospital Knife. At that time it was explained to us that the Hospital Knife was used as a general purpose field tool for cutting splints, prying open boxes, even for driving nails. On the other hand, we understand the machete is more of a weapon and brush knife.
The gauge of the machete is so light compared with that of the Hospital Knife that it would not be practical to use it for the same type of service that the Hospital Knife was originally made up for. We are wondering if this was considered.

     It was a legitimate request, hell even a good one. A December 10 1942 follow up letter from the Marine Corps must have agreed as the request for cancellation was rescinded. The quickest cancellation reinstatement on record! The Hospital Corps Knife continued in production and in use for the remainder of the war. In fact it was again standard issue during the hostilities in Korea. The 1960 Landing Party Manual as issued by the Navy did not include the Hospital Corps Knife. While that is not an official indicator of status it does give us an indication of the use of various tools and weapons. The Hospital Corps Knife was not in the listing.

     We could not extract the exact number of knives made from the existing records found but a fairly accurate count on remaining information places the number at above 200,000 made. With the numbers found today and the numbers we know were produced, Hospital Corps Knives were far outnumbering the Hospital Corpsmen. Various photos can be found of Marines wearing the Knife on the belts and backpacks as part of the "assaulting force infantry". As the knife was issued as a part of the squad it stands to reason they often found favor with fighting men in the close quarter combat of the Pacific Islands. We also can find these knives in almost perfect condition today owing to the fact that so many were made they would naturally have been in storage, unused for years. This is the condition we like to find our collectibles in, crisp and unsharpened. Pick up a few, they make great conversation pieces when the conversation turns to uses.... such as amputation....

     The author would like to thank fellow researchers Carter Rila and Alec Tulkoff for their efforts in helping to bring this information to print. We look forward to Alec's soon to be in print book, "Grunt Gear"; knife aficionados will need to pick one up. A large Thank You to Larry Thomas for allowing access to photograph items in his collection. A true gentleman, always ready, willing and able to help."

All the best
Frank Trzaska

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