Warship Wednesday, April 1, 2020: From Red Rover to Comfort

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger

-A special WW this week due to events…

Warship Wednesday, April 1, 2020: From Red Rover to Comfort

U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 60500

Here we see the side-wheel steamer USS Red Rover, the Navy’s first (official) hospital ship, on the Western Rivers during the Civil War, with two rowing boats alongside.

Built during 1859 at Cape Girardeau, Mo, the riverboat was originally bought by the Confederates on 7 November 1861, and served as CSS Red Rover, a barracks ship for the floating battery New Orleans.

At Island No. 10, near New Madrid, Mo., from 15 March 1862, she was holed during a bombardment of that island sometime before 25 March and abandoned as a quarters ship. Seized by the Union gunboat Mound City the next month, she was repaired, and taken to St. Louis where she was fitted out as a summer hospital boat for the Army’s Western Flotilla “to augment limited Union medical facilities, to minimize the hazards to sick and wounded in fighting ships; and to ease the problems of transportation-delivery of medical supplies to and evacuation of personnel from forward areas.”

As noted by DANFS: 

Steamers, such as City of Memphis, were being used as hospital transports to carry casualties upriver, but they lacked necessary sanitary accommodations and medical staffs, and thus were unable to prevent the spread of disease.

Rapid mobilization at the start of the Civil War had vitiated efforts to prevent the outbreak and epidemic communication of disease on both sides of the conflict. Vaccination was slow; sanitation and hygiene were generally poor. Overworked military medical personnel were assisted by voluntary societies coordinated by the Sanitary Commission founded in June 1861. But by 1865 typhoid fever, typhus, dysentery, diarrhea, cholera, smallpox, measles, and malaria would claim more lives than gunshot.

Red Rover, serving first with the Army, then with the Navy, drew on both military and voluntary medical personnel. Her conversion to a hospital boat, begun at St. Louis and completed at Cairo, Ill., was accomplished with both sanitation and comfort in mind. A separate operating room was installed and equipped. A galley was put below, providing separate kitchen facilities for the patients. The cabin aft was opened for better air circulation. A steam boiler was added for laundry purposes. An elevator, numerous bathrooms, nine water closets, and gauze window blinds “… to keep cinders and smoke from annoying the sick” were also included in the work.

USS Red Rover line engraving after a drawing by Theodore R. Davis, published in Harper’s Weekly, January-June 1863, page 300, depicting a scene in the ward. NH 59651

Line engravings published in Harper’s Weekly, January-June 1863, page 300, depicting a scene on board the U.S. Navy’s Western Rivers hospital ship during the Civil War. The scene at left, entitled The Sister, shows a nurse attending to a patient. That at right shows a convalescent ward. The middle view is of a lonely grave on the river bank. NH 59652

Red Rover provided yeoman service throughout the rest of the conflict, treating over 2,400 patients during her career. She was sold at auction in November 1865.

The Spanish-American War

Fast forward to 1898 and the military, going to war with Spain, quickly moved to create a new hospital ship. The Army took the lead and purchased the three-year-old 3,300-ton steel passenger liner SS John Englis from the Delaware River Ship Building Co. and sent her south to Cuba as the hospital ship Relief.

U.S. Army Hospital Ship Relief NH 92845

U.S. Army Hospital Ship Relief nurses of the ship’s complement, while she was serving in Cuban waters, 1898. NH 92846

U.S. Army Hospital Ship Relief view in one of the ship’s wards, 1898, with a large skylight in the upper right. NH 92844

The Navy also rebooted its hospital ship program in April 1898 when they bought the 5,700-ton steamer SS Creole from the Cromwell Steamship Lines. Converted to the USS Solace, she was the first Navy ship to fly the Geneva Red Cross.

She was converted in just 16 days

“as an ambulance ship, complete with a large operating room, steam disinfecting apparatus, ice machine, steam laundry plant, cold storage rooms, and an elevator. She could accommodate two hundred patients in her berths, swinging cots and staterooms. Her hurricane deck was enclosed with canvas to be used as a contagious disease ward. The vessel’s fresh water tanks held 37,000 gallons of fresh water, and her system of evaporators and distillers maintained the supply. She was given gifts of supplies and equipment from groups such as the Rhode Island Sanitary and Relief Association and the National Society of Colonial Dames, gaining an X-ray machine, a carbonating machine, etc. SOLACE’s crew included a surgeon, three passed assistant surgeons, three hospital stewards (one of which was a skilled embalmer) eight trained nurses, a cook, four messmen and two laundrymen. The ship and her crew had the honor of inaugurating antiseptic surgery at sea. The vessel also had twenty contract nurses who were members of the Graduated Nurses’ Protective association.

As noted by DANFS “The hospital ship was in constant service during the Spanish-American war, returning wounded and ill servicemen from Cuba to Norfolk, New York, and Boston.”

USHS Solace NH 96686

After the war with Spain was over, both Relief, which had been handed over to the Navy, and Solace were mothballed. However, when the Great White Fleet was organized to globetrot the country’s new all-steel Navy, Teddy Roosevelt stressed it needed a hospital ship to accompany it and the former USAHS Relief was updated as USS Relief.

WWI Hospital Ships

By 1910, Relief was a floating hospital at Olongapo while Solace, on the East Coast, was more mobile and would lend her hull to be loaded with wounded veterans returning from France in the Great War.

Two other steamers were taken up from service from the Ward Line– SS Havana and SS Saratoga— and were converted and renamed USS Comfort and USS Mercy.

The Great War’s USS Comfort and USS Mercy

They were the first Navy hospital ships to have female nurses aboard, with a capacity of seven, including a chief nurse. Both ships were outfitted with state-of-the-art operating rooms, X-ray labs, restrooms, and could accommodate 500 patients each.

Operating onboard U.S. Hospital Ship, 1918 NH 115703

It was around this time that the Navy turned to the concept of a purpose-built hospital ship. She would carry the name of the old Relief and, the 10,000-ton ship was the first ship of the U.S. Navy designed and built from the keel up as a hospital ship.

Photo #: S-584-049 Preliminary Design Plan for a Hospital Ship … February 1915 Preliminary design plan prepared for the Navy Department during consideration of a design for a hospital ship to be included in the Fiscal Year 1917 program. The original document was ink on linen (black on white). The original plan is in the 1911-1925 Spring Styles Book. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command. Photograph.Catalog #: S-584-049

The above plan was intended to satisfy characteristics issued on 12 April 1913 by the General Board. This design concept was selected for the construction of the Relief (Hospital Ship # 1). This plan provides a total berthing capacity of 674 for patients, no armament, and a speed of 14 knots in a ship 460 feet long on the waterline, about 61 feet in beam, with a normal displacement of somewhat less than 10,000 tons.

USS Relief (AH-1), was laid down on 14 June 1917 by the Philadelphia Navy Yard and completed in 1920.

USS RELIEF (AH-1) 1930s NH 108327

U.S. Hospital Ship RELIEF (AH-1) steams through the Panama Canal during the 1930s. NH 62908

WWII hospital ships

Spending a full career in peacetime service before the balloon went up at Pearl Harbor, Relief would “steam the equivalent of nearly four times around the world” during WWII and evacuate “nearly 10,000 fighting men as patients from scenes of combat in nearly every military campaign area of the Pacific Theatre.”

Other Navy hospital ships would join her during the war, such as the converted USS Solace (AH-5), the latter starting life as the 8,900-ton liner SS Iroquois. If the numbering scheme sounds odd, keep in mind the Navy allocated AH-2 to the original SpanAmWar-era Solace and AH-3/4 to the Great War-era Comfort and Mercy, even though none of those three ships were around as Navy hospital ships in WWII.

U.S. Navy Hospital Ship USS SOLACE (AH-5) arrives from Guam, 4 June 1945, bringing casualties from Okinawa. She made three evacuation trips from Iwo Jima to base hospitals at Guam and Saipan, carrying almost 2,000 patients, and seven trips from Okinawa. Photograph by PhoM2c J.G. Mull. 80-G-K-5631

Caption: Okinawa Campaign, 1945. Military ambulances lined up on shore at Guam, awaiting the arrival of U.S. Navy Hospital Ship USS SOLACE (AH-5) with casualties from Okinawa, 4 June 1945. Among ships in the left background is USS LSM-242. Photographer: PhoM2c J.G. Mull. 80-G-K-5629

Sick Bay USS Solace by Joseph Hirsch; C. 1943; Framed Dimension 25H X 31W

Navy Hospital Ship USS Solace by Joseph Hirsch; C. 1943. “The Navy’s hospital ships operate under the laws laid down by the Geneva Convention, being unarmed, fully illuminated at night, and painted white.” 88-159-EW

Other WWII hospital ships were USS Bountiful (AH-9) and USS Samaritan (AH-10), both converted WWI-era troopships as well as USS Refuge (AH-11), with the latter being the former APL line steamer SS President Garfield. Another liner, SS Saint John, became USS Rescue (AH-18). All of these would be disposed of after 1946.

What about AH-6, AH-7, and AH-8? Those were the purpose-built 6,000-ton hospital ships USS Comfort, USS Hope, and USS Mercy, respectively.

The WWII USS Comfort, USS Hope, and USS Mercy,

Completed late in the war (1944) they served in the last days of the conflict in the Pacific then were put in mothballs from which they never emerged in U.S. service again.

A new generation

Speaking of being completed late in the war, the 15,000-ton Haven-class hospital ships were ordered in 1943 and by and large missed the conflict.

Large vessels with a 700-man crew/hospital staff, they could accommodate 800 patients and make 17.5-knots on ocean-crossing trips. The six-ship class held the line for the Navy in Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War. They consisted of the USS Haven (AH-12), USS Benevolence (AH-13), USS Tranquillity (AH-14), USS Consolation (AH-15), USS Repose (AH-16), and USS Sanctuary (AH-17).

The U.S. Navy hospital ship USS Benevolence (AH-13) moored in Bikini Atoll lagoon, during Operation “Crossroads”, mid-July 1946. Several of the operation target ships are visible in the background. U.S. Navy photo 80-G-K-17386

A 52-bed ward USS_Repose (AH-16)

USS Repose (AH 16) is seen in this aerial photo off of South Vietnam. Sailors can be seen waiting by the helo deck as they anticipate the photographer’s helicopter to land. The white paint scheme is quite striking against the blue water. Repose and its sister ship USS Sanctuary (AH 17) played a crucial role in expanding medical capabilities and treatment for American forces, as well as for the Vietnamese. Courtesy of the Navy Medicine Historical Files

The last of the class in service, Repose, was on station off Vietnam during the 1967 USS Forrestal fire that killed 134 sailors and injured 161. By that time, the Haven-class ships were typically supplied with patients via medevac helicopters. Added to this were thousands of Marines who were injured ashore.

Navy Surgeons Perform surgery on a wounded Marine aboard USS REPOSE (AH-16) as the hospital ship steams off The Coast of The Republic of Vietnam, a few miles South of The Seventeeth Parallel, October 1967. USN 1142173

USS REPOSE (AH-16) underway during operations off the South Vietnamese coast, 22 April 1966. “The hospital ship, with heliport astern, advanced medical facilities, and well-staffed medical crew, has been credited with saving many lives during the Vietnam War. The ship sails off the coast and can rush to areas of major action where helicopters lift casualties aboard.” Photographer, Chief Journalist Jim F. Falk K-31174

An unidentified Navy nurse with patients aboard the USS Sanctuary (AH 17) off the coast of Vietnam, 1967. The Sanctuary made multiple deployments to Vietnam from 1966 to 1971.

Following Vietnam, the Navy’s hospital ship line consisted of the WWII-era Haven-class ships, which were being disposed of.

With no purpose-built AHs on the Naval List, Big Blue’s go-to plan for hospital ships in the event of a conflict from the late 1970s into the mid-1980s was to convert Tarawa-class LHAs as needed, as these amphibs would be completed with decent medical bays, although nothing like that seen on earlier white hulls.

While each Tarawa could field “17 ICU beds, 4 operating rooms, 300 beds, a 1,000-unit blood bank, full dental facilities, and orthopedics, trauma, general surgery, and x-ray capabilities,” the bottom line was that they were command-and-control ships for amphibious landings stuffed with Marines and their equipment, aircraft, and vehicles and could scarcely be taken out of the line to serve as dedicated hospital ships.

Realizing this was a no-go in the event of a mass-casualty event, the Navy cheaply acquired a pair of decade-old San Clemente-class oil tankers, SS Worth and SS Rose City, in the mid-1980s.

Ex-SS Rose City in drydock during conversion to the hospital USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) at National Steel and Shipbuilding, in San Diego, CA. National Steel and Shipbuilding photo from “All Hands” magazine, March 1986 via Navsource.

After a 35-month, $208 million conversions, these 65,000-ton beasts emerged as the MSC-crewed USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) and USNS Comfort (T-AH-20), following in the numbering convention started by the 1898-era Relief.

USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) (left) and USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) tied up at the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO) piers, in December 1986. Also visible is USS Albert David (FF-1050) undergoing overhaul and two Knox-class frigates in the background. US National Archives Identifier (NAID) 6654982 by PHC Kristofferson. A US Navy photo now in the collections of the US National Archives.

The third-largest ships in the Navy by length surpassed only by the nuclear-powered Nimitz– and Gerald R. Ford-class supercarriers, they are crewed when on a 5-day standby by a 70-man complement that swells to over 1,200 when fully operational, with one stationed on each coast. They have 1,000 beds and have proved useful in regular peacetime hearts-and-minds style goodwill cruises as well as in the Gulf Wars and in hurricane relief.

The ships are fully equipped on par with a large metro hospital.


Blood banks

Nutritionist-managed patient/crew meals

Orthopedic Spaces


Post-anesthesia care

All backed up by logistics

Both ships are now activated and deployed to help backfill hospital capacity to free up room for COVID-19 cases.

USNS Mercy arrived in Los Angeles on 28 March

While USNS Comfort arrived in New York on 30 March

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