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From the Gulf of Alaska to the Gulf of Tonkin, 52 years of service

The Seattle-based Coast Guard Cutter Mellon (WHEC 717) moors at U.S. Coast Guard Base Kodiak’s fuel pier in Kodiak, Alaska, July 10, 2020. Photo by Chief Petty Officer Matthew/USCG

The 378-foot Hamilton-class Coast Guard Cutter Mellon (WHEC 717) just completed her final patrol.

As noted by the USCG, Mellon and her “150-person crew left Seattle April 17 to conduct missions throughout the Aleutian Islands and the Bering Sea. During the patrol, the crew conducted 38 law enforcement boardings, four search-and-rescue cases, and enforced federal regulations governing Alaska’s $13.9 billion commercial fishing industry.”

She returned to her longtime homeport at Seattle earlier this month and is scheduled for decommissioning August 20, 2020, bringing an epic 52-year career to a close.

Laid down in 1966 at Avondale in New Orleans, she commissioned on January 9, 1968.

A modern ship with her helm controlled via a joystick, she carried a 5″/38 DP mount forward, a half-dozen ASW torpedo tubes, sonar, an 80-foot helicopter deck, and used a then-innovative CODAG engineering suite. Contemporary accounts held that she was able to reach a speed of “20 knots in less than 20 seconds and go from full ahead to full astern in less than one minute.”

The Hamilton-class cutters were one of the first naval vessels built with a combined diesel and gas turbine propulsion plant. At the time: “The twin screws can use 7,000 diesel shaft horsepower to make 17 knots, and a total of 36,000 gas turbine shaft horsepower to make 28 knots. The diesel engines are Fairbanks-Morse and are larger versions of a 1968 diesel locomotive design. Her Pratt-Whitney marine gas turbine engines are similar to those installed in Boeing 707 passenger jet aircraft.”

Mellon served regular weather station duty on Ocean Station November in the Northern Pacific– and even had a balloon shelter for such work, in addition to SAR, maritime fisheries patrol, and counter-smuggling duties.

Once, she even got involved in responding to a mutiny on the high seas.

She also went to a real-live shooting war.

As noted by the Coast Guard Historian’s Office:

Mellon saw extensive service during the conflict in Vietnam. She was twice awarded the Meritorious Unit Commendation as part of Task Force 115 (U.S. Navy Coastal Surveillance Force) which maintained close surveillance over 1,200 miles of Vietnamese coastline and 64,000 licensed watercraft.

The task force seized large quantities of war material, preventing it from reaching enemy hands. During her service in the waters adjacent to Vietnam, Mellon also conducted numerous naval gunfire support missions, rescue operations, medical civic action programs, and training programs for Vietnamese military personnel.

She saved lives.

Mellon rescued passengers from the burning Holland-America luxury liner MS Prinsendam off the Alaskan coast in 1980 in conjunction with another cutter, pulling 510 passengers and crew members from lifeboats after they abandoned ship. Remarkably, and in vast contrast to the Titanic, this occurred with no deaths or serious injuries, and all passengers and crew from the Prindsendam accounted for.

Added to this tally over the years were mariners from the doomed Italian supertanker Giovanna Lollighetti, the MV Carnelian, and the downed crew of a C-130 surviving among the frozen scrub of Attu Island.

She held the line

A regular on the Bearing Sea Patrol, Mellon’s sonarmen counted more sonar contacts with Soviet subs in the 1980s than many active-duty tin cans.

Updated for the Cold War, she was given frigate-level armament, trading her 5″ gun for a more modern 76mm OTO Melera Mk.75, picking up more modern air search radars, a “Slick-32” EW suite, and improved AN/SQS-26 bow-mounted sonar. She also got a modicum of anti-air protection from a CIWS and an anti-ship armament of 8 Harpoon cans. The idea was that if the balloon went up, the Hamiltons could easily chop over to add a few more hulls to the “600 Ship Navy” and help out with ASW and convoy duty.

Speaking of which, she was the only cutter in USCG history to fire a live Harpoon, during tests off Oxnard in January 1990.

PAC Ken Freeze, USCG

The Coast Guard certainly got their $14.5 million FY65 original costs out of her, and, as with most of her class, will surely go on to serve an overseas ally for another generation or two.

Her motto is Primus Inter Pares (First Among Equals).

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mellon (WHEC 717) crew and an Air Station Barbers Point MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew conduct searches just before sunset 24 miles south of Oahu, March 18, 2019. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. j.g. Joshua Martin/Released)

Cammies, KA-bars and GSDs

“Marine War Dog and Handler, Vietnam, circa 1970”

Note the kennels in the background with the sandbagged roof. From the Craig Spraggins Collection (COLL/4154) at the Marine Corps History Division

Of note, the WMD handler is wearing the Marine Corps’ “lowland” variant of the ERDL camouflage uniform, which predated the much better known M81 woodland BDU by more than a decade. The Marine also has a standard M1911A1 in a very non-standard holster that could be a modded M1916-style flap holster but I believe is actually just a commercial leather revolver holster, accompanied by a K-Bar fighting knife attached to the holster by a leather tie.

Another installment of the same team

Odds are the Marine has coupled the two weapons together at his strong side to be able to use either with his right hand as the dog would be controlled by his left.

Dogs get the chop

In related news, the Marines are cutting back on their military working dogs, a staple of the service since the Great War, as they aren’t needed to fight China, apparently. Currently, the Corps has 210 four-legged MWDs and 260 two-legged handlers/trainers. After the snip, that will fall to 150 and 210, respectively. Of note, once a dog enters the training program, it takes six months to get them ready for the Fleet.

Catching Flak

U.S Navy and Air Force tactical aircraft operating over North Vietnam in the early stages of the involvement in the South East Asian conflict in the mid-to-late 1960s faced an ever-increasing array of Soviet/Chicom-supplied air defenses ranging from eyeball-guided 12.7mm Dshk guns to the latest S75/SA-2 SAMs manned under the eye of Western experts and everything in between.

Some young aircrews even had to brave weapons their forerunners had to dodge over Western Europe in 1942-45. Specifically, among the Communist military aid delivered to Hanoi was at least 70 former German Luftwaffe/Wehrmacht 88mm Flugabwehrkanone delivered to the NVA in the mid-1950s from Moscow.

The Flaks were withdrawn in the late 1960s as the supply of ammo, out of production since 1945, dwindled. However, if you told me there was a warehouse full of these around Hanoi, perfectly preserved, I would not be surprised.

The big 88s were delivered alongside boatloads of MG42 machine guns, Kar98K Mausers, MP40 submachine guns, and Walther P-38 pistols, which came with millions of rounds of 7.92mm and 9mm ammo, all complete with funny little dirty bird markings.

For American forces facing VC irregulars and NVA regulars on the ground, 1965 seemed a lot like 1945 in some ways, with former vintage Soviet, Japanese, and French small arms often captured in secondary amounts when compared to Warsaw Pact-supplied German trophies from WWII.

A lot of former German guns captured in the hands of VC in Vietnam showed signs of being arsenal re-worked and assembled post-1945 from several different firearms and parts, such as this MP40.

New-made Chinese Type 56 AKs didn’t become the standard until the war matured.

From Hush Puppy to Starsky & Hutch

In the late 1960s, Smith & Wesson started a project to provide Vietnam-deployed SEAL Teams with a modified S&W Model 39 9mm pistol that included a slide lock and threaded barrel for a suppressor as well as a 14+1 magazine capacity, a big jump from the Model 39’s standard 8+1 load.

The gun, intended for NSW use to silence sentries or their dogs, became dubbed the “Hush Puppy.”

Note the chest holster…Hush Puppy inside

Well, by 1971, Smith thought the basic model, sans suppressor-ready features, would make a good gun for LE and the consumer markets and introduced it as the more polished S&W Model 59, which soon saw some serious success in the hands of Disco-era police, including a regular appearance on cop shows of the era.

More in my column at Guns.com.

Last minutes of Saigon, 45 Years Ago today

29 April 1975: As NVA tanks were moving into the city, the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam, Graham Martin, sent the below telegram to National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, at the White House, during the evacuation of Saigon during the Vietnam War.

This primary source comes from the Collection GRF-0330: Backchannel Messages (Ford Administration). National Archives Identifier: 7367441

Martin states that he is, “well aware of the danger here tomorrow and I want to get out tonight.” He asks that the President send an order to finish the job quickly, evacuating the rest of the Americans and their children.

The American Ambassador to Vietnam resisted limiting the evacuation to Americans, as 10,000 locals were crowding the compound’s gates. In this cable he asks repeatedly for 30 CH-53 Sea Stallions:

“Perhaps you can tell me how to make some of these Americans abandon their half Vietnamese children?”

The helicopters did come, shuttling away the non-combatants all night. In all, some 7,000 people, mostly newly homeless refugees of the now-former South Vietnam, were airlifted from the Embassy complex by the Marines and from a series of other sites around Siagon by CIA-front company Air America.

A CH-46D, Swift 2-2, of HMM-164 lifted off with Marine detachment commander Major James Kean and the 10 remaining Marine Security Guards, leaving at 07:53 on 30 April. Just 37 minutes later Swift 2-2 landed on USS Okinawa (LPH-3) just offshore.

The last members of the Marine Security Guard land on USS Okinawa USMC Photo by GySgt Russ Thurman 

By noon, NVA regulars were in possession of the abandoned former U.S. Embassy. A mix of about 350 loyal Vietnamese employees and South Korean citizens still awaited a rescue that would not come.

The remains of MSG detachment 21-year-old Corporal Charles MCMAHON, Jr, 023 42 16 37, USMC; and 19-year-old Lance Corporal Darwin L. JUDGE, 479 70 89 99, USMC; killed on 29 April by an NVA rocket attack at the Tan Son Nut Airport, were, unfortunately, left behind during the withdrawal. They were later recovered via diplomatic means in 1976 and buried with full military honors.

Maj. Kean’s after-action report is available, here. 

Mekong Delta, or?

This 1985 photo of a Columbian marine participating in an amphibious/jungle assault during the joint US/South American Exercise UNITAS XXV, complete with his M1 helmet and M14 rifle, could almost be mistaken for a U.S. Marine in 1965 South Vietnam.

NARA photo DN-ST-85-08732

For reference:

1965: Marines from the 3d Battalion, 4th Marines take cover near Phu Bai Their patrol had just been fired upon by the VC USMC Photo A185701

Farewell, CSM Adkins

Alabama-born Special Forces Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie G. Adkins, MoH, was a man among green-faced men when in 1966 he was part of an A-team at Camp A Shau and the fit hit the proverbial shan.

As noted by the Army:

Command Sergeant Major Bennie G. Adkins distinguished himself during 38 hours of close-combat fighting against enemy forces on March 9 to 12, 1966. At that time, then-Sergeant First Class Adkins was serving as an Intelligence Sergeant with Detachment A-102, 5th Special Forces Group, 1st Special Forces at Camp “A Shau”, in the Republic of Vietnam.

When Camp A Shau was attacked by a large North Vietnamese force in the early morning hours of March 9th, Sergeant First Class Adkins rushed through intense enemy fire and manned a mortar position defending the camp. He continued to mount a defense even while incurring wounds from several direct hits from enemy mortars. Upon learning that several soldiers were wounded near the center of camp, he temporarily turned the mortar over to another soldier, ran through exploding mortar rounds and dragged several comrades to safety. As the hostile fire subsided, Adkins exposed himself to sporadic sniper fire and carried his wounded comrades to a more secure position at the camp dispensary.

Sergeant First Class Adkins exposed himself to enemy fire transporting a wounded casualty to an airstrip for evacuation. He and his group then came under heavy small-arms fire from members of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group that had defected to fight with the North Vietnamese. Despite this overwhelming force, Adkins maneuvered outside the camp to evacuate a seriously wounded American and draw fire away from the aircraft all the while successfully covering the rescue. Later, when a resupply air drop landed outside of the camp perimeter, Adkins again moved outside of the camp walls to retrieve the much-needed supplies.

During the early morning hours of March 10th, enemy forces launched their main assault. Within two hours, Sergeant First Class Adkins was the only defender firing a mortar weapon. When all mortar rounds were expended, Adkins began placing effective rifle fire upon enemy as they infiltrated the camp perimeter and assaulted his position. Despite receiving additional wounds from enemy rounds exploding on his position, Adkins fought off relentless waves of attacking North Vietnamese soldiers.

Adkins then withdrew to regroup with a smaller element of soldiers at the communications bunker. While there, he single-handedly eliminated numerous insurgents with small arms fire, almost completely exhausting his supply of ammunition. Braving intense enemy fire, he returned to the mortar pit, gathered vital ammunition and evaded fire while returning to the bunker. After the order was given to evacuate the camp, Sergeant First Class Adkins and a small group of soldiers destroyed all signal equipment and classified documents, dug their way out of the rear of the bunker, and fought their way out of the camp.

Because of his efforts to carry a wounded soldier to an extraction point and leave no one behind, Sergeant First Class Adkins and his group were unable to reach the last evacuation helicopter. Adkins then rallied the remaining survivors and led the group into the jungle – evading the enemy for 48 hours until they were rescued by helicopter on March 12th. During the 38-hour battle and 48-hours of escape and evasion, Adkins fought with mortars, machine guns, recoilless rifles, small arms, and hand grenades, killing an estimated 135 – 175 of the enemy and sustaining 18 different wounds. Sergeant First Class Adkins’ extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Detachment A-102, 5th Special Forces Group, 1st Special Forces and the United States Army.

Adkins, age 86, passed away this weekend, reportedly from complications of COVID-19.

In related news, while the Tomb Guards at Arlington are still walking post, the Old Guard is currently conducting Memorial operations while wearing masks, in accordance with Army and CDC guidelines.

Why not?

“There are socialists, communists, cubists, capitalists, Vichyists, fascists, meharistists, nudists, syndicalists, existentialists, lampisists, Marxists, monarchists, Gaullists, Bonapartists, violinists, pushers..etc.

If you’ve not made your mind up yet if you’re a man, why not become a parachutist?” –French military recruiting poster, 1950.

The French were actually one of the first countries to field paratroopers, after a group of officers studied with the Soviets in the 1930s, with the 601e G.I.A, forming in 1937. Continuing their service with the British during WWII as part of the SAS, the 1st Parachute Chasseur Battalion (1er BCP n°1) was formed in 1943.

During the Indochinese War, Paris organized almost a dozen Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian airborne battalions.

M1 Carbine/MAT-49-armed French/Viet paratroopers Indochina 1953. Also note the mix of camo to include former U.S. Marine Pacific-theater “duck hunter” HBTs. (Source: ecpad.fr) http://www.ecpad.fr/

These augmented an even larger force of Colonial Marine and French Foreign Legion units that raced all over Southeast Asia as a fire brigade to try and put out Viet Minh flareups.

French paratrooper, Indochina. You can notice his MAS 36 CR39 folding carbine and muddy reserve chute. He is collecting his main chute, note the camouflage pattern canopy. 

Some were rushed to Dien Bein Phu with their combat jump being the first time they hit the silk.

(Paracas del 2º BEP en Dien Bien Phu, 1954) French Foreign legion paratroopers during Operation Camargue, Quang Tri, Indochina, July 1953. (Source: ecpad.fr) http://www.ecpad.fr/

They kept up the trend in Algeria with the 14th and 19th Algerian Parachute (Parachutistes Algériens) battalions.

French Army Recruitment poster, the Algerian war, showing a Colonial Airborne paratrooper (Parachutistes Coloniaux). The poster reads, “my fortune is my glory, my trade is combat.” Note the MAT-49 SMG.

French Tunisia, Para légionnaires of the 1er REP left, and 10th Parachute, with Czech-made Mausers, a shotgun, and an M1 Garand with its buttstock covered in sacking

With the force shrinking after 1961– where the two airborne divisions (10e D.P and 25e D.P) along with the Legion’s 1e REP were all disbanded when they took part in the revolt against De Gaulle– today the Republic still has the 11th Parachute Brigade (11e BP), the French Foreign Legion’s 2nd Parachute Regiment (2ème REP), as well as the 2nd Marine Parachute Regiment (2e RPIMa) to call on.

Although they now use German-made rifles, because, why not?

Get to the choppa: Battlewagon edition

An SH-60B Sea Hawk helicopter is secured by flight deck crewmen aboard the battleship Iowa (BB-61) on 1 Sep 1985. Official USN photo # DN-ST-86-02511, by PHC Jeff Hilton,

The Iowa-class battleships received official helicopter pads and a helicopter control station below their after 5-inch director–although no hangar facilities– in the 1980s during their Lehman 600-ship Navy modernization.

The helicopter control station on the 02 level of the battleship Iowa (BB-61). Official USN photo # DN-ST-86-09557, by PH1 Jeff Hilton

They used them to host visiting Navy SH-60 and SH-2s, as well as the occasional Marine UH-1, CH-46, and CH-53 while also running their own early RQ-2A Pioneer UAV detachments–to which Iraqi units would later surrender to during the 1st Gulf War. 

Crew members aboard Iowa (BB-61) wait for a Helicopter Light Anti-Submarine Squadron 34 (HSL-34) SH-2F Seasprite helicopter to be secured before transporting a badly burned sailor injured during NATO exercise North Wedding 86. Official USN photo # DN-ST-87-00280, by PH1 Jeff Hilton

CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter approaches the landing area at the stern of the battleship USS IOWA (BB 61)

A CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter is parked on the helicopter pad during flight operations aboard the battleship USS IOWA (BB-61).

However, it by far was not the first time those dreadnoughts sported whirly-birds.

1948-55

Back in 1948, while the ships still had floatplane catapults and a quartet of Curtiss SC-2 Seahawk floatplanes on their stern, USS Missouri (BB-63) accommodated a visiting experimental Sikorsky S-51, piloted by D. D. (Jimmy) Viner, a chief test pilot for Sikorsky.

Sikorsky HO3S-1 helicopter (Bureau # 122527) landing on Missouri’s forward 16-inch gun turret, during the 1948 Midshipmen’s cruise. Guard mail, ships’ newspapers and personnel were exchanged via helicopter while the Midshipmen’s cruise squadron was at sea. Most exchanges were made by hovering pick-up. The forward turret was used as a landing platform since the floatplane catapults on the ship’s fantail prevented helicopters from operating there. The photo was filed on 13 September 1948. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Catalog #: 80-G-706093

With the cats deleted in the early 1950s, the Iowas saw more HO3s, now equipped with folding blade rotors and externally-mounted rescue hoists.

USS New Jersey (BB-62) A Sikorsky HO3S-1 helicopter of squadron HU-1 takes off from the battleship’s afterdeck, while she was operating off Korea. The upraised green flag signifies that the pilot has permission to take off. Crash crew, in yellow helmets, are standing by with fire hoses ready. This helicopter is Bureau # 124350. The photograph is dated 14 April 1953. The photographer is Lt. R.C. Timm. 80-G-K-16320

USS Iowa (BB-61) steams out of Wonsan harbor, Korea, after a day’s bombardment. The photograph is dated 18 April 1952. Note HO3S helicopter parked on the battleship’s after deck. Also, note the WWII catapults are deleted but the floatplane crane is still on her stern. NH 44537

USS Wisconsin (BB-64) snow falling on the battleship’s after deck, 8 February 1952, while she was serving with Task Force 77 in Korean waters. Note 16″/50cal guns of her after turret, and Sikorsky HO3S-1 helicopter parked on deck. Photographed by AF3c M.R. Adkinson. 80-G-441035

Vietnam

New Jersey also supported the occasional helicopter during her reactivation in the Vietnam war. Notably, she received 16-inch shells and powder tanks from USS Mount Katmai (AE-16) by H-34 helicopter lift, the first time heavy battleship ammunition had been transferred by helicopter at sea.

New Jersey (BB-62) underway off the Virginia Capes with an SH-3D Sea King from HS-3 “Tridents”, (attached to the Randolph CVS-15 and a squadron of CVSG-56), about to land on the fantail. However, it is more likely that the helicopter flew out to the “Big J” from NAS Norfolk. Official Navy Photograph # K-49736, taken by PH3 E. J. Bonner on 24 May 1968, via Navsource.

Two UH-1 Huey helicopters resting on the fantail of the New Jersey (BB-62) during her service in December 1968 off Vietnam. Courtesy of Howard Serig, via Navsource.

But wait, old boy

With all that being said, it should be pointed out that it was the Brits who first successfully used a helicopter on their last battlewagon, HMS Vanguard, in 1947, a full year before Missouri’s first rotor-wing visit.

Landing a Sikorsky R4 helicopter on the aft deck of the battleship Vanguard February 1, 1947

And Vanguard would go on to operate both RN FAA Westland WS-51 Dragonflies and USN Piasecki HUP-2s on occasion in the 1950s.

The more you know…

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 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 scene onboard 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 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)

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

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, 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.

Labs

Blood banks

Nutritionist-managed patient/crew meals

Orthopedic Spaces

ICU

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 at Los Angeles on 28 March

While USNS Comfort arrived in New York on 30 March

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