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
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Nutritionist-managed patient/crew meals
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
If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International
They are possibly one of the best sources of naval study, images, and fellowship you can find. http://www.warship.org/membership.htm
The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.
With more than 50 years of scholarship, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.
PRINT still has its place. If you LOVE warships you should belong.
I’m a member, so should you be!