An Overview of US Navy Hospital Ships

by LCDR Tom Burden, MSC, USN (Ret.)
Surgeon General, Naval Order of the United States

Part 1: Tripoli to The Spanish American War

Almost as long as there have been wars fought on or near waters there have been vessels used to care for casualties. Ancient history tells how the Romans used special boats to remove the sick and wounded. The United States, as did other countries with navies, also found a use for such ships.

During the Tripoli piracy era of 1803 and 1804, Commodore Preble designated the captured ketch Intrepid as a ship with hospital duties. Intrepid is better known, however as the ship that sneaked under the eyes of the enemy and blew up the Philadelphia held captive by the Tripolitans.

In 1859, the threat of yellow fever, an epidemic brought on by seamen returning from foreign ports, led to the first floating hospital in America. The infected sailors were turned away by the New York marine hospital, and it was necessary to find a place to treat them. A local physician, Dr. William Adison, recently returned from England where he had studied in the floating hospital ship Caledonian, suggested a similar vessel. After his idea was accepted, the port authorities voted funds to purchase the steamer Falcon. Her engines were removed, the deck was housed over, and other necessary facilities were installed. Fittingly enough the name was changed to the Florence Nightingale, and a number of patients were cared for aboard her.

USS Red Rover

During the Civil War, a captured side-wheel steamer named by its Confederate owner the Red Rover, proved to be the U.S. Navy's first hospital ship. This steamer was used originally as living quarters for the men manning the Confederate States' Floating Battery New Orleans. When New Orleans was bombarded by the Union’s Western Gunboat Flotilla in March 1862, the Red Rover was hit by a shell that pierced her top and slanted through all her decks to the bottom. Although she leaked considerably, the ship was in no danger of sinking. She was captured by the Union gunboat Mound City and almost immediately prepared as a floating hospital for the casualties of the North. Not long after her capture, the Red Rover became a haven for many injured men and officers of the apprehending gunboat. That summer, the ship was renovated by the Army Quartermaster Corps to include laundries, bathroom facilities, elevators to upper decks, operating rooms, nine water closets, separate kitchens for crew and patients, and gauze blinds to keep out smoke and cinders from the convalescents' berth deck. Enough stores were taken aboard for a crew and 200 patients for three months. This included 300 tons of ice. Commander Captain Alexander M. Pennock reported to his Flag officer, "The boat is supplied with everything necessary for the restoration of health for the disabled seamen."

On 11 June 1862, she received her first patient, a seaman from the gunboat Benton, a victim of cholera. At this time the Red Rover was really "half Army and half Navy," and it was only after the Illinois Prize Board sold her to the Navy that she could be called a Navy hospital ship. The reorganization and transfer of the Western Flotilla to the Navy helped to solidify this fact. She was commissioned in the Navy the day after Christmas, 1862.

The first vessel thus designated as a Navy hospital ship had a crew of twelve officers and thirty-five men, exclusive of the thirty surgeons and nurses aboard.  Not all of the nurses aboard were male. Four sisters of the Order of the Holy Cross came aboard that Christmas eve and were joined later by several other sisters and some black female nurses.

Unknowingly, this small group proved to be the pioneers of a Navy Nurse Corps which would be organized some fifty years later. Not only was this fledgling hospital ship kept busy with her patients, but she was also pressed into service as a store ship carrying medical supplies, ice, and provisions to the ships of the river fleet. With the establishment of a naval hospital at Memphis, Red Rover, was relieved of some of her duties. As the war between the states drew to a close, so did the need for the Red Rover and she was removed from the service 1 November 1865 and later sold at public auction.

Spanish-American War

Hospital ships are children of necessity, mothered and fathered by wars. The United States War with Spain near the end of the nineteenth century found several liners and cargo ships converted for use as floating hospitals. Two of these remained in naval service after this war, or at least their names were retained.

But first, two Army hospital ships, the MISSOURI and the OLIVETTE, are worthy of mention because of their deeds. The freighter Missouri, a steel ship of 320 feet with a 41-foot beam, initially operated under the British flag. She was a ship of humanitarian service long before she was converted and commissioned for hospital usage. On her second commercial voyage in a severe storm she answered a distress signal from the DENMARK out of Copenhagen bound for New York with a crew of 170 and 665 passengers, nearly all immigrants to a new land. The MISSOURI's captain attempted to tow the disabled vessel but found it impossible because of the ice. The Danish ship finally signaled, "Am sinking; take off my people."

"And Every Soul Was Saved" by Thomas M. M. Hemy

With accommodations for only twenty extra people, CAPT Murrell of the MISSOURI jettisoned his cargo to make space for the rescued passengers. First the babies, twenty-two of them, were brought aboard by lifeboat in the raging, icy seas. The little girls were next; one delayed the lifeboat by running back aboard the sinking Denmark to retrieve a loved one - a forgotten rag doll. Then the women; one was pregnant and gave birth to a daughter named Atlanta MISSOURI Linne before she set foot in her new homeland. The husbands and sons followed; and in the last boat, the officers of the doomed ship. Thomas M. M. Hemy, an artist of the National Academy depicted the deed, appropriately titled, "And Every Soul Was Saved."

As if this heroic deed was not enough, the MISSOURI continued on her errands of mercy by carrying cargoes of flour and corn to the starving Russians during the famines of 1891 and 1892. Later she rescued the steamship DELAWARE and towed her to Halifax. She also towed the foundering BERTHA to Barry, England.

The MISSOURI was offered to the Surgeon General of the Army by her owner B. M. Baker of Baltimore for use in the Spanish-American conflict. She was readily accepted. When the British colors were hauled down, the officers who were mostly British, applied for American citizenship and the Stars and Stripes was raised.

Following the example of Mr. Baker, patriotic societies such as the Red Cross, Daughters of the American Revolution, Colonial Dames, and Women's National Relief Association, donated such items as refrigeration plants, steam laundries, motor launches, etc. All these, plus the stocking of the library with 10,000 books and magazines by Wall Street capitalists, made the MISSOURI even more effective as a floating hospital. Although without the public glamor of her earlier benevolences, the MISSOURI continued her life saving efforts as a hospital ship during our war with Spain.

The OLIVETTE was also a transformed commercial steamer. It served with early landings in Cuba. At the end of the skirmish she received Admiral Cervera, Commandant of the Spanish fleet with many of his officers and men. Some of them were severely wounded and were taken from his flagship, the MARIA THERESA.

Realizing the success of the Red Rover as a floating hospital, the U.S. Navy made more extensive use of hospital ships in this war with Spain. The SOLACE was purchased from Cromwell Steam Ship Lines where she had been in service to the West Indies as the S.S. CREOLE. Through accelerated wartime efforts of the shipyards and a donation from the Red Cross committee, the ship was converted for hospital duties in 16 days. After her Navy wartime service, she was pressed into Army transport work, sailing between the West Coast and the Philippines.

In 1909 a great amount of super-structure was added to carry antennae. With only a 44-foot beam and 377-foot length, she rolled excessively. Sometime between 1912 and 1914 her height was lowered and, it was rumored, some 200 Civil War cannon were embedded in concrete to counteract the roll. This story, repeated in wardroom and forecastle throughout the fleet made a hospital ship "the most heavily gunned in the Navy." After service in World War I, the SOLACE was decommissioned.

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Part 2: World War I

During the First World War, many hospital ships were attacked, both on purpose or by mistaken identity. They were sunk by either torpedo, mine or surface attack. They were easy as well as tragic targets, since they carried hundreds of wounded soldiers from the front lines.

A hospital ship (HS) is designated for primary function as a medical treatment facility or hospital; most are operated by the military forces or navies of various countries around the world, as they are intended to be used in or near war zones. Hospital ships were covered under The Hague Convention X of 1907. Article four of The Hague Convention X outlined the restrictions for a hospital ship:

  • The ship should give medical assistance to wounded personnel of all nationalities
  • The ship must not be used for any military purpose
  • Ships must not interfere or hamper enemy combatant vessels
  • Belligerents as designated by The Hague Convention can search any hospital ship to investigate violations of the above restrictions.

If any of the restrictions were violated, the ship could be determined as an enemy combatant and be sunk. Investigators from neutral countries like Spain were allowed to inspect hospital ships to confirm that Article Four wasn't being violated.

Hospital ships display large Red Crosses or Red Crescents. The high command of Imperial German viewed allied hospital ships as violating The Hague Convention and ordered its submarine forces to target them as part of their unrestricted submarine warfare on allied shipping. Even with the inspections from neutral countries the German High command alleged that hospital ships were violating Article Four by transporting able-bodied soldiers to the battleground.

HMHS Britannic

The biggest hospital ship sunk by either mine or torpedo in the First World War was HMHS Britannic, the sister of Olympic and the ill-fated Titanic. Britannic hit a mine on 21 November 1916; 30 people were killed, but the rest of the crew and passengers were able to escape.

The largest loss of life caused by the sinking of a hospital ship would be Llandovery Castle. The ship was hit by a torpedo from the German U-boat U-86 on 27 June 1918. Shortly thereafter, the submarine surfaced and gunned down most of the survivors; only 24 were rescued.

After the war, the captain of U-86, Lieutenant Helmut Patzig, and two of his lieutenants were charged with war crimes and arraigned for trial, but Patzig disappeared, and the two lieutenants both escaped after being convicted and sentenced to prison.

The Allies weren't the only ones who had their ships attacked at the beginning of the war, the German hospital ship Ophelia was seized by British naval forces as a spy ship and near the close of the war the Austrian hospital ship Baron Call was unsuccessfully attacked by torpedo on 29 October 1918.

The USAHS Relief and the second USS Relief was a hospital ship in, respectively, the United States Army and the United States Navy. She was later named USS Repose. Relief was built for the Maine Steamship Company in 1895–96 by the Delaware River Iron Ship Building and Engine Works of Chester, Pennsylvania as the passenger ship John Englis. A sister ship, Horatio Hall, was also constructed for the company at about the same time. The two vessels were powered by triple expansion steam engines operating at 180 lbs of steam pressure, and were capable of making 16 knots in favorable conditions. Their passenger accommodations, which included dining salons on the upper deck, were said to be "very fine".

John Englis was completed in December 1896 and was placed on the New York–Maine route, in which she is said to have been well patronized. In 1898 however, the Spanish-American War broke out, and John Englis was purchased by the United States Army for use as a hospital ship. Renamed Relief the ship was found to have insufficient coal capacity for safe trans-Pacific navigation and was confined to Philippine waters based in Manila where, as of 1 January 1900, she was reported to be a "floating hospital" with 107 sick and wounded after a trip to outlying areas.

Nurses and patients aboard USS Relief

The ship was transferred to the U.S. Navy 13 November 1902. Relief remained inactive into 1908 at Mare Island Navy Yard while factions within the Navy debated whether she should be commanded by a line officer or a medical officer. President Theodore Roosevelt's desire that a hospital ship accompany the Great White Fleet on its round-the-world voyage led to his endorsement of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery viewpoint. Accordingly, Relief was commissioned at Mare Island Navy Yard 6 February 1908, Surgeon Charles F. Stokes, USN, in command.

Departing San Francisco Bay 22 March 1908, Relief met the fleet in Magdalena Bay, Mexico, embarking patients for return to San Francisco. Relief rejoined the fleet at San Diego and remained with it while crossing the Pacific Ocean. Relief's staff provided expert medical care, treatment, and consultations for the more than 14,000 officers and men of the Great White Fleet until detached in November 1908 at Olongapo, Philippines.

Ordered to return to the U.S. west coast, Relief departed Cavite 14 November 1908 but suffered serious damage in a typhoon on the night of 18 and 19 November. Returning to Cavite, the hospital ship was subsequently found to be unseaworthy by an official survey and became a stationary, floating hospital and dispensary. Relief continued in service as a floating hospital at Olongapo, Philippines, through World War I, although decommissioned 10 June 1910. Her name was changed 11 April 1918 to Repose to allow that of Relief to be assigned to USS Relief (AH-1), a new hospital ship under construction at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

Repose was sold 15 May 1919 at Olongapo and entered mercantile service under the same name after repairs. She subsequently served under foreign flags as Hai Ning and Mindanao until transferred to Philippine registry during 1937 and named Lanao. Her fate during World War II is unknown.

USHS Comfort (AH-3)

USHS Comfort (AH-3) was a hospital ship for the United States Navy in World War I. She was the sister ship of USS Mercy (AH-4) but the two ships were not of a ship class. Comfort was known as SS Havana in passenger service for the Ward Line, and as USAT Havana in United States Army service before her Navy service. Her name was restored to Havana in 1927, and she was renamed SS Yucatán in 1935, and SS Agwileon in 1941. In World War II, she was known as USAT Agwileon and USAHS Shamrock in service for the United States Army.

Launched in 1906, SS Havana was a passenger steamer for the Ward Line on the New York–Havana route from 1907-1917. Before being purchased by the Navy, the ship briefly served as United States Army transport ship USAT Havana and was in the first U.S. convoy of ships to sail for France during World War I. In her Navy career, Comfort made three transatlantic voyages, bringing home over 1,100 men from European ports. Comfort was placed in reserve in September 1919, decommissioned in 1921, and sold in April 1925.

The former hospital ship was repurchased by the Ward Line in 1927, who refitted her and placed her back in service on the Havana route under her original name of Havana. In January 1935, Havana grounded on a reef north of The Bahamas and remained there for three months. After being refloated and repaired, she was placed back in service as SS Yucatán in June. In 1940 the ship was removed from passenger service to be converted into a freighter. After capsizing in port in 1941, the ship was again refloated and renamed SS Agwileon.

Under a bareboat charter by the United States Maritime Commission, Agwileon carried civilian technicians and advisors to Sierra Leone for the U.S. Army. In November 1942, the ship was taken over by the Army as USAT Agwileon and converted to a troopship, making one trip in that capacity. In June 1943, the ship was selected for conversion to an Army hospital ship, and was renamed USAHS Shamrock. Operating locally in the Mediterranean for most of her career, the ship had transported almost 18,000 patients by September 1944. The ship was converted for use in the Pacific Theatre, but not before the war ended. The ship was placed in reserve in February 1946, and was scrapped in February 1948.

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Part 3: World War II

The Comfort class hospital ship was a United States Navy World War II-era hospital ship design. Three vessels - USS Comfort (AH-6), USS Hope (AH-7), USS Mercy (AH-8) - were made using these specifications. All ships were constructed in 1943 by the Consolidated Steel Corporation before being decommissioned in 1946.  These ships, unlike the Navy hospital ships, were intended for evacuation and transport of patients after primary care had been given. Medical equipment and personnel were provided by the Army. The Comfort operated with a navy crew and army medical personnel throughout its short career. All three ships of the class operated exclusively in the Pacific theater for the three years in which they were in service.  The Army medical complement table of organization provided for the temporary reinforcement of the staff if the ship directly supported amphibious operations.

USS Comfort (AH-6) crew and medical staff pose on deck prior to departing for the war zone on 29 May 1944 from San Pedro, California.

Comfort operated throughout WWII with a Navy crew and Army medical personnel. She sailed from San Pedro, 21 June 1944 for Brisbane, Australia, and Hollandia, New Guinea. Operating from Hollandia, where a major Army hospital center had been established to handle casualties from the Philippine operations, the hospital ship evacuated wounded from Leyte, Philippine Islands on two voyages in October and November and then brought patients back to San Pedro, California, in December. Returning by way of Leyte, Comfort reached Hollandia 6 February 1945. Following a voyage to Subic Bay and Lingayen Gulf, Luzon, for evacuees in March, the hospital ship stood by off Okinawa from 2 to 9 April, receiving wounded for evacuation to Guam.

Returning to Okinawa 23 April, six days later she was struck by a Japanese suicide plane. The plane crashed through three decks exploding in surgery which was filled with medical personnel and patients. Casualties were 28 killed (including six nurses), and 48 wounded, with considerable damage to the ship. After temporary repairs at Guam, Comfort sailed for Los Angeles, arriving 28 May.

A nurse surveying kamikaze damage in April 1945.

Comfort arrived in Subic Bay 5 September 1945 and until 11 October served as station hospital ship. Following a voyage to Okinawa, she sailed for home by way of Yokohama, Japan, and Guam, reaching San Pedro on 11 December. She made another voyage to Manila, Yokohama, Inchon, Korea, and Okinawa between 1 January and 4 March 1946 before being decommissioned at San Francisco 19 April 1946. She was transferred to the Army the same day.

Comfort was loaned to the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, Maine in 1953, serving as one of the school’s training ships TS State of Maine until 1963.

Hope (AH-7) was launched 30 August 1943; sponsored by Miss Martha L. Floyd; acquired by the Navy the same day for conversion to a hospital ship by U.S. Naval Dry Dock, Terminal Island and commissioned 15 August 1944, Commander A. E. Richards in command.

Hope completed her shakedown cruise and sailed 23 September 1944 to render medical care during the climactic phase of the campaign against Japan. Steaming via Pearl Harbor and Manus, the ship arrived Kossol Passage, in the Palaus, and received soldiers wounded taking the islands of the group.

American soldiers, supported by a vast naval task force, returned to the Philippines 20 October. Hope arrived in Leyte Gulf 7 November, to care for casualties and evacuated them to Hollandia. Thereafter the ship made four more voyages to Leyte to evacuate wounded. During the morning of 3 December she was followed by a Japanese submarine, and that afternoon was attacked unsuccessfully by a torpedo plane. Three days later, as she steamed toward Manus, the hospital was again attacked by aircraft. One bomb was dropped close aboard but no damage resulted. Continuing to evacuate wounded from the Philippines, Hope arrived Subic Bay 16 February 1945, just as paratroopers landed on Corregidor. The ship sailed on to Lingayen Gulf for evacuation, and sailed from Leyte 6 March for Ulithi.

 Hope sailed 9 April to take part in the Okinawa operation, arriving off the bitterly contested island 4 days later. During the next month she shuttled between Saipan and Okinawa, often under attack despite her distinctive markings. As Japanese suicide planes attempted vainly to stop the invasion, Hope assisted in rescuing sailors from damaged ships and embarked wounded soldiers. Departing 12 May 1945, the ship moved back to the Philippines and arrived 3 July at Tarakan Island to assist, if needed, in the evacuation of Australian casualties in the invasion of Balikpapan. She then returned to the Philippines, greeting the surrender of Japan 15 August at Manila Bay. Much medical and evacuation work remained to be done, however, and Hope sailed 20 August for Okinawa and Japan, arriving Wakayama 22 September to assist in the occupation. She sailed 22 October with returnees, arriving San Francisco 15 November, and subsequently made two more voyages to Guam and the Philippines to bring back the sick and wounded. Hope returned to San Francisco 22 March 1946 and decommissioned 9 May 1946. From 1946 to 1950 she was in custody of the War Department.

The Hope (AH-7) is not to be confused with the USS Consolation (AH-15), in service from 1945 to 1975, and operated by Project HOPE between March 1960 and September 1974 under charter as the civilian hospital ship Hope. It completed 11 voyages between 1960 and 1973, traveling to Indonesia, South Vietnam, Peru, Ecuador, Guinea, Nicaragua, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Jamaica, and Brazil.


After shakedown beginning 17 August, Mercy, staffed by the U.S. Army's 214th Hospital Ship personnel, was assigned to NTS to operate with the 5th and 7th Fleets. She departed San Pedro 31 August for the South Pacific and, after calls at Pearl Harbor and Eniwetok, arrived Hollandia, New Guinea, 14 October. Five days later the hospital ship departed for the Philippines for the initial landing at Leyte on 20 October, arriving off Leyte Gulf the morning of 25 October to find the Battle for Leyte Gulf still raging for another day.

Mercy moved to San Pedro Bay later the same day and began embarking some 400 casualties, mostly from LSTs alongside. On 26 October she sailed for the Admiralties, via Kossol Roads, Palau, Caroline Islands, arriving at Manus to disembark the wounded for transfer to base hospitals. During the next five months, Mercy completed seven more voyages from Leyte to Manus, or Hollandia. She also transported the 3rd Field Hospital from New Guinea to Tacloban, Philippines, early in January 1945.


On 19 March, Mercy reported to the 5th Fleet at Ulithi, Caroline Islands, for service during the Okinawa campaign, beginning with the landings 1 April. She arrived off Okinawa the morning of

19 April in company with USS Solace (AH-5) to remain for four days at Hagushi Beach embarking patients despite frequent air raids and threat of kamikazes. The hospital ship then got underway for Saipan, Marianas Islands, 23 April. She made two more voyages to Okinawa, returning from the latter to Saipan 24 May.

Mercy next carried wounded from Leyte and Manila on two voyages to Biak, returning to Manila on 23 June for two months' duty as station hospital ship. On 19 August she embarked the 227th Station Hospital assigned to the Korean Occupation Forces, and three days later departed for Korea via Okinawa, arriving Jinsen 9 September.

On 19 October the hospital ship departed for Manila and San Pedro, California, arriving 14 November. She got underway for the central Pacific 4 February 1946, arriving Pearl Harbor on 12 February for duty until 2 April when she returned to California.

Mercy decommissioned at San Francisco, California, 17 May, was delivered to the War Department the same day, and transferred to the U.S. Army 20 June for further service as a hospital ship. On 25 September 1946, she was struck from the Naval Vessel Register.

Haven-class ships

Although not placed in service until June 1944, the Haven class of U.S. Navy hospital ships was built to support World War II. Haven-class ships also served in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. They were among the first ships to be able to receive casualties directly by helicopter and were the first fully air conditioned ships in the U.S. Navy.

The first ship was laid down in July 1943, while the last was launched in August 1944. In that span the U.S. produced six Haven-class hospital ships. The class was based upon the Maritime Commission’s Type C4 ship (as C4-S-B2 design).

The last Haven-class ship was struck from the Naval Vessel Register in 1989. One ship sank in a collision in 1950; four others have been scrapped. The last Haven-class ship, the ex-USS Sanctuary (AH-17) was scrapped in 2011.

  • USS Haven (AH-12) — lead ship of class; used in Operation Crossroads and Korean War
  • USS Benevolence (AH-13) — present for Surrender of Japan; sunk 1950 off California coast after collision
  • USS Tranquility (AH-14)
  • USS Consolation (AH-15) — first hospital ship to receive casualties directly by helicopter
  • USS Repose (AH-16) — last Haven class to be decommissioned; processed 9,000 battle casualties
  • during the Vietnam War
  • USS Sanctuary (AH-17) — scrapped in 2011, due to asbestos concerns

Repose (AH-16) was a Haven-class hospital ship in service with the United States Navy, active from May 1945 to January 1950, from October 1950 to December 1954, and from October 1965 to May 1970. After another five years in reserve, she was sold for scrap in 1975.

Repose (AH-16) was built as Marine Beaver a Type C4 class ship in 1943 by Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock Co., Chester, Pennsylvania. 11,141 tons. 520 x 71.6 x 24. 18.7 knots. She was launched 8 August 1944; sponsored by Mrs. Pauline P. McIntire; and acquired for conversion to a hospital ship by Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation, in Brooklyn, New York. Upon completion of her conversion to navy use, she was commissioned 26 May 1945, Captain William O. Britton in command.

With a bed capacity of 750 and a complement of 564, the Repose departed Norfolk on 8 July 1945 for the Pacific. Serving as a casualty transport from various ports in the Pacific Ocean, the Repose also served as a base hospital ship in Shanghai and later Tsingtao, China supporting the occupation forces in northern China. Repose remained in Asian waters, with an occasional return trip to the States until July 1949. She was decommissioned, in reserve, at San Francisco on 19 January 1950.

USS Sanctuary (AH-17) was a Haven-class hospital ship that served in the U.S. Navy in World War II and the Vietnam War. Sanctuary was laid down as SS Marine Owl by the Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co., Chester, Pennsylvania; launched as Sanctuary (AH-17) on 15 August 1944; sponsored by Mrs. Alda Andrus; and delivered on 30 September 1944. Subsequently converted to a hospital ship by the Todd Shipbuilding Co., at Hoboken, New Jersey, whose citizens matched the cost of conversion with the purchase of war bonds. She was commissioned on 20 June 1945, Commander John M. Paulsson, USNR, in command of the ship; Captain Oscar Davis, MC, USN, in charge of the medical department.

World War II

Following the shakedown, Sanctuary departed Norfolk on 31 July for the Pacific. She arrived at Pearl Harbor four days after the Japanese acceptance of surrender terms and, on 22 August, continued on to the Far East to assist in the repatriation of former POWs.

Proceeding via Okinawa, Sanctuary arrived off Wakayama in Task Group 56.5 on 11 September; then waited as minecraft cleared the channels. On the afternoon of the 13th, she commenced taking on sick, injured, and ambulatory cases. By 03:00 on the 14th, she had exceeded her rated bed capacity of 786. A call was put out to the fleet requesting cots. The request was answered; and, seven hours later, she sailed for Okinawa with 1,139 liberated POWs, primarily British, Australian, and Javanese, embarked for the first leg of their journey home. Despite a typhoon encountered en route, Sanctuary delivered her charges safely to Army personnel at Naha; and, by the 21st, was underway for Nagasaki. Arriving on the 22nd, she embarked more ex-POWs; then loaded military personnel rotating back to the United States and steamed for Naha. On the 25th, she discharged her liberated prisoners; then shifted to Buckner Bay. A typhoon warning next sent her to sea; but she returned three days later; took on 439 civilian repatriates, including some 40 children under the age of ten, and military repatriates and passengers; and set a course for Guam. There, she exchanged passengers for patients; then continued on to San Francisco, arriving on 22 October.

Between 18 November and 17 December, Sanctuary completed a run to Saipan and Guam, and back to San Francisco. During late December 1945 and January 1946, she made two round trips between California and Hawaii. On 7 February, she departed San Francisco for Philadelphia and deactivation. She arrived at League Island on 1 March and was decommissioned on 15 August. For the next 15 years, she was berthed with the Atlantic Reserve Fleet: on 1 September 1961 her name was stricken from the Navy list, and she was transferred to the Maritime Administration for berthing with the National Defense Reserve Fleet.

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Part 4: Korea to Present


Having been decommissioned at the end of World War II and laid up in reserve at San Francisco on 19 January 1950, USS Repose was shortly brought back into service in support of Korean hostilities.  She was activated on 26 August 1950 and sailed for Pusan, Korea picking up a navy crew in Yokosuka, Japan en route. Serving in Korean waters and evacuating patients to Japanese ports as necessary, Repose remained on station until early 1954 with a short repair period in San Francisco from February to March 1953 and the installation of a helicopter landing pad. She remained at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard until her transfer to the Naval Reserve Fleet on 27 September 1954. She was decommissioned on 21 December 1954 at Hunters Point Naval Ship Yard.  


After nearly 11 years in reserve at Suisun Bay, Repose was recommissioned on 16 October 1965 for service in Vietnam. Repose sailed in December with fourteen Navy nurses on board. Arriving off the coast of the Hue-Phu-Bai area on 3 January 1966, she was permanently deployed to Southeast Asia and earned the nickname “Angel of the Orient.” By late March, the full complement of 29 nurses was on board. During intense fighting, as many as 200 admissions in a 24-hour period were brought from the battlefield by helicopter. In May 1970, Repose departed the South China Sea and was decommissioned at Long Beach, California, serving in reserve commission as a shore based hospital.

Operating mainly in the I Corps area, she treated over 9,000 battle casualties and 24,000 inpatients while deployed. Notably, Repose was on station during the 1967 USS Forrestal fire that killed 134 sailors and injured 161. Her medical staff also treated legendary marksman, Staff Sergeant Carlos Hathcock, in September 1969 after he and seven other US Marines suffered extensive burns from an anti-tank mine blast. The Repose departed Vietnam 14 March 1970 and was decommissioned in May 1970 and used as a hospital annex for Long Beach Naval Hospital. This proved uneconomical, and she was sold for scrap in 1975.

USS Repose on station during 1967 USS Forrestal fire

Amid the anguish, suffering, and tragedy of receiving casualties aboard Repose, a bonding developed among all crew members, unlike any I had ever experienced before or since Vietnam. Crew members, whether ship’s company or hospital personnel, truly cared about the patients. Compassion and charity were every day norms. There was the usual griping, that’s part of being at sea, but never at or because of the patients. They were the center of our existence. The patients gave of themselves, to the point of heroism. It was commonplace for a Marine casualty to urge the medical staff, “Take care of my buddy first.” “Such examples of caring and love for one’s fellow man were overwhelming, and encouraged us in times of discouragement.”
Frances Shea Buckley, USS Repose, March 1968-March 1969)

On 1 March 1966, USS Sanctuary was reacquired by the Navy and reinstated on the Navy list. Towed to Louisiana, she was modernized at the Avondale Shipyards, Westwego; and was re-commissioned at New Orleans on 15 November 1966, CAPT John F. Collingwood, USN, commanding and CAPT Gerald J. Duffner, MC, USN, commanding Naval Hospital in Sanctuary.

Navy nurse and patients aboard USS Sanctuary in the 1960s

Modernization had given her a heliport, three x-ray units, a blood bank, an artificial kidney machine, ultrasonic diagnostic equipment, a recompression chamber and other modern equipment, medical, culinary, laundry, etc., to supplement her 20 wards and four operating rooms. Three hundred and sixteen medical personnel were assigned to staff the Naval Hospital. Her mission had shifted in emphasis: from that of an “ambulance” ship carrying wounded and sick to hospitals in rear areas, to that of a fully equipped hospital carrying medical facilities close to the combat area.

On 8 March 1967, Sanctuary departed San Francisco for the Far East. On 2 April, she joined the 7th Fleet at Subic Bay. On the 10th, she arrived at Da Nang, South Vietnam. “SANCTUARY received WIA casualties directly from the field, sick and wounded who had received prior treatment at shore medical facilities, and sick and wounded that required special treatment not available ashore.” That afternoon she took on her first casualties – ten marines badly burned when their amphibious tank detonated a land mine, which, in turn, had exploded the gasoline tank. By midnight, 136 patients had been received. By the end of April, she had admitted 717 patients – 319 combat casualties, 72 non-combat injuries, 326 suffering from various diseases – and treated 682 outpatients. Only two of her patients died.

Navy nurse aboard the USS Sanctuary in the 1960s

Assigned to duty off South Vietnam on a non-rotating basis, Sanctuary began her extended overseas tour spending a minimum of 50 days operating on the line each quarter, followed by an availability and upkeep period at Subic Bay. By April 1968, after a year on that schedule, she had admitted 5,354 patients and treated another 9,187 on an outpatient basis. Helicopters, bringing patients from the battlefield, transferring them from and to other medical facilities, or carrying passengers to and from the ship, had made more than 2,500 landings on her deck.

The following month, Sanctuary’s schedule was changed to 90-day on-the-line periods. Her operating area and her itinerary on the line, however, remained the same. She continued to operate off the I Corps Tactical area, the northern provinces of South Vietnam; and, for the most part, rotated between stations, such as Da Nang, Phu Bai, Chu Lai, and Dong Ha, every two to four days as needed by the marines fighting ashore.

Occasionally granted brief rest and recreation out of the area (five days in Subic Bay plus travel time there and back), Sanctuary — the only Navy hospital off Vietnam after 16 March 1970 – maintained her busy schedule to that date and increased it thereafter through 1970 and into 1971 during which time she was scheduled for 120-day on-the-line schedules. On 23 April 1971, she departed Da Nang for the last time. During May, she visited Hong Kong and called at Sasebo; then sailed for Pearl Harbor and San Francisco, where she arrived on 10 June.

The Blood of Heroes
I cared for each as though my brother.
No time to cry, must tend to another, and another....

Time has passed; I still recall
Your courage, your struggle and your fall.
Rest in peace, your war now done;
How brief your life—as the setting sun....

(Helen DeCrane Roth, ’68)

If the American people could only have experienced what it felt like to be present when our young men were dying, they would not have to ask me - should you have gone to Vietnam?

To be the last human being to whisper some words of comfort into their ear, the last one to touch their cold hand or wipe their forehead, was a privilege afforded to me.
(Juel A. Loughney, USS Sanctuary, March ’68-’69)


In commission, in reserve, as of 31 August 1971, Sanctuary was decommissioned on 15 December. The next 11 months were spent at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard where she was converted for use as a dependents’ hospital and as a commissary/Navy exchange retail store. Another change brought the assignment of two women officers and 60 enlisted women to the ship for other than medical duties, and, on recommissioning on 18 November 1972, she became the first United States Navy ship with a mixed male–female ship’s company.

Sanctuary remained in Hunters Point Naval Shipyard until late January 1973, when she put to sea for two weeks of refresher training. She returned to Hunters Point on 22 February and remained berthed until 16 August, when she got underway for two days cruising. Returning to San Francisco on the 17th, Sanctuary began a period of restricted availability during which her propulsion system was converted to Navy Distillate Fuel.

After several weeks of preparation, she got underway, in mid-September 1973, for a three-month goodwill cruise to South America. She went through the Panama Canal where there was a brief liberty call. On this mission, sponsored by the State Department, Sanctuary assisted the peoples of Colombia and Haiti in three distinct areas: medical aid, material aid (by delivering over $500,000 worth of non-monetary donations), and civic action projects (civil engineering projects). She visited Buena Ventura, Colombia, from 12 October to 6 November and stopped at Port-au-Prince, Haiti, from 13 November until early December. She arrived at Mayport, Florida, her new home port, on 14 December 1973 and remained there for the duration of the year. Sanctuary was a success at having the mixed ship’s company. They showed that both male and female sailors could do the job.

Sanctuary earned eleven battle stars for service in the Vietnam War.


In 1989, the Navy sold ex-Sanctuary for $10 to a group called Life International. Four years later, Life International transferred the vessel to Project Life, Inc., which planned to convert the ship into a training center for recovering drug addicts. Unable to reach an agreement with the Maryland Port Authority (MPA) for use of a pier, in 1998, Project Life sued the MPA, accusing it of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. The MPA lost the suit and in 2001, Project Life was awarded a five-year lease at Baltimore’s North Locust Point Marine Terminal. In February 2007, eight months after Project Life's lease ended, the dilapidated ship broke its moorings and was adrift in Baltimore Harbor. The MPA sued Project Life for over $100,000 in back rents and fees incurred to secure the vessel.


Ex-Sanctuary was sold at public auction in Baltimore for $50,000 to Potomac Navigation, Inc. on 21 August 2007. Potomac intended to tow the ship to Greece for evaluation as a hotel or storage facility, however in November 2007 ex-Sanctuary’s departure was blocked by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pending testing for PCBs. International Shipbreaking of Texas had considered bidding on the ship during the August auction for scrapping, but declined after its testing indicated high levels of PCBs. The original bill of sale indicated the ship also contained asbestos in the early 1990s. Potomac Navigation’s testing showed much lower PCB levels. The Baltimore Sun reported that the ship could be taken overseas and sold for scrap regardless of PCB content and yielding a profit of $3 million while endangering the environment. Ex-Sanctuary was towed out of Baltimore on 17 August 2011. The eventual owner, Potomac Navigation sold her to be scrapped by ESCO Marine in Brownsville, Texas.



Today, the Navy operates two dedicated hospital ships, the USNS Mercy (T-AH-19). and the USNS Comfort (T-AH-20). Both ships were converted from San Clemente-class supertankers. Mercy was on line in 1986 and Comfort launched in 1987. They are huge, equivalent to the height of a 10-story building and the length of three football fields. Both serve as 70,000-metric-ton symbols of how much America cares as a nation and as a people. If a tanker can be transformed into a symbol of hope, consider how the Mercy and Comfort transform the health-care professionals aboard.

USNS Mercy


When not in use, these ships operate with a skeleton crew. But in as little as five days, each can be converted into a 250-, 500- or 1,000-bed mobile hospital with a crew of 1,200 Navy physicians, nurses, corpsmen, technicians and support staff. These are some of the most highly trained medical personnel in the world – working together as only a Navy crew can – with the skills to handle primary, trauma, pediatric, and orthopedic care. Each ship has 12 operating rooms, with specialized trauma centers and post care-unit beds included.

It is amazing what can be accomplished medically on these ships, both for military personnel and civilians. No wonder these two ships have become a symbol of hope around the globe whenever disaster strikes.


Stationed in San Diego, California, Mercy primarily operates in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Her inaugural mission in 1987 was a humanitarian cruise to the Philippines and South Pacific. Her first military mission was serving coalition troops in the first Gulf War. The first disaster relief came in the wake of the 2004 tsunami as Operation Unified Assistance. Her latest was in 2013, when she came to the aid of the Philippines and other nations in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.

In 2006, Mercy became part of a larger, ongoing mission: the Pacific Partnership. Every two years since, she heads out to areas in the Pacific where medical care is scarce and hard to come by. Mercy has treated over 400,000 patients since the Pacific Partnership launched.


Stationed out of Norfolk, Virginia, Comfort handles the other side of the world from Mercy, primarily in the Caribbean and Latin America. Her first mission was a combat one: serving coalition troops off the coast of Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. Her first humanitarian missions both happened in 1994, keeping her busy helping our Haitian and Cuban immigrants looking to come to America.

Her most famous mission may have been Noble Eagle in the aftermath of 9/11. Comfort was activated and send to Manhattan to provide medical and mental services. Comfort headed into combat again for Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2005 she was back saving American citizens following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Her latest disaster relief mission was in 2010, in response to the massive Haiti earthquake.

Just like Mercy, Comfort engages in ongoing humanitarian projects. Partnership for the Americas started in 2007 and visits up to 12 nations with Caribbean Ocean coastlines. Continuing Promise was launched in 2011, visiting even more nations in the Caribbean, Central and South America.

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Naval History and Heritage Command
Navy Medicine in Vietnam: Oral Histories from Dien Bien Phu to the fall of Saigon, Jan K. Herman, 2009
Wikimedia Commons
Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships
Sea Classics, March 1973,