Maritime History Notes: America’s hospital ships

In the past few weeks, there have been numerous media reports about the two hospital ships, the USNS Comfort and the USNS Mercy. They are the two largest hospital ships in the world. However, both started their service as crude oil tankers.

The ancient Greeks earn the credit for having the first dedicated hospital ship, Therapia, which served in the Athenian navy. The Romans were not far behind, also having a fleet of hospital ships, the first one believed to be named Aesculapius.

Since those early days, hospital ships of various descriptions were part of most naval fleets. What is believed to be the first British hospital ship was the Goodwill, built in 1608.

Over time, most naval ships carried a surgeon or a surgeon’s mate. One of the most famous ship surgeons was Dr. Amos Evans of the USS Constitution, which is known as “Old Ironsides.” Dedicated hospital ships became a permanent part of the U.S. fleet during the Barbary War when Commander Edward Preble ordered the USS Intrepid, a wooden-hulled bomb ketch, to be converted in 1803.

In preparation for the Spanish-American War, the U.S. Navy received its first steam-powered hospital ship, USS Solace, and the Army received its first, the Relief, both in 1898.

By the start of the 20th century, many countries had hospital ships, most of which were converted from passenger or cargo ships. The most famous of those was the sister of the Titanic, named the Britannic. Like its infamous sister, the Britannic never completed its maiden voyage to its intended service on the North Atlantic, since it hit a floating mine in the Aegean Sea on its way to pick up wounded soldiers during the Dardanelles campaign in 1916.

During World War I, the U.S. Army and Navy both maintained fleets of hospital ships. Those ships, over time, provided humanitarian assistance and disaster relief on numerous occasions. Coincidentally, in 1918, the world was suffering through the Spanish influenza pandemic and two naval hospital ships, named the Comfort and Mercy, were ordered to New York harbor to assist in that crisis. It should be noted that those two ships were the first to bear the names Comfort and Mercy

In 1933, the Relief was dispatched to Long Beach, California, to assist in the aftermath of a massive earthquake.

During World War II, the U.S. Navy maintained a fleet of 12 hospital ships, while the Army had 26. Many of these ships were former passenger and cargo types, including six Liberty ships (a class of cargo ship that were mass-produced in the United States during World War II). 

The largest U.S. hospital ship was the diesel-powered Saturnia (captured from Italy) that was renamed Frances Y. Slanger. After the war, the ship was returned to the Italian Line.

In 1945, the U.S. Navy received six new hospital ships of the Haven class, based on a C-4 design. Those ships served throughout the Korean and Vietnam wars and into the early 1970s.

When the U.S. Department of Defense established the Rapid Deployment Force in the late 1970s, it was deemed necessary to have floating medical facilities. Many designs for the ships were considered, including the conversions of barge-carrying ships and even the retired passenger vessel, SS United States.

The steam tanker Worth, while en route in 1976 to load its first cargo of crude oil, would be converted 10 years later to the U.S. Navy hospital ship, USNS Mercy. [Photo Courtesy: Capt. James McNamara]

It was finally decided to use two of the 1976-built San Clemente class tankers, Rose City and Worth, both built by National Steel in San Diego. The two tankers were converted at San Diego and renamed USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy, the third time those proud names were used.

Both the Comfort and Mercy are 894 feet in length, 106 feet in beam, and 64 feet in depth, which is the maximum dimension allowed for passage through the Panama Canal. The ships can steam 17.5 knots and are fitted with 12 operating rooms and have a capacity for 1,000 beds.

USNS Mercy, formerly the steam tanker Worth. Note the helicopter pad and the tanker’s deck house at stern, which was incorporated into the deck structure. [Photo Courtesy: Capt. James McNamara]

By 1987, both ships were delivered and started their humanitarian and medical assistance duties throughout the world.

Citizens of the United States should be particularly thankful that in 1918 Comfort and Mercy came to the aid of  New York City during the Spanish flu pandemic and now, 102 years later, another Comfort and Mercy are assisting New York and Los Angeles during our current pandemic.