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Navy Hospital Ships - Transporting POWs and Saving Lives

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USS Solace circa 1945 (image courtesy Naval History and Heritage Command)

By Rear Adm. Sam Cox 05-05-2020 08:34:00

Last month, the USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort sailed into Los Angeles and New York City, respectively. They were carrying on a rich, centuries-old U.S. Navy tradition of saving lives.

Doctors and sailors aboard the hospital ship USS Solace (AH-5) saved the lives of sailors wounded aboard USS Arizona on December 7, 1941. At the end of World War II, USS Relief (AH-1) transported 753 former allied prisoners of war (POWs) from Manchuria to the United States.

USS Relief (AH-1)—the sixth U.S. ship to bear the name—was the first one built from the keel up as a hospital ship. It was laid down on June 14, 1917 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. In the spring of 1931, after an earthquake devastated Managua, Nicaragua, the Navy sent Relief to Corinto to provide medical assistance. During World War II, Relief brought much needed medical supplies to the newly won Marshall Islands.  

In August 1945, Relief steamed for Dairen, Manchuria. The ship's mission was the recovery of Allied prisoners of war from the former Japanese military prison camp at Mukden, Manchuria.  On September 11, 1945, 753 former POWS embarked on the ship, which included 518 Americans as well as Dutch, British, and Australians. It was the first American ship these men had seen in three if not four years.

USS Solace (AH-5)—the second ship to bear the name—was designed by naval architect Theodore E. Ferris for the Clyde Steamship Company of New York. Originally named SS Iroquois, the ship was built in 1927 by Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Virginia as a passenger liner and served the New York City-Miami route.   

On October 4, 1939, the U.S. Naval Attaché in Berlin reported that Grossadmiral Erich Raeder, Commander in Chief of the German Navy, had informed him of a plot wherein Iroquois would be ambushed and sunk near the east coast of the U.S. (The British SS Athenia was sunk a month earlier in the western approaches by a U-boat, without warning.) President Franklin D. Roosevelt directed the Coast Guard with the help of Navy ships to meet Iroquois at sea and accompany the vessel to an American port. Iroquois made it home safely. 

The Navy assumed control of the Iroquois on July 22, 1940 and renamed the ship Solace. The ship arrived in Pearl Harbor on October 27, 1941. On December 5 and 6, doctors aboard Solace provided medical assistance to sailors stationed on USS Arizona (BB-39), Maryland (BB-46), Utah (AG-16), and Oklahoma (BB-37). 

While at breakfast on December 7, Solace’s navigator, Lt. (j.g.) John M. Gallagher, glanced toward the ships moored along the northwest side of Ford Island and noticed Utah listing to port. Unbeknownst to Gallaghar, Utah, a training ship, had been hit by two torpedoes from Nakajima B5N2 Type 97 “Kate” torpedo bombers from the Japanese carrier Soryu.

“My first impression,” he later recounted, was “that they were having a damage control drill.” 

Heavy explosions at the other end of Ford Island prompted Gallagher to exit the wardroom and go out on deck. A Japanese plane passed 500 feet away. As the Japanese attack unfolded, 29-year old Lt. (j.g.) Raynham Townshend, Jr., the officer of the deck, ordered Solace to general quarters. Immediately, he sent the hospital ship’s number one motor launch (Sea1c Steve L. Gallos, coxswain) and number two motor launch (Sea1c James V. Saccavino, coxswain) to the burning Arizona

Meanwhile, stretcher parties under Acting Pay Clerk John A. Keefer and Chief Pharmacist Mate Joseph A. Cunningham scrambled on board Arizona as the battleship’s crew abandoned ship. Moving close to the roaring flames, Solace’s pharmacists mates brought off all the survivors they could find. At 0820, Solace began admitting the wounded and bringing on board the dead, some barely recognizable from their horrible burns. Both motor launches returned to the grim work while the doctors, nurses, and corpsmen began treating the casualties, assisted by available men from the deck divisions.

Rear Adm. Sam Cox (USN, ret'd.) is the director of Naval History and Heritage Command. He is responsible for the Navy's museums, art and artifact collections, the research library, 150 million pages of archives, and for collecting and interpreting U.S. Naval history throughout the world. In his 37-year naval career, Cox served as an intelligence officer, retiring in November 2013, as the senior naval intelligence community leader and from both command of the Office of Naval Intelligence and as director of the National Maritime Intelligence-Integration Office. He also previously served as director of Intelligence (J2), U.S. Cyber Command. 

The Naval History and Heritage Command’s mission is to preserve and share the history of the U.S. Navy. It’s a history of serving others and bringing home those who valiantly fought for their country. You can learn more about this history at https://www.history.navy.mil.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.