By André B. Sobocinski, Historian, US Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery
On March 18, President Trump announced Navy hospital ships USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) and Comfort (T-AH-20) were to be activated and deployed stateside to serve as referral centers for non-COVID-19 patients. The longest-serving hospital ships in continuous operation in our history, Mercy and Comfort have long captured the public’s imagination due to their vast medical capabilities as floating hospitals. But in the storied history of our hospital ships, stateside deployments during global pandemics remain unchartered waters.
Hospital ships have played pivotal roles in naval operations since the early days of our Republic. During the Barbary Wars, Commodore Edward Preble ordered that USS Intrepid be used as a hospital ship. The reconfiguration of this former bomb-ketch in 1803 marks the standard for almost all hospital ships used thereafter. To date, only USS Relief (AH-1) was built from the keel up to serve as a hospital ship. All other ships—including USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort—were converted from other uses whether as super tankers, troop transports or passenger liners.
Whether it is the USS Red Rover transporting patients up the Mississippi to Mound Island in the Civil War or USS Solace (AH-5) taking wounded Marines from Iwo Jima to Guam hospital, ships have long served in the capacity of ambulance ships.
During the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918, Comfort (AH-3) and Mercy (AH-4) were each briefly stationed in New York where they took care of overflow patients from the Third Naval District before returning to the fleet and sailing across the Atlantic. Along with USS Solace (AH-2), these ships ferried thousands of wounded and sick (including virulent cases of the flu) back to stateside facilities.
Throughout 19th and early 20th centuries, a host of Navy ships was sent around the country to serve as “station hospitals” for burgeoning naval bases.
From the 1850s until the early 1860s, supply ships USS Warren and later USS Independence operated in this capacity at Mare Island, California, until shore facilities were constructed. Decades later, the Navy employed the former gunboat USS Nipsic at the Puget Sound Navy Yard, where it served as a predecessor to Naval Hospital Bremerton (Puget Sound). And from 1953 until 1957, the hospital ship USS Haven (AH-12) served as a station hospital at Long Beach, California, supporting medical activities in the Eleventh Naval District.
Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response (HADR) operations have long been the clarion call for hospital ships. In March 1933, following the devastating earthquake that hit Long Beach, USS Relief (AH-1) sent teams of physicians and Hospital Corpsmen ashore to assist in treatment of casualties. Some 66 years later, following the Loma Prieta Earthquake of October 1989, USNS Mercy—then moored in Oakland—provided food and shelter for hundreds of victims of the disaster.
Since 2001, USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy have taken part in some 19 HADR missions, from Continuing Promise to Unified Assistance, and treated over 550,000 patients. But of these missions, only two were stateside deployments.
Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Comfort deployed to the Gulf Coast where she treated 1,258 patients at Pascagoula, Mississippi, and New Orleans. Years earlier, she was sent to New York City following the attacks on Sept. 11.
Originally envisioned as a floating trauma hospital for the victims of the Twin Towers’ collapse, the ship’s mission changed when it became clear there were not the large numbers of injured expected. Vice Adm. Michael Cowan, Navy surgeon general in 2001, recalled that New York’s Emergency Management Office stated the city was being overwhelmed with the requirements of humanity. “The island didn’t have facilities to support the firemen and rescuers and police digging through the rubble and sleeping on the hood of their engines,” Cowan said. “They were becoming dirty, going without water as they worked in harsh environments. NYC requested the Comfort to provide humanitarian services; as the ‘Comfort Inn,’ which could be docked close to the site.”
From Sept. 14 to Oct. 1, Comfort provided hot meals, showers, a berth, a change of clean clothes to about a 1,000 relief workers a day from its temporary home at Pier 92 in Manhattan.
When commissioned on Dec. 28, 1920, Relief (AH-1) could boast the same amenities as the most modern hospitals at the time—large corridors and elevators for transporting patients, and fully equipped surgical operating rooms, wards, galleys, pantries, wash rooms, laboratories, dispensaries, as well as a sterilizing/disinfecting room—all with “sanitary” tiled flooring.
USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort are no different in this regard and are comparable to some of the largest trauma hospitals in the United States. Each ship contains 12 fully equipped operating rooms, a bed capacity of 1,000 and can boast of digital radiological services, medical laboratories, full-serve pharmacies, blood banks, medical equipment repair shops, prosthetics and physical therapy.
Emblazoned with nine red crosses and stretching 894 feet in length (the size of three football fields) Mercy and Comfort remain powerful symbols of medical care and hope during the darkest times.
Annual Reports of the Surgeon General of the U.S. Navy for the Fiscal Year 1919. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1919.
Cowan, Michael, Oral History conducted with (Session conducted by A.B. Sobocinski and D.V. Ginn on September 12, 2013). BUMED Oral History Archives.
Hospital Ships Fact File. U.S. Navy. Retrieved from: https://www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=4625&tid=200&ct=4
Johnson, Lucius. “The Story of Our Hospital Ships.” The Red Cross Courier. July 1937.
Massman, Emory A. Hospital Ships of World War II. An Illustrated Reference. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & CO., Inc, Publishers, 1999.