The Big White Ship

by John Delach

On Monday morning, March 30th, the USNS Comfort majestically glided through Gravesend Bay with a harbor pilot on board directing the ship’s captain to safely navigate the Narrows and enter New York Harbor. The arrival of this grand hospital ship was a visible manifestation of the Federal Government’s commitment to combat the COVID-19 emergency in the Metropolitan area.

I was sorely tempted to drive to one of the Belt Parkway’s parking areas overlooking Gravesend Bay to watch the ship arrive. But common sense reminded me that this was a bad idea for several reasons.   

Hospital ships are special with a unique appearance that distinguishes them from every other vessel. Their stark white exterior and the massive red crosses gleam in the sunshine to call out to all those in need that help has arrived. Their names reflect their calling: Mercy, Solace, Hope, Refuge, Haven and Repose. USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) and its sister ship, USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) entered service in the late 1980s and are the latest incarnation of a long line of the navy’s hospital ships.

The USS Relief (AH-1), was the first purposed-based hospital ship and joined the US Navy just after World War I ended. The Relief would serve until the end of World War II. Fourteen additional hospital ships were built or converted from freighters and passenger ships during the war and three, the USS Haven, USS Consolation and USS Repose were reactivated for service during the Korean War. Repose and the USS Sanctuary served during the Vietnam War. The navy was without a hospital ship after 1975 when Sanctuary was stricken from the fleet.

During the build-up and modernization of the navy during the Reagan administration, the navy decided to acquire two vessels each almost 900 feet long and convert them into hospital ships. One would be based on the East Coast the other on the West Coast. The Bureau of Ships decided to purchase two modern super tankers, gut them of the oil carrying cargo tanks and turn those enormous spaces into hospitals with a total capacity of 1,000 beds.

National Steel Shipbuilding Company (NASCO) won the bid to convert the tankers. The tanker, SS Worth morphed into the USNS Mercy and the SS Rose City became the USNS Comfort.

They were designed to be more advanced than a field hospital but less capable than a traditional hospital on land. Those one-thousand beds were divided into the following categories: ICU – 80 beds, recovery-20 beds, intermediate care-280 beds, light care-120 beds and limited care-500 beds.

Each ship has 12 operating rooms and facilities that range from casualty reception to a morgue. When deployed, each  ships’ complement consists of 16 reserve and 61 active mariners, six officers and 62 enlisted navy communications and support personnel and 1,156 medical and dental personnel.

The New York COVID-19 mission is Comforts 12th deployment. Others have included the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991), Haiti (1994), the Iraq War (2002-2003), Hurricane Katrina (2005), the Haitian earthquake (2010) and Hurricane Maria (2017). Between, deployments, USNS sleeps at its own berth at the Norfolk Navy Yard under the watchful eyes of the skeleton crew.

The ship is designed and maintained to be activated in two-weeks and is operated by the Military Sealift Command (MSC) a combined military and civilian service. As a result, its designation is USNS and not USS.

“In accordance with the Geneva Conventions, Comfort and her crew carry no offensive weapons. Firing upon Comfort would be considered a war crime as the ship only carries weapons for self-defense. In keeping with her status as a non-combatant vessel, naval personnel from the combat specialties are not assigned as regular crew or staff.”

 Embarkation by warfare specialist such as-… “naval aviation, surface warfare, submarine warfare, special operations (like SEALS) or members of the Marine Corp. are prohibited…” except as patients.

Although firing upon a hospital ship is a war crime, it happens, and in an upcoming blog, I will report on some of the more controversial and deadly sinkings. It should be noted that these losses were caused by both active and passive attacks. Many were caused by mines placed in channels with no knowledge of what ship will become the unlucky target.

The only US Navy hospital ship to suffer loss of life as a result of enemy action was the USS Comfort (AH-6), the navy’s second ship to carry that name. During the invasion of Okinawa… “the hospital ship stood by…from 2 to 9 April receiving wounded for evacuation to Guam. Returning to Okinawa on 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.”

Our good ship, Comfort, arrived under escort of a fleet of our local McAllister and Moran tugboats and the fanfare of a grateful city. Now on station, Comfort’s mission is not to act as a direct respite to the virus, but rather provide a reserve for other hospitals as they exceed capacity once the peak of the cases descends upon us in the next couple of weeks.       

Once again, naval medical personnel put themselves in harm’s way. So here is a toast to all the personnel on T-AH-20:

Hip, hip Hooray,

Hip, hip, Hooray,

Hip, Hip, Hooray!