On Hospitals in Ships Redux

In 2010, I posted a piece on hospital ships. There I wrote that the first purpose-built American hospital ship was USS Relief  (AH-1), laid down in 1917. As it turns out, Relief was the first Navy hospital ship so constructed. The Army was well ahead of the Navy in this particularly nautical undertaking, as I’ll explain below.

The Navy’s first hospital ship was the legendary USS Red Rover, a sidewheeler that served the Confederacy as a barracks ship for a year before she was captured by Union forces. It was the Army that converted her to hospital use and then operated her for about a year until Congressional legislation required the transfer of the “Western Gunboat Fleet” (Red Rover actually mounted a 32 pounder gun and was expected to support military operations on the Mississippi if necessary) to the Navy. She was commissioned into the Navy on 26 December 1862, and her medical staff of doctors and nurses served with distinction until the end of the war.

Now comes the news (to me) that the truly first American purpose-built hospital ship was actually created by the Army! This revelation arrived in my inbox this morning in the form of a pretty comprehensive article in the on-line news feed gCaptainReferred to as a Hospital Transport, the ship – named after the 12th Surgeon General of the Army, J K Barnes – was described at the time as “the best adapted ship for the purpose, ever fitted up in this country” (Medical and Surgical Reporter, Vol X11 [Jan-Jul 1865], p 217). She apparently was put into service in 1864.

The Army briefly operated a hospital ship (USAHS Relief) in the Spanish American War, but none in support of the 2,000,000 doughboys who fought and served in Europe in World War I, though troops clearly were transported across the English Channel in large numbers. Navy hospital ships and Army and commercial transports brought the soldiers home. In World War II, however, the Army Transport Service had responsibility for 25 hospital ships – used mainly to transport sick and wounded troops from in-theater to rear-area hospitals or to the United States. Since then, only the Navy has operated hospital ships for the U.S. All Navy hospital ships are fully equipped to care for major surgical cases rather than as transporters – that function having been absorbed by Air Force flying ICUs and air transporters.

Worth pondering: a Navy insider tells me, though I’ve not confirmed this, that officials would like to get rid of  T-AH-19 USNS Mercy and T-AH-20 USNS Comfort with their 8 fully equipped operating suites and 1000 bed capacities, even as Mercy embarks on Pacific Partnership 18, a soft power / medical diplomacy mission to several nations in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. In this day and age of dangerous outlaw non-state and state actors, are big white ships with red crosses simply too tempting as targets?

(c) 2018 Thomas L Snyder

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