According to the official history of the navy medical department in World War II(1), in early stages of the war in the Pacific, LSTs(2) carried one medical officer and equipment for emergency surgery. Experience quickly demonstrated that when these small ships took on casualties for evacuation to larger hospitals or hospital ships, the medical staffs were simply inadequate to provide necessary care for the 100 – 200 casualties typically taken aboard. And, given that the time it took to get casualties to definitive care under these conditions often exceeded 24 or even 48 hours, it became clear that facilities for major surgery closer to the area of combat were a necessity. While the small ships (not LSTs in this case) accompanying the landing forces at Arawe, New Britain in December 1943, for instance, carried surgical teams of 2 surgeons and 10 corpsmen, the care these teams could provide was not sufficient to the need. Around this time, LSTs converted specifically to accommodate casualty care and manned with surgical teams came into being, and they participated in the Cape Gloucester (at the northwest end of New Britain) invasion on 26 December 1943.
As operations continued in the Bismark / Solomon Sea areas, the need for a forward-deployed ship capable of providing definitive, specialized surgical casualty care became urgent. LST 464, the first and only LST converted into a hospital ship, served that need.
Work done in Sydney Australia fitted out its tank deck with an operating room, offices, laboratory, a radiology room, and an isolation ward. Its staff included a surgeon, internist, dermatologist, urologist, EENT specialist and supporting hospital corps officers and corpsmen. Additional surgeons were ordered aboard on an as-needed basis, and an anesthesiologist and psychiatrist were added later. Thus staffed, LST 464 supported early operations like Lae, Arawe and Cape Gloucester from advance bases at Cape Sudest, Morobe or Buna, where she received casualties from amphibious craft and transported them to Milne Bay, some 350 miles distant. After Humboldt Bay (now known as Yos Sudarso Bay, on the north central coast of Papua-New Guinea) was taken in April 1944, the ship moved there to serve as a base hospital to support construction battalions and other troops locally.
In preparation for the invasion of Leyte, a blood bank (3) was established in LST 464. Its director was LT Ernest E Muirhead, MC, USNR, a physician experienced in blood bank operation. LT Muirhead had previously demonstrated the feasibility of such an operation when he prepared blood on another LST and carried it ashore to aid casualties in the Noemfoor Island landings of July 1944. The ship proved to be of particular value in the Leyte landings because she remained close-in, unlike the much actual hospital ships, which proved to be tempting targets for kamikaze pilots then being thrown into battle. LST 464 remained in the Leyte gulf as a station hospital until March 1945, when she transited to Subic Bay in the Philippines, to serve the same role. At the end of the war, she was redesignated LST(H)-464. She served for a short time in Korea after the cessation of hostilities.
(1) NAVMED P-5031, The History of the Medical Department of the United States Navy in world War II – A narrative and Pictorial Volume (Volume 1), Washington, United States Printing Office, 1953. P 184, 187-188.
(2) LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank) fitted out for casualty care carried their usual armament and therefore did not enjoy the “protection” of the Geneva Conventions, which appear to have been largely ignored by the Japanese in any case. LST-464 was laid down in October 1942, launched in November, and commissioned in February 1943. After her conversion to a hospital ship function later that year, she was distinguished only by the six foot high white “464” painted on her hull amidships (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LSTH, accessed 15 Sept 2012).
(3) Kendrick, Brigadier General Douglas R, “Blood Program in World War II”, Washington, Office of the Surgeon General, Department of the Army, 1964. Pp 594-595, 616-618, 620.
©2012 Thomas L Snyder