U.S. Army Hospital Ship (USAHS) Charles A. Stafford, a converted transport, was in service as a hospital ship after its conversion in September 1944. Photo circa 1944-1946.
White-hulled and Red Cross-marked hospital ships were used in World War II to transport large numbers of wounded or sick patients to higher echelons of medical care. In the Pacific, they made runs from islands where battles were raging to secure regions where base hospitals or other facilities could provide treatment far from the danger of battle. Hospital ships also provided the long-distance transport from the Theaters of Operation to CONUS for Echelon IV or Echelon V care. While slow, the ships had a large capacity and could provide most en-route patient care as needed within their wards, operating facilities, treatment rooms, and supporting services.
During combat operations, in locations where land-based mobile hospitals (Echelon III) were not set up or were overwhelmed, the hospital ships standing off-shore processed returning casualties. However, even when larger hospital transports were available, the transports were often withdrawn at nightfall due to lack of air cover. Although all hospital ships were marked clearly and carried no armament, they were attacked in some instances. For example, on 10 April 1945, USS Comfort (AH-6) was struck by a Japanese Kamikaze plane off Okinawa. A total of 28 people were killed, including several of the ship's surgeons, six nurses and seven patients. Another 48 people were wounded, and there was extensive damage to the ship.
Hospital ships were under the control of both the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army, each service managing its own fleet. During World War II the Army Transport Service operated a total of 24 hospital ships which were manned by civilian crews, employees of the Army Transport Service. The medical staff were Army personnel. Fifteen U.S. Navy Hospital Ships saw duty in World War II, all converted liners, freighters and transports, except for one: USS Relief (AH-1). U.S. Navy hospital ship hull numbers used the prefix AH, for example the first ship designed and built from the keel up as a hospital ship, USS Relief (AH-1), or USS Repose (AH-16).
Use of LSTs as Hospital Ships
During World War II amphibious operations, “grey hull" Landing Ship, Tank (LSTs) were used to increase the capacity of the medical care system. A number of LSTs were converted into the LST(H), modified for use by forward surgical teams to stabilize the wounded. Given the intensity of the warfare and the shortage of true hospital ships, LST(H)s became essential in providing quick, early, lifesaving treatment for the combat wounded close to the battlefield.
At the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944 the benefit of beaching these unprotected surgical LSTs after unloading was demonstrated. Planners saw the value of holding one or two in reserve, to commit to beaches that were overwhelmed with casualties or without medical facilities. During operations at Lingayen Gulf in 1945, six LST(H)s with surgical teams were beached to provide casualty care.
In Western Europe, at Normandy during Operation Overlord, all LSTs were equipped to handle returning casualties and fifty-four were outfitted to perform surgery. Others were subsequently equipped to serve as casualty-control ships, regulating the backflow of the wounded to rear facilities afloat and ashore, and one was made a floating blood bank. Such hospital LSTs were able to provide sophisticated surgical care in a relatively safe environment close to shore. Unmarked and operating without Geneva Convention protection, they performed effectively, even under fire at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
When the LST(H) could not be landed on the beach, casualties were evacuated to the LST using smaller vessels such as the DUKW. As soon as possible, casualties were evacuated from the LST to a hospital ship.
Material on this page adapted from "Has the Red Cross-Adorned Hospital Ship Become Obsolete?" by Arthur M. Smith, Naval War College Review, Summer 2005, Vol. 58, No. 3.
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