Nursing Aboard Hospital Ship USS Relief, 1917-1946

Attacking a hospital ship was a war crime, but in 1945, the USS COMFORT was hit by a Japanese kamikaze pilot

A picture of the white Relief ship that is on a dark blue ocean with a gray sky in the background

Although she was the sixth ship to be called Relief, she was the first U.S. naval vessel ever specifically designed as a fully equipped, modern, seagoing hospital.

She was almost as big as a hospital building: Stretching almost 484 feet from bow to stern, she was longer than a city block and displaced more than 9,800 tons laden, making her roughly the size of a contemporary cruiser. Her nominal bed capacity was 500, but patient headcount was sometimes hundreds more.

The role of Navy hospital ships like Relief was to bring state-of-the-art healthcare within reach of sick and badly wounded soldiers, sailors and marines throughout the world. During wartime, these ships received casualties directly from the battlefield as well as supporting frontline medical teams. At times, Relief and her sisters carried entire field hospitals.

Around the World Travel

The keel for the ship known in the Navy register as Hospital Ship 1 (AH-1) was laid down at the Philadelphia Naval Yard in June 1917. She was launched in December 1919 and was officially commissioned as USS Relief a year later.

In peacetime, she was painted gray, but in February 1943, her hull was repainted white with a large green horizontal sash and large red crosses on her superstructure, decks and smokestacks to identify her as a hospital ship, as required by the 1907 Hague Convention.

Originally assigned to the Atlantic Fleet, Relief was also active in the Pacific, stopping in Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and the Samoan Islands. She participated in naval maneuvers and served as an outside medical consultancy on both sea and shore. She also acted as a floating dispensary and clinic for other, non-medical ships and provided U.S. military personnel with access to dental care and other specialty services like radiology and ear, nose and throat treatment.

During peacetime, a ship like Relief was an attractive assignment for nurses, offering an opportunity to travel and see the world. However, even in times of peace, Relief was no cruise ship. In a letter home in March 1923, one anonymous nurse described the ongoing cacophony of bells, whistles and mechanical noises. “Does that sound as if one could ever sleep?” she wrote.

The nurse added that while underway, constant work was punctuated by periodic “abandon ship” and fire drills — not to mention the occasional shout of “Man overboard,” which wasn’t always a drill! Navy nurses also had to learn a new vocabulary, including the ability to distinguish, as one nurse put it, “starboard from port, fore from aft, abeam from abaft [and] a boat from a ship.”

Twelve Navy nurses were assigned to the ship at any given time. Each headed a department like surgery, isolation or burns. The nurses were treated as commissioned officers, each starting with the “relative rank” of ensign. They supervised a staff of enlisted corpsmen, some of whom the nurses trained to serve as medics for landing forces. Nurses also served in a Red Cross role, helping the sick and wounded with more personal issues.

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Nurses’ living quarters were on Deck 6, where pairs of nurses shared cozy double staterooms with bunk beds. The nurses had a separate mess hall (with surprisingly good food), their own stewards and even their own sun deck. As Navy Nurse Corps Superintendent Lenah S. Higbee noted in 1921, hospital nurses needed not only good clinical skills, but also “a basic optimism and … a spirit of cooperation.”

Those were not always easy to maintain throughout a full 18-month cruise. Dexterity was another important attribute. Just moving around the ship without bruises took practice. “I must always remember to step up,” wrote the anonymous nurse in 1923. “[T]hat I forgot many times, my poor shins still bear witness, for at every doorway and at the top of every ladder is a portion of the bulkhead over which one must step or bear the consequences.”

Wartime Service

By 1941, USS Relief was back in Norfolk, Va., providing medical care to soldiers, sailors and civilians injured in hostile Atlantic waters. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor that December, Relief was docked in Newfoundland. The ship quickly deployed to the Pacific Fleet, arriving in New Caledonia in April 1942.

The fight to reverse Japanese territorial gains was particularly brutal. Relief was kept busy ferrying soldiers, marines and sailors from holding stations to better medical facilities in other parts of the Pacific. She treated not only servicemen wounded in combat, but also those suffering from dysentery, malaria and dengue fever, all of which plagued troops in the Pacific Theater from the very beginning of the conflict.

Battlefield casualties were remarkably varied and often gruesome. Bomb bursts and mortar fire left survivors with flash burns, gaping chest wounds and massive hemorrhages. Broken limbs and amputations were frequent occurrences, as was the psychological trauma associated with combat, including PTSD (then commonly known as “shell shock”).

Because the fighting in the Pacific took place on islands, the first step for most wounded was to somehow make it to the beach. Medics went ashore with landing forces and cared for the wounded inland at aid stations or on the beaches until field hospitals could be set up or the wounded moved to the next level of care. The same landing craft that deployed combatants to the beach often carried the wounded on the trip back.

The work was hard and frequently dangerous. Although attacking a hospital ship is a war crime, not all belligerents respect those rules and torpedoes, bombs and shells don’t discriminate. Hospital ships are unarmed and often travel alone, leaving them vulnerable. During its wartime service, Relief endured only minor strafing damage, with no casualties, but other hospital ships suffered direct hits. In 1945, Relief’s sister ship, USS Comfort, was hit by a Japanese kamikaze pilot.

When fighting began, Relief usually remained well to the rear — often in international waters, where she could maintain the constant illumination required by international law without endangering other naval vessels. Only when combat abated would Relief move closer to shore.

Hiring Now

Even from the rear, those aboard ship could hear the bombardment and watch aircraft of both sides fighting overhead. “When we stopped retiring out to sea at night all lit up, we could stay where we were anchored, ready to pick up casualties,” recalled Capt. Ann Bernatitus, RN, in an oral history she recorded with an Ohio State University historian in 1994. “Every time the kamikazes would come, we would get the alarm over the loudspeaker. They would say, ‘Kamaretta red — smoke boat, make smoke.’”

Relief Has Come

In a 1945 letter, Lt. Sophia Monteville, RN, described a typical scene aboard the Relief after picking up wounded troops:

“When the patients came on board, they often told us how good it was to see a big white hospital ship in port while they were fighting. They felt that if they were hurt and sent to us, everything would be all right. … If the nurses and corpsmen were busy, the ambulatory patients would help each other. They also helped to feed the boys who were blind and those who had had amputations. They passed out drinking water and assisted in cleaning the wards. Everyone worked with us, even the seamen, who acted as stretcher bearers.”

Enemy combatants were also sometimes patients. Monteville described one encounter with Japanese POWs:

“On one of our missions, we took care of 250 Japanese prisoners, war casualties from Saipan. … We asked our interpreter, a young Marine officer, to ask them what they thought of the treatment and care they were receiving. They smiled and bowed, saying our food was too rich for them. After that, we fed them rice, tea and fish, which they enjoyed much more. I was pleased to have them see how we take care of our men, and hoped that for the treatment we gave them, they would be a little kinder to our prisoners.”

World War II Ends

As the Allies made progress across the Pacific, Relief served as a fleet base hospital in the Philippines. Towards the end of the war and for about two months afterwards, she was accompanied by minesweepers as she assisted efforts to rescue Allied prisoners of war being held in Manchuria, including many who had survived the infamous Bataan Death March. Bernatitus recalled:

“They didn’t let them come right aboard. They had to be deloused first — fumigated and then given showers. I remember the supply officer who was in charge of food came to me and said that the senior medical officer was going to give them sandwiches and I said, ‘Listen, if you can’t give them a steak dinner and ice cream or something, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.’”

By war’s end, this weary ship — affectionately called the “White Lily” — had sailed the equivalent of four times around the world, evacuating 10,000 fighting men from virtually every battle fought in the Pacific and earning five Battle Stars. She was decommissioned in the summer of 1946 and sold for scrap in 1948.

The Hague Convention and Hospital Ships

Like the better-known Geneva Convention that replaced it, the Hague Convention was an international accord establishing rules for modern warfare. The articles of the 1907 convention on maritime warfare included a series of regulations for hospital ships. Those articles required that a hospital ship be clearly marked and lighted at all times.

Using a hospital ship for any military purpose other than treating or transporting the sick and wounded — particularly “for the purpose of injuring the enemy” — was strictly forbidden. Article 4 also prohibited using a hospital ship to “hamper the movements of the combatants” and required that a hospital ship “afford relief and assistance to the wounded, sick and shipwrecked … without distinction of nationality.”

The convention forbade attacking any hospital ship that obeyed these rules. Belligerents were free to search, inspect or detain a hospital ship and could capture or arrest its patients, but Article 10 prohibited taking the hospital staff as prisoners of war or confiscating their personal property.

ELIZABETH HANINK, RN, BSN, PHN is a Working Nurse staff writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

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