The U.S. Navy is sending more than 1,000 personnel to help Los Angeles deal with the COVID-19, and they'll be arriving with their own floating hospital, the USNS Mercy. The hospital ship departed San Diego last week. While it won't treat patients infected with COVID-19, instead it will take overflow patients from hospitals – and Mercy is equipped to perform surgeries and respond to patients who require intensive care.
On the opposite coast, the USNS Comfort has been sent to New York City to provide a similar role. Both ships are converted supertankers that feature 12 fully equipped operating rooms and up to 1,000 beds. Each ship has all the services of a hospital including a CAT scanner, two oxygen-producing plants, digital radiology and even optometry labs. The ships also have the staff of a large city hospital – up to 1,200 personnel that include doctors, nurses and medical specialists.
USNS Comfort, which has been sent around the world during military actions and humanitarian aid missions including assisting in Gulf Coast recovery after Hurricane Katrina, was sent to New York City following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The Early History of Hospital Ships
Such vessels capable of carrying out missions of mercy are not new. In fact, such floating medical vessels could even date back to antiquity. There is evidence that the Athenian Navy's Therapia, the Greek word to mean "treat medically," and the Roman Navy's Aesculapius, named after the god of medicine, may have been among the first hospital ships.
The English Royal Navy can be credited with having the first true medial vessel when the Goodwill accompanied a Royal Navy squadron to the Caribbean in 1608. The ship wasn't actually a floating hospital however but rather was intended for sick sailors to be transferred to her. It was later in the 17th century, during the evacuation of English Tangier in 1683 that specially modified ships, Unity and Welcome were tasked with handling wounded sailors.
Following the Battle of Cape St Vincent during the Anglo-Spanish War, the famous HMS Victory was deemed unfit for active duty and was outfitted as a hospital ship, before being refitted as a war ship and serving as Admiral Nelson's flagship in time for the Battle of Trafalgar.
The HMS Melbourne and HMS Mauritius were the first warships to be truly equipped with medical facilities where sick and wounded could be treated as well as housed.
By the middle of the 19th century, other nations began to see the need for hospital vessels, and the first U.S. Navy hospital ship was the Red Rover, a captured side-wheel steamer that was named by its Confederate owner. It was used as the living quarters for the Confederate soldiers serving on the Floating Battery New Orleans, and was captured by the Union forces in early 1862 and converted into a hospital ship.
While hospital ships were meant to save lives, in one case it proved to do just the opposite.
During the Russo-Japanese War, the Imperial Russian Navy had sent the hospital ship Orel with its fleet to Vladivostok and hoped to reach the port undetected. However, a Japanese auxiliary spotted the lights from the hospital ship – which in compliance with the rules of war had continued to burn. This resulted in the decisive Japanese victory during the Battle of Tsushima!
Had the RMS Titanic not struck an iceberg in April 1912 it is likely that during the First World War she would have served as either a troopship like her sister ship RMS Olympic or more likely as her as a hospital ship like her sister ship RMS Britannic. While Olympic had many close calls and even rammed a German U-Boat during the war, Britannic met a tragic end after she struck a mine in the Aegean Sea in November 16. She sank in just 55 minutes, but fortunately, only 30 souls were lost while 1,036 onboard – including wounded soldiers – were saved. Among those who survived was a nurse named Violet Jessop, who also happened to be a Titanic survivor.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.