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Remembering USS Relief (AH 1), the Navy's Floating Fortress of Health

April 6, 2018 | By Andre B. Sobocinski, Historian, BUMED
USS Relief (AH 1). Nurses with their patients, on deck in March 1921.

In 1936, "Our Navy" correspondent Mary McElliott was given special access to the hospital ship USS Relief (AH 1). She would marvel over its design and capabilities writing, "If you are accustomed to thinking of a hospital ship as a large institution, with a grim, forbidding exterior, and a solemn, mysterious interior, where an air of hushed expectancy hovering over its corridors causes one to speak in whispers and walk on tip-toes, a visit to the hospital ship USS Relief, will be a pleasant and enlightening surprise."

USS Relief (AH 1) holds a special place in the annals of Navy Medicine. Though the sixth ship bearing the name Relief since 1836, she was (and still is) the ONLY naval vessel ever constructed from the keel up as a floating hospital. And although the fifth hospital ship employed by the Navy since 1898, she was the first ever bestowed a hull number. When commissioned on December 28, 1920, Relief could boast the same amenities as the most modern hospitals at the time - large corridors and elevators for transporting patients, and fully equipped surgical operating rooms, wards, galleys, pantries, wash rooms, laboratories, dispensaries, as well as a sterilizing/disinfecting room all with "sanitary" tiled flooring.  

Measuring 483 feet in length, a normal displacement of 10,112 tons and a mean draft of 19 feet, Relief has been the Navy's largest hospital ship in use until the launching of USS Refuge (AH 11) in 1944. Aside from a 500 bed-hospital onboard, she also held a field hospital unit complete with tentage, a fully stocked pharmacy, and an ambulance. Through the years the unit would be deployed in support of expeditionary operations and earthquake relief efforts in Managua, Nicaragua (1931) and Long Beach, California. (1933).

Born out of experiences wars and careful study of medical ships used by foreign navies, AH 1 had been - at least - many decades in the making. Even before there were "official" hospital ships in service, the Navy had long designated vessels to care for its sick and wounded. In 1803, the 60-foot ketch Intrepid, fresh from a daring sortie into the fortified harbor of Tripoli, was fitted out to receive casualties from the schooner Enterprise. During the Civil War, the store ships Home and Ben Morgan were employed as naval station hospitals in Charleston, South Carolina and Richmond, Virginia.

Perhaps Relief's fame is only surpassed by another Civil War hospital ship, a captured Confederate side-wheeler named after a James Fennimore Cooper character USS Red Rover. Plying its trade up and down the Mississippi River from Memphis to Mound City from 1862 to 1865, Red Rover is often credited as the Navy's first hospital ship. Both Red Rover and Relief would each play special roles in the history of military nursing. The former had been the first hospital ship to employ the services of women volunteer nurses.

Nearly sixty years later, USS Relief was built with special quarters for Navy nurses. On February 15, 1921, she would set sail with eleven nurses on board the first Navy women ever assigned to a ship's company. In the Spanish-American War and World War I, the Navy ships Solace (AH 2), Comfort (AH 3) and Mercy (AH 4) were used primarily as ambulances ferrying patients from the theater of operations to stateside hospitals. For much of her career with the Pacific Fleet, Relief was every bit the floating hospital and was designed to take care of sick and wounded until they could be returned to duty. She was even equipped with "ambulance motor boats" that could hold 12 stretcher patients and six ambulatory patients or 30 ambulatory patients at a time. These motor boats were also regularly used to transport its dentists and physicians through the fleet for "ship calls."

Along with USS Solace (AH 5), Relief was one of two hospital ships in commission at the start of World War II. Over the course of her wartime service she would admit some 16,159 patients and evacuate over 10,000 wounded from campaigns in Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Saipan-Tinian, and Okinawa. Her five battle stars were the second most of any hospital ship in World War II (surpassed only by the Solace). At the end of hostilities, USS Relief would take part in the massive repatriation of POWs and then serve as a stationary hospital for the 1st Marine Division at Taku, China. 

Nose and throat clinic on board, about 1920.  

On February 28, 1946 she returned to Norfolk, Virginia remaining in service until being decommissioned on July 19, 1946. Her nearly 26 years in commission would be a record for hospital ships until finally surpassed by USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) and USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) in 2003.

Johnson, Lucius. "The Fleet Hospital Ship." United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 63, No. 9, September 1937.
Johnson, Lucius. Memoranda for the Bureau of Construction and Repair, 1 June 1915. Johnson Collection. BUMED Archives.
Johnson, Lucius. "The Story of Our Hospital Ships." The Red Cross Courier. July 1937.
McElliott, Mary. "A Visit Aboard the Hospital Ship USS Relief." Our Navy. Mid-July, 1936.
Massman, Emory A. " Hospital Ships of World War II. An Illustrated Reference." Jefferson, NC: McFarland & CO., Inc, Publishers, 1999.