The U.S. Navy has owned thousands of ships throughout the years—among them were hospital ships that have been around as far back as 1798. Unlike today, though, those hospital ships weren’t protected by international legal protocols. We can only imagine how these ships aboard with medical staff braving the treacherous waters while naval combat was active and EVERYWHERE without the immunity to keep them off as enemy targets.
The Second Geneva Convention prohibits all kinds of military attacks on hospital ships as long as they meet its specified requirements. While belligerent forces may enter and inspect patients and take them as prisoners of war, they can not take staff working at these ships.
Check out these six U.S. Navy ships to have served as medical support and cared for the wounded sailors at sea.
The First (unofficial) USS Intrepid in the U.S. Navy
The first hospital ship appeared amid the Tripolitan War, also known as the First Barbary War (1801-1805), though it wasn’t really intended to be a medical vessel. Instead, it was a captured ketch that was renamed the USS Intrepid. She was briefly converted to serve as a hospital ship to transport injured men during the recapturing and burning of the USS Philadelphia in 1804. Then, she was reverted as a combat ship, fitted out as a “floating volcano” that would eliminate enemy corsair fleets near the walls of Tripoli. Unfortunately, the Intrepid exploded before reaching its final position, lighting up the dark seas and killing all men on board.
- Type: Bomb Ketch
- Displacement: 64 t
- Length: 60 ft
- Beam: 12 ft
- Propulsion: Sail
- Armament: four guns
USS Ben Morgan: Union Navy’s Hospital Ship
During the American Civil War, the Union Navy acquired USS Ben Morgan, a schooner (some identified it as a ship rigged), to serve as a hospital ship at the Hampton Roads. She took in sick and wounded sailors from the Union warships deployed to blockade the Confederate waterways. Simultaneously, she functioned as a collier and supply ship on the sidelines.
The highlight of her naval career was in 1862 when she received on board wounded men during the deadly incursion of CSS Virginia. After the collapse of the Confederacy, Ben Morgan was decommissioned in 1865 and returned to New York City, where she’d be sold to a private citizen.
- Type: Hospital ship
- Displacement: 414 t
- Draught: 15 ft
- Propulsion: Sail
USS Pawnee: From Sloop-of-War to Hospital/Store Ship
Named after an Indian tribe, the USS Pawnee had her keel first laid in 1858 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and entered service in mid-1860 as a steam-powered sloop-of-war. She mainly served in Washington, D.C., serving as a blockade at the Potomac River, bombarding Confederate armies on shore, and escorting vessels. She also sailed to Hampton Roads to join the Atlantic Blockading Squadron.
The USS Pawnee was temporarily relieved from service in 1865 before being refitted and recommissioned in early 1867, joining the squadron off Rio de Janeiro. She served there for two years, protecting American citizens during the war between Brazil and Paraguay. She was decommissioned again in 1869 before being converted into a hospital/store ship in Norfolk, Virginia. While stationed at Key West, Florida, Pawnee served the troops of the North Atlantic Station until 1875, when she was towed and utilized as a storeship. Her naval career finally ended when she was decommissioned for the last time in 1882 before being sold to a man in New York.
- Type: Steam sloop-of-war
- Displacement: 1,558 t
- Length: 221 ft 6 in
- Beam: 47 ft
- Propulsion: Steam engine/Sail
- Armament: 8×9in (230 mm) guns, 2×12-pounder guns
USS Red Rover: First Official Hospital Ship
USS Red Rover was the very first official Hospital Ship of the U.S. Navy. The ship was a converted six-wheeler steamer that entered service on December 26, 1862. Until the end of the Civil War, she served under the Mississippi Squadron, treating nearly 3,000 patients from both sides. Nurses from the Catholic order Sisters of the Holy Cross are among her complements—the first known female volunteers on board a Navy ship.
Initially, the Red Rover was a Confederate-owned steamer captured by the Union forces and converted into a hospital ship undertaken by the Western Sanitary Commission. She has an operating room that can conduct emergency surgeries and a galley kitchen that provides food for patients. In addition to treating the injured, the Red Rover delivered medical supplies to Navy ships and evacuated personnel from forwarding seas. Other amenities of the hospital ship include “bathrooms, laundry, elevator for the sick from the lower to the upper deck, amputating rooms, nine different water closets, gauze blinds to the windows to keep the cinders and smoke from annoying the sick, two separate kitchens for the sick and well, a regular corps of nurses, and two water closets on every deck.”
The steamer sailed to Mound City, Illinois, when the Civil War ended. She continued caring for Navy patients until her decommissioning in November 1865 and was sold at a public auction.
- Type: Steamer, Hospital ship
- Displacement: 660 t
- Length: 256 ft
- Propulsion: Steam engine, side wheel-propelled
- Armament: 1 × 32-pounder gun
USS Home: A Hospital, Reconnaissance Vessel
Another steamship converted into a hospital ship, the USS Home, was procured by the Union Navy as additional support to fleets assigned near the ports of the Confederates during the Civil War. Her keel was laid down in 1862 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York, before it was purchased and commissioned to service in 1863. But unlike USS Red Rover, Home receives occasional blockade support missions and reconnaissance duties. Her naval career was short, having to end in 1865, and she returned to her original purpose as a merchant’s vessel. Around 1870, while sailing, Home was reported to be stranded and lost off Cape Hatteras in North Carolina, unknown if she made it back home.
- Type: Steamer
- Displacement: 737 t
- Length: 165 ft
- Beam: 29 ft 9 in
- Propulsion: Steam engine, screw-propelled
- Armament: 2×24 pdr (11 kg) howitzers, 1×12 pdr (5.4 kg) rifle
USS Relief: A Floating Ambulance
A converted passenger line, USS Relief served as a floating ambulance for a short period during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
She was built for the passenger line company Maine Steamship circa 1895-96 en route from New York to Maine, bearing the name John Englis. However, her stardom was cut short when the Spanish-American War broke out, and she was sold to the U.S. Army and renamed Relief to serve as a hospital ship. Unable to safely steer around the Pacific, the hospital ship found herself docked in a harbor in Manila, where she cared for over a hundred sick and wounded in 1900. She was then transferred to the U.S. Navy two years later. She remained inactive into 1908 at the Mare Island Navy Yard as the internal debated whether she should be commanded by a line officer or a medical officer. She eventually ended up in the hands of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, commissioning her back to service in the fleet in Mexico.
The “floating hospital” provided expert medical care, including treatment and consultation, to over 14,000 officers and men of the Great White Fleet before dropping her anchor at Olongapo, the Philippines, by November that same year. Relief was en route home when a typhoon caused severe damage that forced her to seek refuge in Cavite, PH. The damage was beyond repair, which made inspectors label her unseaworthy. Nevertheless, Relief continued to serve as a floating hospital stationed at Olongapo, PH, throughout the First World War. In 1918, she was renamed Repose to allow the new hospital ship under construction at the Philadelphia Navy Yard to bear the name USS Relief (AH-1).
- Type: Passenger, converted Hospital ship
- Displacement: 3,300 t
- Length: 314 ft
- Beam:46 ft
- Propulsion: Triple expansion steam engines
- Armament: none
Repose eventually entered mercantile service after being refit and was adopted to serve the Philippines, later renamed Lanao. In 1942, during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, SS Lanao was reported bombed and sunk somewhere in the waters of Cebu.
Today, the U.S. Navy owns two active hospital ships named USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) and USNS Comfort (T-AH 20), providing additional medical assistance to civilians amid the COVID-19 pandemic.