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Aid on Water: A Brief History of Medical Ships

In times of war and disasters, medical ships are called on to render aid.

Aid on Water: A Brief History of Medical Ships
Mercy Ships' "The Africa Mercy" and the Spanish hospital ship "Esperanza del Mar" 1, 2

On March 30, 2020, the medical ship Comfort steamed into New York harbor and on March 27, 2020, the U.S. Navy medical ship Mercy pulled into the Port of Los Angeles cruise ship terminal to aid in the coronavirus pandemic. 

Medical, or hospital ships are operated by the navies of the world to be used in war zones, and to provide disaster or humanitarian relief during hard times.

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Attack on medical ships is prohibited by the Second Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea, which was adopted in 1949. It replaced the Hague Convention of 1907 and is one of the four treaties comprising the Geneva Conventions.

The Hague Convention of 1907 specified that medical ships:

  • Must be clearly marked and lighted as a hospital ship; they are typically painted white with Red Crosses or Red Crescents that signify their Geneva Convention protection
  • Should give medical assistance to wounded personnel of all nationalities
  • Must not be used for any military purpose
  • Must not interfere with or hamper enemy combatant vessels
  • Can be searched to investigate violations of the above restrictions
  • Must disclose their location to all belligerents.

What are medical ships?

While the Athenians and Romans may have had medical ships, the first known medical ship was the Royal Navy's Goodwill which operated in the Mediterranean in 1608.

Later that century, the Royal Navy designated two aging merchant ships as medical ships and staffed them with a surgeon and four surgeon's mates. Food onboard the ships was terrible, with one surgeon describing the biscuits as weevil-ridden, the meat as spoiled, and the bread that was so hard, it stripped the skin off of patient's mouths. 

HMS Melbourne hospital ship
HMS Melbourne medical ship, Source: Illustrated London News/Wikimedia Commons

When the English evacuated the city of Tangier in 1683, eyewitness and famous diarist Samuel Pepys described the use of the medical ships Unity and Welcome to help rescue civilians. By the early 1700s, Royal Navy regulations dictated that each medical ship carry five male nurses, six surgical assistants, and four washerwomen.

In 1798, the English moored two medical ships in Halstow Creek in Kent. The creek was an inlet from the rivers Medway and Thames, and the two medical ships enforced quarantine on ships arriving from outside the country during a time of plague.

Modern medical ships

The first modern medical ships emerged during the British expedition to China in 1860 and the American Civil War, 1861 -1865. The Royal Navy provided two converted steamships, the HMS Melbourne and the HMS Mauritius, which were equipped with operating theaters and were in essence floating hospitals.

USS Red Rover
USS Red Rover, Source: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

In America, the USS Red Rover provided medical care to soldiers of both sides of the conflict.

Beds on USS Red Rover
Beds on USS Red Rover, Source: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

During World War I, the British had two famous medical ships, RMS Aquitania and HMHS Britannic, which was the younger sister of the famous Titanic.

RMS Aquitania
RMS Aquitania, Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the U.S., the first ship built from the keel up as a medical ship was the USS Relief, which launched on December 23, 1919.

USS Relief
USS Relief, Source: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

Relief saw action during World War II when on April 2, 1943, she joined the Pacific Fleet in the battle for the Solomon Islands. She received Army, Navy, and Marine patients as well as Navy personnel.

On April 2, 1945, Relief was attacked by Japanese bombers, but a barrage of anti-aircraft fire from the destroyer USS Wickes drove the Japanese planes off.

Relief spent the remainder of the war at San Pedro Bay, Leyte, the Philippines. She was decommissioned at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard on June 11, 1946, and she was sold for scrap to the Boston Metals Company on March 23, 1948.

Today, medical ships are operated by the governments of Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Peru, Russia, Spain, the U.S., and Vietnam. The charity Mercy Ships operates the fully-equipped MV Africa Mercy.

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