Through war and peace, American hospital ships have served the country since 1804 and the First Barbary War. Although these floating hospitals embark on missions of mercy, they have also become victims of the war. During the Second World War, two dozen hospital ships were sunk by enemy fire, and a critical hospital ship suffered a destructive attack in the final weeks of the war.
Commissioned in 1944, the second USS Comfort transported wounded soldiers from the Pacific Theater battlefields to field hospitals in Australia, New Guinea and the United States. While Allied forces were making their final push to Japan in April 1945, the U.S. Navy hospital ship joined the invading force during the Battle of Okinawa.
Doris Gardner Howard, a lieutenant in the United States Army Nursing Corps, watched the final bloody battle of the Second World War unfold through the portlights of the ship. The terrible reality of the battle was manifested in the endless parade of ambulances delivering soldiers with beaten bodies and broken souls.
The 25-year-old Wisconsin native cared for patients who had amputations and shrapnel as well as those severely burned during suicide bombing strikes on the Fifth Fleet. Although the Geneva Conventions have declared hospital ships prohibited from attack, the carnage of war has quickly invaded the depths USS Comfort.
The explosion shakes the comfort of the USS
The bright white paint of the hospital ship shone in the light of a full moon as it sailed 50 miles off Okinawa on the night of April 28, 1945. Inside the post-service surgical USS Comfort, Howard began his 12-hour night shift to treat some of the 517 patients on the ship.
She had gotten into the habit of hearing enemy planes roaring over him and feeling the ship shake so violently that it felt like it could overturn when nearby ships sank under the stormy waters. But as she stood by her medicine cabinet loading a penicillin syringe, she felt a jolt like never before.
“I had to grab a stool because the ship was shaking,” recalls Howard, who turned 100 in 2020. “And over the loudspeaker came the call” Leave the ship! Abandoned ship!'”
the USS Comfort had been hit by a Japanese suicide pilot who had directed his plane at the massive Red Cross emblem painted on the hull of the ship as if it were a bubble. The suicide bomber hit the heart of the floating hospital, plunging across its bridges and into the surgery unit, instantly killing six nurses, four surgeons and seven patients.
When the gasoline on the plane caught fire, it set off a massive explosion that made Howard fly, she recalls. “I was blown away from my feet. I only weighed 85 pounds. I was thrown about two meters against a bulkhead and I landed with my entire spine against the bulkhead and split my head. I had trouble getting up. When help arrived, Howard also discovered that she had lost her hearing.
Despite his injuries, Howard refused to abandon his post or the soldiers in her charge, even with orders to abandon the ship. She might not have been able to save them, but neither was she going to let them die alone. “We knew we didn’t have enough lifeboats,” said Howard. “I kept telling the young man next to my desk that I would not be leaving. I had a vision of our descent with the ship. ”
A hospital ship was deliberately targeted
As rescue crews searched the wreckage and put out the fires, the order to abandon the ship was canceled. Their surgical, radiographic and laboratory facilities being destroyed, the medical personnel on board the USS Comfort converted the mess into an operating room and the hair salon into a first aid station.
According to a report from the United States Navy, among the 700 passengers on the ship, 30 died, 48 were injured and one soldier missing in action was killed. Howard’s hearing gradually returned and she continued her regular shifts. Now injured, the paralyzed hospital ship sailed to Guam and received temporary repairs before continuing California.
Although international law prohibits attacks on hospital ships, it appears USS Comfort was deliberately targeted, possibly in retaliation for the torpedoing of the unarmed Japanese ship Awa Maru, which had been declared a Red Cross relief vessel.
The April 1, 1945 incident, in which an American submarine mistook the relief ship for a destroyer, killed 2,000 Japanese merchant and military sailors and led a Radio Tokyo program to declare a week later: “We have the right to bomb hospital ships while they are used as repair ships for the return of the wounded to the combat front. ”
As an advanced hospital ship in Okinawa, the USS Comfort was a natural target. According to a report from the United States Navy, a suicide bomber was killed within 75 meters of the bow of the ship on April 6 and three bombs were dropped near the ship on April 9 but missed their target. However, the suicide bomber appears to have struck his mark as a document found with his body lists potential targets, including hospital ships.
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Disarmed in 1946, the USS Comfort received two battle stars for his participation in the Leyte and Okinawa campaigns. Howard was awarded a Women’s Corps service medal and an Asia Pacific campaign medal for service, which caused permanent pain in his spine and damage to his left ear.
The actions of Howard and his military colleagues also earned praise from Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the American Pacific Fleet, who said, “The cool and efficient manner in which the Comfort encountered the situation when a Japanese plane attacked her while she was on a mission of mercy is a source of pride and gratification. ”