USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) and USNS Comfort (T-AH 20)

More than four decades passed before similarly named vessels took to the sea again as hospital ships.

As the United States ramped up its opposition to the Soviet Union and Iran in the 1980s, the Navy had a fleet goal of 600 ships.

As part of this build-up, the Navy undertook a series of programs to increase its ability to deploy forces around the world, but an issue remained about how to handle the wounded from a conflict.

The last remaining US Navy hospital ships were converted C-4 Haven-class freighters, left over from the Second World War.

Two of them—USS Repose (AH-16) and Sanctuary (AH-17)—served in the Vietnam War and the latter remained on the Navy’s roll, but her reliability and utility were questionable.

To support the new Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, what later became Central Command,

The Navy needed a ship capable of receiving patients from the battlefield and providing on-site emergency and recuperative care.

In addition to its medical capabilities, it had to be able to operate in nearly any condition or sea state.

Two San Clemente-class T-8-class supertankers, SS Worth and SS Rose City, were acquired for this role.

Originally owned by Apex Marine as part of an eleven-ship class built at the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO) in San Diego,

They were 894 feet in length with a beam of 105’ 9” and drew 32’ 9”—the maximum dimensions allowed to transit the Panama Canal.

In 1984, NASSCO started the work to convert the two ships for this new role. Renamed Mercy and Comfort, the ships were delivered in 1986 and 1987 respectively.

Unlike their earlier sisters, these ships harkened back to the earliest Navy hospital ships:

They were assigned to the Military Sealift Command, with a civilian master and the Navy commanding the onboard medical treatment facility.

At over 69,000 tons, the ships were the largest vessels in the US Navy except for the nuclear aircraft carriers and were capable of reaching 17.5 knots.

With an operating crew of 70 civilian mariners and 1,200 medical personnel drawn from hospitals and facilities ashore when deployed, each of the new vessels was akin to any modern shore-based hospital.

Each ship had on board a CT scanner,

Four radiology suites, twelve operating rooms, an isolation ward, eighty intensive care beds,

USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) and USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) and a total capacity for a thousand patients.

After conducting an exercise to the Philippines in 1987, USNS Mercy went into a reduced operating status on the West Coast.

USNS Comfort was sent to her new home port on the East Coast, Baltimore, Maryland.

On 7 August 1990, the United States announced its intention to defend the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from potential Iraqi aggression following that nation’s invasion of Kuwait.

Mercy and Comfort would serve in the Persian Gulf until March 1991,

USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) and USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) supporting both Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Comfort alone treated more than 8,000 patients, and both were on duty during the initial strikes and for the abortive amphibious assault against Kuwait.

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