The third U.S. Navy ship named for the general word classification associated with hospital ships. The first Mercy was built in 1907 as Saratoga; purchased by the Navy from the War Department on 27 September 1917, renamed Mercy on 30 October 1917, reclassified to AH‑4 on 17 July 1920, and served from 1918–1938. Mercy (APH‑2) was renamed Pinkney on 13 August 1942 before commissioning. The second Mercy (AH-8) was transferred to the Army on 20 June 1945, and served from 1944–1945.
(T-AH-19: displacement 69,360; length 894'; beam 106'; draft 33'; speed 17 knots; complement 62; armament none, aircraft helicopter landing deck; class Mercy)
The third Mercy (T-AH-19) was laid down as San Clemente-class merchant oil tanker Worth on 1 December 1974 at San Diego, Calif., by National Steel and Shipbuilding Co.; launched on 1 July 1975; subsequently acquired by the Military Sealift Command (MSC); sponsored by Mrs. Helen K. Copley, publisher The San Diego Union-Tribune; and placed in service with the MSC on 8 November 1986, Cmdr. James E. Hanrahan, MSC, officer-in-charge cadre crew.
The MSC initially defined the ship’s mission: “The ship will be maintained in a Reduced Operating Status (ROS) in a Continental U.S. port and will be capable of deployment within five days from issuance of sailing orders. This includes necessary support personnel and a 15 day supply of consumables. Non-essential medical personnel plus a limited quantity of medical stores will be airlifted to the theater of operations, to be brought aboard within 12 hours of the ship’s arrival on station.”
“While the ship is in ROS, a cadre of medical technicians will maintain medical equipment and medical supply control maintenance. Operational readiness will be provided by a reduced civilian crew. The T-AH-19 class ship will deploy for training for about seven days on a semi-annual basis.”
The command later amended her mission to: “Provide an afloat, mobile, acute surgical medical facilities when called upon to the U.S. military, and hospital services to support U.S. disaster relief and humanitarian operations worldwide.”
Mercy deployed for Operations Desert Shield, Desert Sword, and Desert Sabre, from 9 August 1990 (she sailed six days later) to 23 April 1991. The ship’s medical teams performed complex surgical procedures that often proved impossible to perform in the limited combat hospitals ashore.
On 26 December 2004, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurred off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, triggering a tsunami across the Indian Ocean littoral. The waves reached heights of 30 feet in shallow waters and a width sometimes extending to six miles, and the disaster killed more than 230,000 people. Combined Support Force 536 coordinated Operation Unified Assistance—multinational relief efforts. United States naval forces often reached disaster zones before international aid agencies, and aircraft delivered supplies and emergency responders to otherwise inaccessible inland areas. Aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), at Hong Kong when the disaster struck, soon received orders directing her to assist relief efforts, and she sailed from Hong Kong on 28 December. Upon arrival in the stricken region, the ship maneuvered off the Indonesian coast from positions near Banda Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra that provided strategic locations near to the areas devastated by the tsunami, facilitating efforts to reach victims of the tragedy.
Additional ships that supported those operations included amphibious assault ships Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) and Essex (LHD-2) -- that relieved Bonhomme Richard on 18 January 2005 -- dock landing ships Fort McHenry (LSD-43) and Rushmore (LSD-47), amphibious transport dock Duluth, guided missile cruiser Bunker Hill (CG-52), guided missile destroyer Milius (DDG-69), guided missile frigate Thach (FFG-43), and Coast Guard high endurance cutter Munro (WHEC-724). At various times, vessels of the MSC also supported Unified Assistance including Mercy, combat store ships Niagara Falls (T-AFS 3) and San Jose (T-AFS-7), and oilers John Ericsson (T-AO-194), Tippecanoe (T-AO-199) and Yukon (T-AO-202).
Maritime prepositioning ships of the command that took part in these humanitarian relief operations comprised container and roll-on/roll-off ships PFC James Anderson Jr. (T-AK-3002), Cpl Louis J. Hauge Jr. (T-AK-3000), 1st Lt Alex Bonnyman (T-AK-3002), 1st Lt Harry L. Martin (T-AK-3015), 1st Lt Jack Lummus (T-AK-3011), and Maj Stephen W. Pless (T-AK-3007). Oceanographic survey ships John McDonnell (T-AGS-51) and Mary Sears (T-AGS-65) conducted hydrographic surveys of the ocean bottom off the Indonesian coast, near the epicenter of the earthquake, to collect data to assist in predicting natural disasters.
Four Sikorsky SH-60B Seahawks of Helicopter Antisubmarine Squadron Light (HSL) 47 and some SH-60Fs and HH-60Hs of Helicopter Antisubmarine Squadron (HS) 2, embarked on board Abraham Lincoln, began to ferry supplies from collection points in Sumatra to victims, during the early morning hours of 1 January 2005. The helicopter intensive nature of the support missions required the Seahawks to log over 1,000 hours—more than three times the expected wear-and-tear on the helos during their standard deployments.
Mercy continued her humanitarian voyages during subsequent years, including Medical Civil Action Program 2006 with a number of other commands (24 April–27 September 2006); Pacific Partnership 2008 with at times amphibious assault ship Peleliu (LHA-5) (1 May–19 September 2008); Pacific Partnership 2010 (1 May–21 September 2010); Pacific Partnership 2012 (1 May–14 September 2012); Pacific Partnership 2015 (17 May–27 September 2015); Pacific Partnership 2016 (11 May–30 September 2016); and Pacific Partnership 2018 (23 February–21 July 2018).
When the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic broke out in 2020, Mercy again answered her nation’s call to help and moored to the Los Angeles World Cruise Center, San Pedro, Calif., on 27 March. Two days later the ship accepted her first patient.
“The men and women embarked on board Mercy are energized, eager, and ready to provide relief to those in need,” Capt. John Rotruck, who led the ship’s Military Treatment Facility, observed.
The Navy provided the ship as a referral hospital for non-COVID-19 patients admitted to hospitals ashore, and without cost to the patients. She also offered a comprehensive suite of critical care, general surgeries, and ward care for adults. Mercy’s deployment thus enabled healthcare professionals ashore to focus on treating COVID-19 patients, and for hospitals to use their Intensive Care Units and ventilators for those people.
The Department of Health and Human Services established patient transfer protocols to carefully ensure the safety and security of the people the ship and her crew helped. The medical teams assessed patients upon their need on a case-by-case basis and, once they identified their situation, screened them prior to transfer, strictly enforcing control procedures.
Mark L. Evans
2 April 2020