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Relief VI (AH-1)


The sixth Relief was given a name in keeping with the mission of hospital ships.


(AH-1: displacement 10,112; length 483'10"; beam 61'; draft 19'6"; speed 16 knots; complement 375; class Relief)

The sixth Relief (Hospital Ship No.1), the first ship of the U.S. Navy designed and built from the keel up as a hospital ship, was laid down on 14 June 1917 at Philadelphia, Pa., by the Philadelphia Navy Yard; launched on 23 December 1919; given the designation AH-1 on 17 July 1920, and commissioned on 28 December 1920, Cmdr. Richmond C. Holcomb, MC, USN, in command.

With a bed capacity of 500 patients, Relief was one of the world’s most modern and best equipped hospital ships. Assigned to the Atlantic Fleet, she departed Philadelphia on 26 February 1921 to provide fleet units on Caribbean maneuvers with all the facilities of a modern shore hospital.

Relief returned north to Philadelphia 28 April 1921 to serve the Fleet in waters ranging from the Virginia capes to the New England coast. During that service, Capt. Holcomb, a medical corps officer, was relieved of command on 5 September 1921 by Capt. Thomas L. Johnson, a line officer. Following a proclamation made by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, it had been customary for hospital ships to be commanded by medical officers. As review decision of the Judge Advocate General 6 June 1921, however, restored the old tradition of line officer command and, change No. 2 to 1920 Navy Regulations ended the controversy.

Relief continued to serve the Atlantic Fleet until the conclusion of the winter-spring maneuvers of 1923, which took her to Cuba and Panama Bay. Departing the Panama Canal Zone on 31 March 1923 for San Diego, Calif., she arrived there on 12 April. There she relieved Mercy (AH-4) as hospital ship for the Pacific Fleet and participated in Fleet battle problems conducted northward to Alaska and westward to Hawaii. Her usual employment schedule was interrupted on 1 July 1925 when she sailed from Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, to join the Battle Fleet as it made its good will practice cruise via the Samoan Islands to Australia and New Zealand. She returned to San Pedro, Calif., on 26 September 1925 and continued to serve the Pacific Fleet. In the spring of 1931, after an earthquake devastated Managua, Nicaragua, the Navy sent Relief to Corinto to provide medical assistance. She reprised such humanitarian activities when an earthquake caused heavy damage at Long Beach, Calif., in March 1933, providing medical people and supplies.

Relief’s tour of duty with the Pacific Fleet ended on 3 June 1941, when she departed San Diego. Arriving at Norfolk, Va., on 20 June, Relief thereafter served as a base hospital for the Atlantic Fleet in waters from Charleston, S.C., to Newfoundland, her people were awarded the American Defense Service Medal (9—19 October and 25 October—7 December 1941) for their service at that time as the U.S. moved closer to war. She was in port at Argentia when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The following day she got underway via Boston for Norfolk. Returning north, she arrived at Casco Bay, Maine, on 28 April, where she provided for the health needs of men training to man the Navy’s new fighting ships. She also cared for victims of the war in the Atlantic.

Relief departed Casco Bay on 8 February 1943 and put into the Boston Navy Yard to prepare for duty in the Pacific. By the 23rd she was bound via the Panama Canal to the South Pacific Advanced Fleet Base at Nouméa, New Caledonia. The bitter struggle to drive the Japanese from the Solomon Islands was still in progress when she reached her destination on 2 April. Marine, Navy, and Army patients brought out of the combat zones of the Solomons awaited in the New Hebrides for transport to better hospital facilities at Auckland, New Zealand. This evacuation duty kept Relief occupied until 15 November, when she departed Auckland to evacuate battle casualties of the amphibious assaults on the Gilbert Islands.

Relief arrived off Abemama in the Gilberts on 24 November 1943, but immediately retired to Funafuti Atoll, Ellice Islands, to serve as a base hospital there until 4 January 1944. She then performed service off Tarawa in the Gilberts for the remainder of the month. She steamed for the Marshalls on 31 January to care for battle casualties. On the east side of Carlson Island in Kwajalein Lagoon, she received wounded transported by small boat directly from the islands under attack. By the afternoon of 4 February she was bound for Hawaii with 607 patients.

By 21 February 1944, Relief returned to the newly won Marshalls, bringing medical supplies to be used in establishing shore hospitals on Roi Island. After embarking battle casualties from Navy transports, she shifted to Majuro Atoll Lagoon on 4 March. During the following three months, she was the only hospital ship at Majuro where she served some 200,000 officers and men of the Fifth Fleet. With medical facilities ashore limited to dispensary service, Relief provided hospitalization for fleet casualties. During this period, units of the fleet made constant air and surface attacks on the Japanese at Jaluit, Mili, Maloelap, Wotje, and other outlying Marshall Island atolls. Enemy attacks on Eniwetok were repulsed. These operations, as well as attacks made by the fleet against Truk and Palau, produced a large number of battle casualties. Relief admitted 1,329 patients and discharged 693 from 4 March through 4 June 1944.

Relief also served as general medical consultation center for the fleet. From her came recommendations for appropriate action for coping with the problems of sanitation. She also served as medical supply depot for the combatant forces. When the fleet departed the Marshalls on 4 June 1944 for amphibious operations in the Marianas, Relief evacuated her patients by air or surface transport to shore facilities and prepared to evacuate battle casualties of that campaign.

Departing the Marshalls on 21 June 1944, Relief anchored off Saipan three days later to receive casualties directly from the combat then in progress. She departed that night with 656 patients and debarked them safely at Kwajalein on the 29th. Off Saipan again on 15 July, she received 658 patients and again debarked them five days later at Kwajalein. The next morning she was steaming for the Marianas to receive 400 casualties from the battle for Tinian. Nearly all were very serious cases, so field facilities in the Marshalls were bypassed for the better treatment available in Hawaii. Relief entered Pearl Harbor on 15 August. Taking on a maximum load of medical supplies and stores, including one complete field hospital unit, she put to sea on 25 August for return to the Marshalls.

Relief arrived at Eniwetok on 3 September 1944 and transferred 175 tons of medical stores to medical stores barge Silica (IX-151) for the use of Service Squadron 10. Meanwhile, her pathologist and laboratory technicians worked to control an epidemic of bacillary dysentery that had broken out in the harbor. On the morning of 18 September, she steamed for the Palau Islands, arriving off Peleliu and Angaur to receive 759 casualties. Some were discharged prior to sailing, but 680 patients were evacuated to Army and Navy hospitals in New Caledonia. Arriving New Caledonia on 11 October, Relief was ordered to evacuate patients directly to the United States. Taking on 489 patients, she departed Nouméa on 15 October, touching at Pearl Harbor before arriving at San Francisco on 3 November.

Overhaul at General Engineering & Dry Dock Co., Alameda, commenced on 6 November 1944 and extended through 10 February 1945. Three days later, Relief stood out from San Francisco Bay en route to Ulithi, in the Carolines, arriving there on 5 March. Less than a week after the hospital ship’s arrival, on the night of 11 March, two Yokosuka P1Y Ginga [Milky Way] land attack planes [medium bombers] from the 762nd Kōkūtai [land-based naval air group], flying direct from Kanoya, Japan, attacked the U.S. ships arrayed in the anchorage. One crashed the carrier Randolph (CV-15) and the other, perhaps thinking the lighted areas were those of a ship, crashed Sorlen Island. Relief received the casualties from the damaged ship, and over ensuing days, those from task forces returning from operations against the Japanese home islands. The hospital ship departed Ulithi on 26 March and entered Apra Harbor, Guam, the following day, transferring 184 patients ashore in preparation for the Okinawa campaign.

Japanese bombers attacked Relief on 2 April 1945. One bomb fell several yards wide of the ship, but the only damage was temporary loss of suction in a lube oil pump. A barrage of antiaircraft fire from destroyer Wickes (DD-578) drove off the attackers. Relief anchored off the Okinawa invasion beach by day and stood out to sea each night, illuminated “like a Christmas tree.” As massive suicide aerial raids became common at night, the retirement plan was abandoned on 9 April and the hospital ships remained in the anchorage area, taking advantage of the cover of smoke screens and securing their illumination.

On the afternoon of 10 April 1945, Relief steamed for Saipan with 556 battle casualties. She then made a quick run to the fleet base at Ulithi for stores and diesel oil, then steamed back to Okinawa, arriving on 22 April. After delivering a complete field hospital unit, she departed on 26 April with 613 casualties, arriving at Tinian Harbor on the 30th. In four similar missions of mercy, she evacuated nearly 2,000 wounded from Okinawa to hospital facilities at Guam and Saipan.

Relief departed Saipan 7 July 1945 and touched at Guam en route to San Pedro Bay, Leyte, Philippine Islands. She served as a Fleet Base Hospital in the Philippines for the remainder of the war. She departed Subic Bay 28 August, steaming via Okinawa for Dairen, Manchuria. Her mission was the recovery of Allied prisoners of war from the former Japanese military prison camp at Mukden, Manchuria. As Relief passed through the East China and Yellow Seas, escort vessels McNulty (DE-581) and Eugene E. Elmore (DE-686) steamed ahead to destroy any mines that might be sighted.

Appearing before Dairen Kou 8 September 1945, Relief gained no sight of either the tugs or the pilots which the Russians had promised. Entering the unfamiliar harbor, she moored unassisted to Pier No. 2. Dairen was under Russian military control, and shore leave was not permitted, although the Russians magnanimously invited the officers ashore on guided observation tours. The only word of the prisoners was that they were en route by rail from Mukden, some 200 miles north of Dairen. The morning of 11 September, a USN doctor and a USMC sergeant reported on board from the camp, and they brought word of the approximate number and condition of Relief’s prospective passengers, and the three days of enforced waiting had enabled Relief to prepare to receive them.

“When they finally began to arrive at 2050,” wrote an observer on board Relief, “the scene was dramatic and poignant. They were heard before they were seen. Then, from out of the darkness beyond the docks, the first of them stepped into the glare of the dock floodlights, first one or two, then 10, then the whole procession. They carried all their worldly possessions on their backs or in duffle bags.”

“The entire ship’s company manned the rail to greet them. As the ex-prisoners crowded the dock at the foot of the gangway,” the hospital ship’s eyewitness continued, “the ship’s crew shouted over the rail to them, tossing them cigarettes, swapping stories, finding out where they were from ‘Back in the States.’ The ship’s Red Cross lights and green bands had been illuminated, and the ship started Stateside music, playing over the ship’s public address system – Dixie, The Marine Hymn, Stardust, etc. The Relief was the first American ship these men had seen in three years; in some cases, four…”

By 2245, the last of the recovered men, 753 souls all told, had been embarked: besides 518 Americans, the senior of whom was Col. L. S. Churchill, USAAF, formerly of the Far East Air Force, there were Dutch, British, and Australians. Although the nationalities represented by the “Recovered Allied Military Personnel” (RAMP) varied, they were all the same mind in asking first for a hot shower. By midnight, most of the repatriated men had been provided a bed, but soon thereafter, as Relief’s chronicler related:

“After everything was quiet, some of the ex-prisoners, hungry for conversation with Americans, and too excited to sleep, stayed about the decks, swapping yarns with the crew, or listening avidly to accounts of what had been going on at home during the past four years. They wanted to know who the movie stars were, what songs were being sung; they listened proudly to descriptions of the rocket guns, and the accounts of Kwajalein, Okinawa, Guam, etc.”

Later that night, two civilian internees came on board Relief for transportation, and the following morning, 12 September 1945, the ship set out for Okinawa, outbound to freedom. Relief stood in to Buckner Bay, three days later, but before she could transfer the former POWs to shore, however, she received orders to stand out to sea to evade a typhoon. Returning to Buckner Bay on 18 September, she debarked her passengers by noon.

On the 26th of September 1945, Relief steamed for Taku, China, arriving on the 30th to provide medical facilities for the leathernecks of the First Marine Division assigned to occupation duty in North China. This service continued until 24 October, when Relief was ordered to carry patients to the west coast of the United States.

Relief embarked patients at Tsingtao, Okinawa, and Guam, and then steamed for home, arriving at San Francisco on 30 November. By this time the war service of the hospital ship had included steaming the equivalent of nearly four times around the world and the evacuation of nearly 10,000 fighting men as patients from scenes of combat in nearly every military campaign area of the Pacific Theatre. Her last transpacific voyage commenced on 15 December 1945 when she stood out of San Francisco Bay for Yokosuka, Japan, arriving on 4 January 1946. She embarked Navy passengers there before proceeding to Saipan and Guam. When she stood out from Apra Harbor on 5 January, she carried 282 patients and 717 returning veterans.

She arrived at San Francisco on 2 February 1946, debarked her passengers, and got underway for the east coast on the 19th, arriving at Norfolk on the 28th. She was decommissioned at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard on 11 June 1946.

Stricken from the Navy Register on 19 July 1946, ex-Relief was delivered to the War Shipping Administration at 6:00 p.m. on 1 August 1946 at the Maritime Commission’s Lee Hall, Va., James River location. Sold to Boston Metals Co. on 30 December 1947, the vessel was delivered at 10:15 a.m. to John S. Kordek, agent for the purchaser, on 23 March 1948, and withdrawn from the Reserve Fleet soon thereafter to be broken up.

Relief received five battle stars for her World War II service.

Updated, Robert J. Cressman,

3 April 2020



Published: Sat Apr 04 13:59:40 EDT 2020