Pictured Above: the USNS Comfort, one of the United States' two hospital ships
Photo Source: US Southern Command
In the realm of military medicine, hospital ships have had a long and storied history as safe places to tend to the wounded outside of the battlefield. Even in Roman and Greek ancient times (U.S. Naval Institute). In recent times, hospital ships have been used in different humanitarian efforts, including the current Covid-19 pandemic.
While we have evidence of medical ships in ancient times, it wasn’t until the 17th century where it was basically a requirement for any naval fleet to have a hospital ship with them (Research Gate). The United States debuted its first hospital ship in 1803 during the Barbary Wars (U.S. Department of Defense). The USS Intrepid was converted into a hospital boat to help tend to the wounded. From there, most United States hospital boats were boats that were used for other purposes. For instance, our two current hospital boats, the USNS Mercy and the USNS Comfort, used to be oil tankards designed to carry around bulk materials.
Hospital boats as they are known now follow something called the Geneva Convention, a series of treaties and protocols established in the early 1900s. They are known by being painted white with a big red cross on them. They are not allowed to be used for any military purpose, and they cannot be attacked either (The Balance Careers). Hospital ships are also supposed to heal all wounded personnel regardless of nationality. The kind of hospital ships being used by the United States military are essentially floating functional hospitals with plenty of hospital beds and the technology one would find in a modern land hospital (Global Security). Only two other countries (China and Russia) own and operate these kinds of larger ships. Other countries may use other kinds of hospital ships such as hospital launches (which are designed for smaller, local populations) or evacuation and personnel transport vehicles (designed for evacuation and small-scale medical assistance). These other types are not technically hospital ships as denoted in the Geneva Conventions and do not have all the same privileges as traditional hospital ships, though they do still provide medical support.
Hospital ships have seen plenty of military use throughout history, though in times of peace they have become more relevant tools for humanitarian efforts and influence. The United States’ hospital ships were deployed to medically assist Puerto Rico in the wake of the 2017 Hurricane. In more recent efforts, the hospital ships Mercy and Comfort were deployed to both coasts of the United States to help assist in Covid-19 efforts. To help lift the burden from land hospitals, they are currently acting as medical care for non-Covid related illnesses.
Despite the amount of help Mercy and Comfort provide, there has been some talk of putting these hospital ships to rest. They have been around for at least 50 years (which is quite old in ship age), and it is getting harder to find people who are able to run and maintain those kinds of ships (Defense News). According to the National Defense Authorization Act, the Navy cannot decommission the hospital ships until they find a suitable replacement. Hospital ships were originally designed to contain mass casualties in war, not necessarily humanitarian missions. While they have yet to find a suitable replacement, the new direction of hospital ships in the Navy may be geared more towards smaller, more humanitarian-focused vessels for a wider variety of missions.
Hospital ships have a long and storied role in military history. Even in times of peace, it has been used as a beacon for humanitarian efforts. Mercy and Comfort are being used to help during the Covid-19 pandemic. While there are some plans to decommission these vessels in favor of new ones, they have still served to help in plenty of humanitarian and relief efforts. In a time of fear of uncertainty, these vessels are again being used to hopefully serve as both a symbol of hope and to help those trying to fight against the current pandemic.