Kamikaze attacks USS Comfort hospital ship, more than 700 souls aboard, WWII
"Kamaretta red, smoke boat make smoke"
Lts. Dorris "Dorrie" Gardner and Mary Rodden, both Wisconsin girls, both Army nurses, were aboard the USS Comfort hospital ship when she was struck amidships by a Japanese kamikaze during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. They both survived, but 28 died, including six nurses, and 48 were wounded. Some say the numbers were higher. These two courageous women represent many thousands, some 59,000 Army nurses who served in WWII, abroad and in the US. This story is dedicated to all those American military nurses, then and now, who cared for their "boys," their "guys" in combat the world over.
By Ed Marek, editor
Update October 17, 2012: George Klauba is self-taught in fine art and has been in numerous exhibitions since 1980. His work is also in public and private collections in Massachusetts and Illinois. He saw this article and sent me an image of a painting he did on the attack against the USS Comfort. This is it.
Update April 8, 2012: Dorene Lynch, daughter of David C. Burns, has sent us a set of photos Mr. Burns acquired while aboard the USS Comfort as part of the Army medical crew. He served as a medic and was aboard during the attack. I have added her contribution at the end of this report. There are, in my view, some historic photos in the Burns Collection.
Update July 3, 2010: Doris “Dorrie” Gardner Howard has been invited by the Commander of the USNS Comfort to be his guest at the Changing of Command ceremony onboard the ship in its dock in Baltimore, Maryland on July 8, 2010. Doris will be accompanied by her son, Billy Howard of Reno. She will be escorted on a tour of the Comfort by Director of Nursing, Commander Mark Marino before celebrating at a ceremony for Capt. J. J. Ware, outgoing Commanding Officer of the Comfort. Ms. Howard commented, “What an honor it is to return to the Comfort. I want to run and see my stateroom, but I keep reminding myself this is a different Comfort than the one I was on, new and modern. She has given aid in Haiti recently and I have always kept track of the many humanitarian trips she has made throughout the world."
December 25, 2007
The USS Comfort (AH-6), a Hospital Ship, was struck by a Japanese kamikaze suicide plane while in waters offshore Okinawa, during the Battle of Okinawa, on April 28, 1945. There were at least 700 souls aboard, many wounded in fight for Okinawa, all on their way to the hospital on Guam. The official records say that 28 died in the attack, including six nurses, with 48 wounded. The ship suffered serious damage, but made it to port in Guam.
Lt. Gardner was originally from Kenosha, Wisconsin, Rodden from a small rural town. Gardner married to become Doris Howard. She now lives in Reno, Nevada. We have been unable to track Mary Rodden.
These two courageous women represent many thousands, some 59,000 Army nurses who served in WWII, abroad and in the US. And then, of course, there were Navy nurses, only about 1,000 at the beginning of WWII, and about 11,000 by war's end. These "Angels of WWII" saved many lives, friend and foe, and lived under harsh conditions and often as close to combat as you could get them given that you were trying to keep them "to the rear" and still enable them to care for their "boys."
This story is dedicated to all those American military nurses, then and now, who cared for their "boys," their "guys" in combat the world over. Use this story to try to experience what they experienced in the Pacific in WWII. You can extrapolate that to sense what they have experienced elsewhere, then and now.
Overall, some 9,000 women from Wisconsin served in all branches of the military during WWII. To our knowledge, only one died in action.
She was 2nd Lt. Ellen Ainsworth from Glenwood City. She was an Army nurse, serving in Europe, in Anzio, Italy. She died on February 16, 1944 from wounds when a hospital unit was bombed during the Battle of Anzio. She moved patients by flashlight to safety and died several days later from wounds she received. She received the Silver Star and Purple Heart, posthumous. Lt. Ainsworth was among the first four woman in our military history to receive the Silver Star, the military’s third highest ranking medal, received for valor in combat.
The Army report on Lt. Ainsworth said this, in part:
"By her disregard for her own safety and her calm assurance she instilled confidence in her assistants and her patients, thereby preventing serious panic and injury. Her courage under fire and her selfless devotion to duty were an inspiration to all who witnessed her actions."
"Knowing that our best professional efforts were unable to save the life of this gallant nurse and that in a matter of hours she would pay the supreme sacrifice ... brought not only sadness and a feeling of great loss ... but vividly impressed on us the seriousness of our situation."
The Germans attacked this hospital several times.
Before we start describing the events affecting the Comfort on April 28, 1945, we found a poem published in 1918 by William Nelson Morell about the first USS Comfort, in his book, Rhymes of the Fleet. It sets the stage.
The USS Comfort (Hospital Ship)
USS Comfort at anchor, 1919, she was formerly the Passenger Steamship Havana and was decomissioned in 1921. Presented by the US Navy Historical Center.
"They never billeted a better crew
That set out of any port,
Than that which carried the wounded through
The war zone, on the Comfort.
I'd stake my life on anyone
Of my shipmates on that ship,
From early morn to setting sun
On land, in port, or ocean trip.
We've filled high-up her cargo-decks
Brimful with healing medical stores
For wounded, sick, and dying wrecks,
Balams of Gilead for battle sores.
We'll sail full-blast, with all lights on
Through the sub-infested zone
And we carry not a blessed gun,
Fate alone, will bring us home!"
In WWII, American forces in the Pacific had battled their way from the attack on Pearl Harbor of December 7, 1941 to score a major victory over the Japanese at Midway just six months later. They then sailed to the South Pacific and fought up the island chains in the Central Pacific and through New Guinea and the Philippines in the Southwest Pacific to converge on Okinawa in March and April 1945.
Okinawa had to be invaded for several reasons. First, it is within 320 miles of the southern island of Japan, Kyushu. Second, the US military leadership was fairly certain our forces would have to invade Japan proper to get an unconditional surrender, and Okinawa was needed for such an endeavor. Finally, the Japanese considered Okinawa one of their Home Islands. Losing it would be a serious blow to Japanese morale at home, and as events would turn, would destroy her fleet once and for all. Finally, taking Okinawa would demand a massive commitment of human and material resources, a prelude to what it would be needed to invade Japan itself. General Douglas MacArthur was in command with Admiral Chester Nimitz supporting.
The 2nd MARDIV feinted a landing in southeast Okinawa, red circle, while two Marine and two Army divisions would invade "amidships" on the western shore, green rectangle. Map presented by wikipedia.
The invasion of Okinawa began on April 1, 1945. It was codenamed "Operation Iceberg." It was an invasion led by the 10th US Army employing two corps, the III Amphibious Corps (III AC) and the XXIV Army Corps. The III AC consisted of the 1st and 6th Marine Divisions (MARDIVs), while the Army’s XXIV Corps consisted of the 7th and 96th Infantry Divisions. The 2nd MARDIV conducted a feinting action against one set of beaches on the southeast coast while the four divisions of the 10th US Army landed on the main invasion beaches on the other side of the island, on the west coast.
The Navy would employ eight task forces and one Demonstration Group, the latter of which carried the 2nd MARDIV on its deception operation.
Invasion preparation began with intensive naval artillery and air fire between October 1944 through April 1945. US forces also invaded and occupied small islands in the Ryukyus Group that were needed to protect the main invasion.
During this time, the main threats to naval forces at sea were the kamikaze aircraft and the small suicide boats, the former presenting a huge threat, the latter a smaller threat.
Close-up of a Japanese kamikaze just before he crashed on LISS Essex-25, November 1944. Photo credit: Earl Colgrove, Lt. Commander, USNR. US Navy photo. Presented by B-26 Marauder Archive.
This National Archives Photo 127-N-140564 presented by the National Park Service shows scores of suicide motorboats ready for operations against a US invasion of the Home Islands.
The Japanese objective was to cause great, hopefully, from their view, intolerable damage and destruction to US naval forces prior to the main invasion. Given that Japanese naval and air forces had taken multiple debilitating defeats through three years of aggressive American offensive operations, the suicide kamikaze played a major defensive role for the Japanese at Okinawa. The kamikaze, by this time, was the main line of defense for Japan's Home Islands.
On April 1, 1945 an American fleet of some 1,300 ships was positioned in the neighborhood of Okinawa, loaded with firepower, aircraft, landing forces, and equipment, ready to invade. For all their efforts, the Japanese were unable to stop this approaching armada, laden with five US combat divisions, each one combat hardened and prepared to destroy the Japanese in this battle.
The landings on Okinawa were made by amphibious landing craft where were directed to shore by control craft. Heavy naval bombardment blanketed the beaches with smoke, dust and shrapnel. This bombardment would stop and the smoke and dust would lift just as the first waves of troops touched down on the beaches. Presented by the US Army.
Landing four divisions for this kind of situation is about as complex a military operation as can be executed. An incredible amount of choreography and timing is required. Bombard the beaches from sea with everything you have, send in fighter and fighter-bomber aircraft to bomb and attack every position they can attack, form up the multiple waves of landing craft, load them with landing forces, get each wave out to sea and formed up, and turn them toward the beaches to come in one, two, three, one after the other, the initial waves loaded with men, followed by tanks and artillery, followed by reinforcements followed by supplies etc. Once such a force is launched, there is no turning back. Each wave has to do its job, support the wave that went in before it, and get out of the way of the wave that’s coming in right behind it, wave after wave. Get on the beach, get off the beach, another wave is coming in, secure the beach, another wave is coming in, fight to the interior, call for fire, get your wounded out of there, move forward, forward, forward, rest if you can, if not, keep fighting, take your objectives and hold them, prepare for counterattack at night, banzai attacks, beat 'em back, hold and move forward again, keep moving your wounded back toward the beach.
What you do not see in the first photo is better shown here, the enormous armada offshore pouring in reinforcements and supplies and taking out wounded, with Navy cruisers and destroyers out there waiting for instructions from shore or from the air where to bombard and when. And, of course, there are the carriers out there launching and recovering attack aircraft to support the entire operation. All the time, all these ships are fending off kamikaze and air attacks, and fire coming from the shore and from enemy naval vessels at sea. Photo presented by the US Coast Guard, which was very involved in this operation.
USS Relief (AH-1)
USS Comfort (AH-6)
In the midst of all this, there were two hospital ships, the USS Relief (AH-1) and the USS Comfort (AH-6). A total of 13 such ships operated in combat zones throughout the Pacific (we have also seen the number 15 used). These two were on scene to support this one.
During the initial attacks, they stood off to the rear, out in international waters, usually alone, waiting for the order to come to move in and take wounded. But first, the initial waves had to get in there, and get their jobs done. Combat medics, always men, went in with the landing forces. They would grab as many of the wounded as they could during the landings, get them to the beach, care for them as best they could, and wait to move them to other ships for transport out.
This is a good time to provide a broad overview of the sequence of events from the time a trooper was wounded to the time he got aboard the Relief or Comfort. We'll have to use photos from various battles to outline it.
The first order of business is to give the patient immediate care, wherever he is, and get him to the next echelon for improved care.
If a soldier is hit while heading on the beach, medics would do the best they could to hold him together and get him to a protected area until the landing force could get control of the beach. If he were hit after leaving the beach, to the interior, the medics would work to get him back to the beach. Once able, oft times even under fire, soldiers would move their wounded to a landing craft that just dropped off soldiers or supplies, and get the injured trooper to a ship out in the anchorage, if possible, to a transport, or another landing craft that could either loiter and offer care or move him to a larger ship. There was much improvisation to all this, combatants doing the best they could under the circumstances, an American GI's strong point, I might add. American GIs can improvise on the run as well or better than anyone else in the world.
Once the force has taken the beach and secured it, and moved inland, then medics would set up aid stations between the battle lines and the beach. Then the trick is to get the wounded soldier(s) to the aid station, and then to the beach, if required.
Here you see a light tank loading up a wounded troop. This looks like Europe. The tank was nice because it was fast, it had protection, could fight its way out, and could drive through the mud. But many times our forces would have to upload their wounded on whatever would move. The Jeep was used a lot, for example, one, two, three patients, as many as you could balance on the thing. Presented by US Army Medical Department
Life was not always so accommodating to have a vehicle handy, especially in the Pacific jungles. Here you see a litter evacuation through a rain-swollen stream in Leyte, the Philippines. Presented by US Army Medical Department.
Evacuating wounded in the Pacific jungles could get very tough indeed. Many of the Pacific Islands had mountainous terrain, as shown here on Luzon, the Philippines. The Japanese frequently were dug in the mountains, or would retreat to them, and our men carrying litters through tough terrain were sitting ducks for enemy snipers. Presented by US Army Medical Department.
Administration of plasma at an aid station, Leyte Island, Philippines. Presented by US Army Medical Department
Here at the aid station, the medics have some security and have more medical supplies to try to stabilize their patient and get him ready for the next move, or get him back in the fight.
Tent housing operating facilities of a portable surgical hospital, Consuegra, Leyte Island. Presented by US Army Medical Department
There might be several aid stations between the front and the beach. Depending on how well the battle is going, there would be a makeshift field hospital as the next stop before the beach. Surgery could be done here. If possible, which it was in the Philippines and Okinawa, a field hospital would move into a building, of any sort, for additional protection.
Airfields in the Pacific were almost always the major immediate objective of the landing, a base from which fighters and bombers could launch attacks, transports could deliver supplies, and air evacuation of wounded could occur. Here you see a patient being loaded on to a C-47. Presented by US Army Medical Department. Our fighting boys would use any aircraft they had. We've seen pictures of patients being loaded on some pretty darn small aircraft. Whatever it took to get him out of there.
More often than not in the Pacific, by hook or by crook the wounded had to get to the beach. Some were already there, hit early on, others were brought from aid stations, or from somewhere in between where they were hit. This photo shows Marines carrying a wounded brother to the beach on Iwo Jima. Presented by Seacoast Marines.
The medics had to get them in as good shape as possible so they could be loaded onto a landing craft, off the beach, and to the next levels of medical care. This is a scene at Iwo Jima. You can see some troopers have already died. Presented by Seacoast Marines.
The mix here of wounded and dead could get complicated, and a lot of effort had to be expended to identify, tag and count. In short, an accounting had to be made as best as could be done under the conditions. This again is Iwo Jima. Presented by Seacoast Marines.
In this photo, you see the evacuation of wounded from the beach to landing craft for transfer to hospital ships at Normandy, on D-day, August 15, 1944. Presented by US Army Medical Department.
In this photo, you see wounded troops from Iwo Jima being hoisted from a landing or amphibian craft below up to a ship, usually to a transport ship waiting off shore. Presented by the USMC. Quite often, Landing Ship Tanks (LST) would operate as an auxiliary hospital ship, until their wounded could be moved to transports or hospital ships.
The business of brothers in arms evacuating their wounded was dangerous from start to finish. One can only imagine what it was like for the wounded trooper being moved around and finally getting to a hospital ship. Many arrived there with life and death surgeries yet to be performed, many wondering or not even knowing how they made it that far.
The male medics went in with the landing forces and took care of the troops until field hospitals could be set up. Some medics would get sensitive when the nurses arrived to outfit the field hospitals. There would be some friction there in the handoff of patients. Whatever, they all did their job, that's for sure.
For those who needed to get back to the US, this is a photo of medical crews waiting to off-load a hospital ship in Charleston, South Carolina. You can see the litters ready to receive patients. What you don't see are all the trucks and ambulances waiting to take them to hospital. Presented by WW2 US Medical Research Centre.
This is a painting of the USS Comfort during WWII done by Mark Churms, who has done marvelous naval and maritime art for some time, and who you can commission to do something special for you.
Let's now talk about the Hospital Ships.
A few comments need to be made with regard to how these ships are marked and why. To do this, we are using a painting done by Mark Churms, shown above.
They were painted white instead of battleship grey. Each had a broad green stripe painted around the hull parallel to the water line. Red crosses were painted on their sides, superstructure decks, and stack. All of this was done to identify the ship clearly as a hospital ship. These ships also were rigged with extensive lighting. These lights would be turned on at night to make the ship plainly and easily visible as a hospital ship.
All together, this meant the ship was a hospital ship with wounded troops aboard and nothing else except crew, and this kind of ship was not to be attacked, a rule governed by the regulations of International Law as outlined in the Geneva and Hague conventions.
If the ships were to turn off their illumination, they would discard their claim of immunity. This did happen on occasion, especially when trying to upload casualties behind or inside smoke screens.
As a general rule, the hospital ships would work hard to avoid normal shipping lanes, and would sail alone: unarmed, alone, unafraid.
The Churms' art shows you one more point, however. You can see where the hospital ships often had to locate themselves amidst the vast armada offshore. As a result, they were vulnerable to lousy marksmanship. We'll talk to this issue more later. You might also keep in mind that Churms' painting shows good weather and favorable seas. In the tropical Pacific, typhoons were frequent, foul weather was frequent, fog was frequent, and seas were often very rough.
While mistakes were possible against hospital ships, the attack against Comfort was no mistake, as you will see.
Photo captioned "Relief, Espiritu Santo, 1943." Presented by "The United States Navy Hospital Ship Relief (AH 1), A Chronicle of Her Wartime Overseas Movements and Activities."
The Relief was laid down in June 1917, launched in December 1919, and commissioned the USS Relief (AH-1) in December 1920. She was built to be a hospital ship, the only such ship so designed among Navy hospital ships operated in WWII. The rest were converted liners, freighters or transports. Bed capacity was listed at 500 patients.
She served the Atlantic Fleet through 1923, and then the Pacific Fleet. In 1941, she returned to the Atlantic Fleet, but was sent back to the Pacific Fleet in 1943, where she supported the first American ground offensive operations against the Japanese, in the Solomon Islands. She would then support island hopping operations by US forces up through the landings at the Palau Islands in September 1944. She had to return to California for overhaul, which occurred from November 1944 through February 1945. By March 1945, she was back on the line in the Carolines. During this time, an enemy fighter strafed her in Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides, shaking up the crew and complement a bit, but causing no casualties and very minor damage.
The Comfort was launched on March 18, 1943 for the Maritime Commission to serve as cargo ship. So of the two, Comfort was the new ship, Relief the "old hand." Lt. Eunice Hatchitt, Army Nurse Corps (ANC), christened the Comfort. The ship was transferred to the Navy the same day, converted to a hospital ship, and commissioned in May 1944. Bed capacity was designed to be 400.
The ceremony at Washington. Six American Red Cross Army nurses who escaped from Bataan stand at attention as Mary Beard, American Red Cross Director of Nursing (out of this cropped photo, along with Eleanor Roosevelt), tells of the nurses' heroism. The nurses, left to right , are: Lieutenants Florence MacDonald, Mary G. Lohr, Harriet G. Lee, Eunice Hatchitt, Dorothea Daley, and Juanita Redmond. Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt is between Lieutenant Redmond and Director Beard.
A note on Lt. Hatchitt (yellow arrow on photo). The day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they also invaded the Philippines. She was one of many, many soldiers and nurses and others driven to Bataan and Corregidor by the Japanese. General MacArthur, who had already escaped to Australia, contacted the American commander left to defend the Philippines, Brigadier General Wainwright, and told him to arrange for certain valuable people to be moved out of the Philippines to his headquarters in Australia. MacArthur provided a list and told Wainwright to fill out the rest himself. Wainwright was committed to getting as many nurses out of the Philippines as possible.
PBY Catalina, the "Cat," in the Pacific widely known as the "Black Cats." USN Photo.
On April 29-30, 1942 two Navy PBY twin prop flying boats from Australia arrived on Corregidor delivering supplies, and were tasked to evacuate the selected passengers. Ten Army and Navy officers, ten nurses, and three women civilians boarded PBY-1. Ten Army and Navy officers, nine nurses, three women civilians, one soldier and one priest boarded PBY-7. They departed for Mindanao on their first leg. After refueling, they launched at 7 p.m. for Australia. PBY-1 crashed on take-off, everyone survived, but all were captured by the Japanese after two weeks escape and evasion. PBY-1 blinked a message to PBY-7 to continue on alone. After a few harrowing experiences, PBY-7 landed at Darwin, Australia safe and sound. Six of the nurses were Army, and all six were decorated, as shown in the above photo. Lt. Hatchitt was among them, and was asked to christen the Comfort. She later went to Europe and participated in the Normandy landings. Of interest is that her training and experience gained from working with patients in the Pacific, especially Bataan and Corregidor, developed skills not had by many nurses in Europe. Most certainly the nurses in Europe were very good. But she was considered uniquely qualified.
As a final note on this matter, the submarine USS Spearfish (SS-190) slipped into Manila Bay on May 3, 1943 and picked up twelve more Army and Navy officers, eleven Army nurses, one Navy nurse, and one Navy wife. Just about everyone else left on what was known as "The Rock" was either killed in a last ditch defense or was captured, and of those captured many died in the brutal Bataan Death March and in POW camps thereafter. Captured nurses were taken to the Santo Tomas Internment Camp, a converted education building, where they joined civilians taken captive.
Interior view of the surgical ward of the USAHS Shamrock. This particular Hospital Ship operated in North Africa (1943) and Southern France (1944). Presented by the WWII US Medical Research Center.
Mercy Ship by Joseph Hirsch. Oil on canvas, circa 1943. This painting shows the USS Mercy, and how wounded would be placed on the deck, as an example of ways to increase capacity. Presented by "The United States Navy Hospital Ship Relief (AH 1), A Chronicle of Her Wartime Overseas Movements and Activities."
The ship Hatchitt would christen, the USS Comfort, was designed with a bed capacity of 400 patients. That kind of number would never stand the test of combat in the Pacific, especially Okinawa. As has always been the case, GI ingenuity kicked in and stepped up that number significantly, to 700. Cots, sofas, chairs etc. were assembled in such a way to get more beds, and, of course, crew was dismounted from their beds and told to sleep on the floor and the decks. Patients were oft left in hallways, made as comfortable as was possible. Space filled up quickly in the Battle for Okinawa.
USS Comfort entered service June 1944, US Army-controlled, US Navy-built and operated Hospital Ship, off Los Angeles Harbor, California. Army medical personnel, and Navy crew are on deck, prior to their trip to the Pacific Theaters, via Australia, departure June 21, 1944. Presented by the WWII US Medical Research Center.
Comfort would carry a Navy crew with Army medical people. Commander H.F. Fultz, USN, was in command. This was a new concept, first tried with the Comfort. The Army also had its own hospital ships, employing merchant marine crews using Army medical personnel. The Army controlled those ships, while the Navy controlled the Comfort.
Medical Department, USS Comfort, L-R bottom row: Lt. Col. Joseph F. Linsman (in command), Major Alexander Silverglade. 2nd row: Major Edwin B. Eckerson*, Capt. Streitel. 3rd row: Capt. Charley Clark*, Capt. Etta Gleason (chief nurse). 4th row: Capt. William MacPherson*, Capt. Lee Maris. 5th row: Capt. Ernest Foss, Jr.*, Lt. T.F. Lipscomb. 6th row: Capt. A.B. Moran, Capt. E. Bitar. 7th row: Protestant Chaplain Oscar Taylor, Catholic Chaplain Fidelis Wieland*. 8th row: Lts. Kaplowitz, Sumner, Stewart, Postle, Weiner. (*kamikaze fatality). Too close for comfort, by Dale P. Harper.
This is a portrait of Capt. Carley Clark who was killed int he attack, and would later receive the Bronze Star for valor (posthumous). He was an MD. He is in the third row (left) of the group photo above.
Aboard the Comfort, the Army unit was known as the 205th Hospital Ship Complement, Lt. Colonel Joseph F. Linsman, Army Medical Corps, in command of the medical people. Linsman was a highly regarded surgeon.
Army Nurse Corps, USS Comfort, all lieutenants. Not all these nurses were aboard the Comfort the night of the attack. Those we know to have been aboard are in bold. None of those who were killed are in this photo. Standing, L-R: Helen Dolinar, Arlene Manuel, Louise Thoma, Evelyn Bacheler, Emily Snyder, Fern Keller, Leota Snell, Louise Campbell, Myrtle Onsrud**, Doris Gardner, Mary Rodden, Valerie Goodman**, Edna Raeburn. Sitting L-R: Mary Lewis, Fran Lajevic, unknown, Elsa Karhu, Gertrude Weiss, Ruth Lewis, Easter Ford, Etta Leason, Gladys Amundson, Ierme Jacoby, Helen Fahan, Lydia Reiser. Too close for comfort, by Dale P. Harper. (Injured **)
The entire medical crew was seen as very capable, with considerable experience.
The Comfort was described by the Colfax, Washington Gazette Commoner in June 1944 as “an ambulance, a nine-deck floating hospital.” The paper also reported then that she had two operating rooms with beds for more than 700, along with medical and surgical equipment and facilities equivalent to the finest hospitals of the day, even dental operating units designed to handle plastic surgery. Our guess is that some work was done to reconfigure her interior to get the bed level to these heights. She even had a psychiatric ward. As was realized in this war, psychiatric care was sorely needed to deal with the horrors of combat against the Japanese. Regarding the number of operating rooms, Dale Harper, in his book Too close for comfort, said the ship had three operating rooms, so it's two or three.
Comfort departed California on June 21, 1944, headed for Brisbane, Australia. She initially operated out of Hollandia, New Guinea evacuating wounded from the invasion of Leyte, the Philippines, and then from the invasion of Luzon, the Philippines.
An orthopedic casualty in the 54th General Hospital, Hollandia, New Guinea, after evacuation from Leyte, January 1945. Presented by US Army Medical Department.
The 54th General Hospital based in Hollandia received thousands of casualties from the invasion of Leyte within a short span of time in late 1944. In her book A History of the US Army Nurse Corps, Mary T. Sarnecky, who would eventually rise to the rank of colonel, USA, quotes some nurses stationed there talking about the conditions:
" ' Overall motif was mud ... personnel had to get used to mud ... For a long time, there was no running water. Shower baths were improvised from oil drums or government-issued cans, but they made little impression on the mud ... Many of the nurses suffered from physical and nervous fatigue. ' "
The naval battles in train throughout the waters of the Philippines were massive, before and during the land invasions. The US Navy, in these battles, rendered the Japanese navy irrelevant. During one of those battles, an enemy torpedo narrowly missed the Comfort.
In another battle, Comfort found herself between an American fast carrier force and a Japanese task force, and was strafed by Japanese fighters, with no serious damage and no casualties.
Toward the end of March 1945, the Relief began preparing to support the invasion of Okinawa, at the time berthed in Guam, the Marianas.
On March 28, 1945, the Relief headed out of Guam to rendezvous with the Comfort on March 30. The two ships met on the 30th as planned, and proceeded toward Okinawa Gunto. The word "Gunto" is a Japanese term for a group of islands. The Japanese word "jima" means island. The main island of Okinawa was called Okinawa Jima, while the Okinawa Group of islands was called Okinawa Gunto.
This was the first time Relief had been in the company of another ship during the entire war. As a rule of thumb, hospital ships were supposed to travel alone, and of course, they were unarmed.
On March 31, both ships were just ahead of a typhoon, and were tossed about quite a bit. Everything had to be secured tightly. In this photo, you see the USS Monterey foundering during a typhoon in December 1944. Gerald R. Ford was aboard. Photo courtesy of the Gerald R. Ford Library. Presented by US Department of Defense.
The main invasion of Okinawa began on April 1, 1945. On April 2, the two hospital ships approached Okinawa Gunto, Comfort trailing by about 1000 yards. For the time being, the skipper of the Relief took on the duties of Officer in Tactical Command for both ships.
As they entered the combat area, they could see and hear the extensive naval bombardment of the island, and the airways were filled with aircraft from both sides.
Within short order, the two hospital ships, fully lit, drew the attention of a Japanese fighter. He first crossed the bow of the Relief, then swung around and came at both ships bow on, dropped a bomb, and fired his cannons. Water was splashing from the strafing on the sides of the ships, and the Relief passed over the bomb before it exploded. Luckily, damage was minimal, but Relief was jostled around the water a bit.
On this map, you see where General Buckner's 10th Army of four divisions, two Marine, two Army, would invade on Okinawa Jima's western shore, and how they would move once on shore. In the upper left, you see that there were about 16 radar picket ship locations around the island, to detect incoming air, control and direct fighters, and issue warnings to the ships at sea.
The USS Wickes (DD-578), a destroyer conducting radar picket ship and fighter-direction duties, spotted the action over the horizon on her radar, steamed over, and opened fire.
The Wickes struck the attacking fighter just as he released his bomb, probably accounting for the Relief escaping a hit. A few hours later, another fighter played a few games over the hospital ships, but did not attack.
Recall that by the time Relief and Comfort got there, the invasion of Okinawa was in its second day. Both ships approached the beaches and anchored offshore, taking aboard casualties almost immediately. Enemy aircraft fooled around in their area on occasion, but none fired.
At night, it was thought best for the two hospital ships to get out of this area, out to sea about 80 miles or so, where they could be more alone and fully illuminated to assist in their identification. The phrase employed by most crew is, “Lit up like Christmas trees.” They would return to the anchorage area in the morning. The medical staff worked around the clock on the patients who were aboard.
The ships repeated this schedule until April 8. Beginning on April 9, they remained in anchorage, lights out, taking advantage of the cover of smoke screens. Because of this, they surrendered their privilege of immunity. Lt. Gardner’s daughter has reported that the “coming and going proved to be too much for the ship and the Comfort stayed in harbor overnight, their lights out.”
Ann Bernatitus, Capt, USN (Ret.) has provided an oral history of her experiences as a USN nurse in the Pacific during WWII. She commented on this procedure of staying in the anchorage:
“When we stopped retiring out to sea at night all lit up, we would stay where we were anchored ready to pick up casualties. Every time the kamikazes would come we would get the alarm over the loud speaker. They would say ‘Kamaretta red, smoke boat make smoke.’ And then this boat would fill the bay with white smoke so the kamikazes couldn't see.”
William Benton was on the USS Callaghan (DD-792). He addressed this smokescreen process. A Landing Craft Support (LCS) would lay down the smoke. Just as the Comfort and Relief were to turn off their lights, ships under the screen were not supposed to fire lest they give away their position. He complained that the wind would shift, and suddenly leave everyone sitting out there in the open. Sometimes the smoke cover would only last a few minutes. On one occasion, the smoke cleared, an enemy aircraft nearby spotted them, and attacked. The Callaghan was not allowed to fire back, because of the aforementioned rule. One seaman, a cook striker, was killed.
As an aside, Benton referred to the men in the 20s as the “old-timers.” That might, at first, draw a giggle. But the reality is that many, many combatants with 16-19 years old, and those who entered at 18 or 19 were, by age 20, seasoned and hardened war fighters.
This is an example of a Japanese Kamikaze pilot who did not find his intended target, but instead was shot down by naval anti-aircraft fire. Presented by Kemble Collection.
In the meantime, while out to sea, the hospital ships received numerous attack alerts. The crews could watch the action of kamikazes at work, sometimes striking their targets, sometimes crashing into the sea after being shot down. On at least one occasion, while retiring to sea, a kamikaze passed right over the hospital ships on its way to crashing at sea.
The Comfort kept up this schedule until April 9, filled up to capacity with patients, and she was off to Guam. By April 10, Relief’s patient capacity was filled, so she headed for Guam as well. She would return to Okinawa on April 22. Comfort did not get back until April 23. During their sailing to Guam, Relief intercepted a message indicating the Comfort was under aerial attack. Comfort was a short distance off Relief’s bow at the time. Neither ship was hit or damaged, but Comfort was delayed in port at Guam for one day.
It’s now April 28, 1945. The Japanese conducted a massive air raid on that day, employing an estimated 200 aircraft, bombers and kamikazes. Their targets were mainly US forces on Okinawa, ships on picket stations, and ships in the transport areas. Reports we have seen indicate US forces shot down 96. The USS Zellers (DD-777) was hit by a bomb and a kamikaze; the USS Wadsworth (DD-516) by a kamikaze, with no US casualties.
Michael Staton, in his book, The Fighting Bob: A Wartime History of the USS Robley A. Evans (DD-552), said that the Japanese sent 168 aircraft out on April 28 to celebrate the emperor's birthday. He wrote that the attack operation was named Kikusui No. 4, and that among the 168 aircraft were 59 kamikazes and four Betty bombers.
On this day, April 28, the Comfort was about 50 miles away from Okinawa headed to Saipan with a full load of patients. It was described as a clear moonlit night. Barbara Tomblin, in her book, GI Nightingales: The Army Nurse Corps in World War II, describes what happened next:
“The first crewman to spot the attacking Japanese plane was Seaman 1st Class Elmer C. Brandhorst, who was on watch on the bridge (of the Comfort). ‘I saw the plane first when it made its first dive, but it was too dark to identify it as enemy or ours. About ten minutes later I saw it again, coming in dead ahead in a steep dive,’ he told reporters for Base Hospital No. 18’s newspaper. Brandhorst was wounded in the arm and right leg by flying pieces of metal from the plane when it hit the ship's superstructure. In the ship’s surgery below, operating teams were at work when the kamikaze hit. The force of the impact hurled the plane’s motor through the surgery, igniting oxygen tanks and causing a tragic explosion. On duty on the surgery deck was 1st. Lt. Gladys C. Trosstrail, ANC. The last thing she remembers before the blast was standing near the entrance of her ward feeling grateful for the peace and quiet following a long day of caring for the wounded. The next thing she knew she was in the galley, climbing onto a dishwasher to escape water pouring into the compartment from broken pipes. She surmises that she had been blown through the bulkhead into the galley by the force of the explosion. An Army sergeant crawled through twisted sheets of metal to lead her to safety.
“In the next ward, 2nd Lt. Valerie A. Goodman was helping another nurse prepare penicillin injections when the enemy plane hit. Trapped beneath a bulkhead by the blast, which toppled a metal cabinet down on her legs, Goodman could recall little of what happened when the oxygen tanks exploded. The nurse next to her was killed instantly by the explosion. In all, one Navy and four Army medical officers, six Army nurses, one Navy and eight Army enlisted men, and seven patients were killed by the Japanese plane or by explosions that followed its impact. Another ten patients, seven sailors and thirty-one soldiers, four of them nurses, were wounded.”
Bill Fadden was on the Comfort this day. He said the kamikaze smashed right into the ship’s operating room, water was rushing in, and for a time the captain was worried she might capsize. This was no mistake. The Comfort was lit, was out of the battle area, and to our knowledge, alone. The kamikaze aimed right at the red cross amidships. Fadden said this to Dan Olson of the Minneapolis Public Radio:
“We got to be at a 45 degree list on the starboard side and all the doctors and nurses that night were killed in the operating room, and the only one who survived that night was the patient on the operating table, but he was badly burned. The balance of the night I had this steel harness on and a steel cable off my back, and I went into the deepest hole with a submersible pump between my feet, and I came up at sunrise, but we got the ship level finally.”
Dale Harper's book, Too close for comfort, reported that the operating rooms, x-ray and laboratory facilities were completely destroyed. Two surgeons were blown out of an operating room on to the weather deck, but survived. Lt. Col. Linsman was injured, so Major Silverglade took command of medical activities.
Once again referring to Harper's book, he quoted Corporal George Vondracek, a medic trained as a dental surgery technician, saying this:
"When the plane struck, the other medic I was working with (Pfc. Clivis Smith) and I were about to check temperature, pulse and respiration of some of the patients. I realized I had left my watch on the desk in the ward office at the end of the room. After retrieving it I had just entered the ward when the suicide plane struck. It came through the overhead and continued through the deck in my ward about 20 feet in front of me, killing Smith and six patients in their beds ... I should have been where Smith was."
As you read Doris Gardner’s account, written by her daughter, the kamikaze pilot struck the Comfort “right through to the core of the hospital’s duties, the surgery. Surgeons, nurses, and wounded were killed instantly. The heart of the ship stopped beating and went dark. Thus crippled, it ground to a halt in the embattled bay.” Gardner also is certain 100 people died in the attack. She includes those who were severely wounded already and the “already dying” killed in the attack.
Returning to William Benton, aboard the USS Callaghan, he said this about the attack on the Comfort:
“The Hospital Ship U.S.S. Comfort stood off Okinawa every night with lights on the Red crosses painted on both sides of the ship and on both sides of the stack. The ship was always well lit, so it could be easily seen. The ship was painted white and could be seen during the day, with no problem.
“One night we were having a large raid of enemy planes, when some sick Jap strayed towards the Hospital Ship. I don’t know what he was thinking, but he attacked the Hospital Ship. He dove his plane into the ship and killed a number of the crew and the wounded. This act infuriated everyone.”
Benton added this story. At some point after the Comfort had long left the area, a LST (Landing Ship Tank) ran aground on a reef near Naha airfield, having taken fire from a Japanese shore battery. The crew abandoned the LST, was picked up, and the LST just sat there for several weeks. In the meantime, US forces destroyed the shore battery and the crew returned to its LST, still stuck on the reef. They brought as many 40mm shell cans as they could, and loaded them aboard the LST. Apparently these cans are very buoyant, so air tight they have to be punctured before they will sink. In any event, the crew towed their LST out to the position where the Comfort had been struck. They anchored her, and strung her with lights. Legend has it that the Japanese spotted her and attacked again, thinking the LST was a hospital ship. The enemy had to hit her five times before she sank. Benton then said this:
“These are some of things you never read about or see in movies. It was an enjoyable thing to see things like this, as it made you feel we got even somehow. We let the Japs destroy themselves, we just helped them do it. After this you didn’t hear about the Japs diving into hospital ships anymore.”
GI ingenuity, what a marvelous thing it is. Our men in combat did not take the attack on the Comfort lightly, not at all.
William Thomas Generous, Jr. mentions that in his book, Sweet Pea at War: A History of the USS Portland. The USS Portland was a heavy cruiser, CA-33, and held the nickname "Sweet Pea." During the Leyte Gulf battle, in the Surigao Strait, the Portland and the other US ships fighting with her destroyed all Japanese ships engaged except one destroyer, which managed to escape. Portland joined other ships in the chase and they nailed her. During the early morning hours, the Japanese destroyer was dead in the water and burning. Generous then wrote this:
"The cruiser (Portland) offered to pick up Japanese survivors, who characteristically declined the rescue. Some of the men were happy to let the enemy sailors drown because they knew that only twenty-four hours earlier other Japanese units had attacked the hospital ship USS Comfort, an atrocity in their minds."
Returning to the article mentioned previously in the June 1944 Colfax Gazette-Commoner, Lt. Dorothy Mildred Stanke was killed by the kamikaze attack on the Comfort. Age 25. She was from Oakesdale, Washington. First Lt. Ruby D. Lewis was quoted saying this:
"Dorothy was the hardest working nurse I've known. Naturally she was on duty when we were hit. Those who died didn't suffer or know what had happened."
Arthur Altvater was aboard the Relief and kept a log for the period February 13 - September 10, 1945. This was his entry for the attack against the Comfort on April 28, 1945:
“Passed convoy going toward Philippines. The USS Comfort [AH 6] was hit today by a suicide plane. Crashed into bridge and O.R. (Operating Room). Quite a few killed and wounded. Rather a spine chilling feeling considering fact that Japs will from here on down (do) anything they can. Hope they never hit us. This could happen very easily and according to schedule should have been us because the Comfort pulled into Guam day before we made Saipan. She was held up there and we pulled back to Okinawa from Ulithia [Ulithi] in her place. In this way we took her schedule and she ours so our Guardian Angel was again at our side in making the switch.”
We found a newsletter entitled “Greater Norwalk Amateur Radio Club Newsletter, ‘ The Voice of GNARC’,” dated April 2006. Steve Verbil wrote a short note about how he became an amateur radio operator. His father was a radioman serving on the Comfort when she was attacked. Verbil wrote this about good ol’ dad:
“My dad was on duty in the radio room at the time, and some of the equipment fell onto him and left a ‘dent’ on his forehead. Years later, he would have to put up with his kids telling him that that was the closest he had ever come to having quality radio equipment.”
The day of the attack, Task Unit 51.15.26 was formed with Commander Destroyer Division 112 as Officer in Tactical Command. The commander was aboard the USS Purdy (DD-734). There was a host of small ships in the formation shielded by four destroyers, the Purdy, Schley (DD-103), Gillis (DD-260), and Stringham (DD-83). Veterans of the Purdy publish a newsletter, The Purdy Report. We found its September 2003 edition which continued the Purdy’s history from a previous edition. It reported that the Task Unit spotted an enemy aircraft on its radar, in the general vicinity of the Comfort. The report went on to say this:
“At 2046 an explosion was seen from the Purdy which appeared to have occurred on the Comfort. This supposition was verified by radio; the Comfort had been hit by a suicide plane and had a large fire amidships. LST 1000, Stringham, ATR 51 and ATR 38 were ordered by Commander Task Unit 51.15.26 to assist her, which they did until relieved by the Wickes and Frazier, who had been dispatched from Okinawa on report of the attack.”
Lt. Mary Lewis was one of the Army nurses on Comfort this day. When everyone started to clean up the ship, they found pieces of the plane and took them as keepsakes. We understand from Andy Lewis, one of Lt. Lewis' relatives that she was friends with the captain and he allowed her to keep a piece of the plane. Interestingly, there was a rifle found in the cockpit of the aircraft. The captain took the rifle and gave it to Lt. Lewis, why, no one knows. The Lewis family has maintained these pieces of history.
As we mentioned earlier, the rule of thumb for hospital ships was that they traveled alone. Not this time. On this occasion, the damaged Comfort was escorted back to Guam by the USS Thomas E. Fraser (DM-24) and the USS Wickes (DD-578). The USS Patterson (DD-392) received the SOS call, and was just a few miles away. She started out to respond, but was told the Comfort was okay and returned to duty.
A web site named oldmagazinearticles.com presents six "WWII Victory Newsreels," assorted American newsreels made during 1945. One of these is about the USS Comfort. We commend this newsreel to you. I have taken a few video clips from it to show you the damage endured by the Comfort.
The kamikaze struck directly above the Red Cross, amidships. By the time this was taken, some repair work had been done.
A closer look.
This is an even closer look, standing on the deck outside where the kamikaze struck.
This shows the aircraft wreckage, inside the Comfort.
This shows the Comfort berthed in port at Guam, unloading wounded. The red arrow points to where she was struck, by this time covered with some protective material.
This is a wounded nurse being carried off the Comfort.
A burial party carries the coffin of one of those killed to the burial site on Guam. Everyone who died aboard the Comfort was buried in Guam. This included the kamikaze pilot.
The enormity of what happened comes home in this shot. The chaplain is standing to the right, and it looks like the detachment rendering the firing salute is standing at parade rest at the end of the line of coffins.
These next three shots show the nurses, crew and others attending the burials.
The story involving Doris Gardner and Mary Rodden on the Comfort and Ellen Ainsworth in Anzio prompts one to want to highlight other nurses who served in WWII. It’s a hard dig to find them.
Historian Stephen Ambrose spent time with Stephen Spielberg during the latter’s production of the Flags of our Fathers movie about the flag raising at Iwo Jima. David Allen, reporting for Stars & Stripes, wrote a story that is based on an interview he had with Ambrose back in 2001. He quotes Ambrose saying this:
“Their stories (the average persons) are a hell of a lot more interesting than the brass and the politicians making the big decisions. Like this Navy nurse I interviewed. She’d come from Wisconsin and landed on Airfield No. 1 on D-Day plus five, right at the foot of Mount Surabachi. She must have been the first American woman on Iwo Jima.
"Anyway, she’d seen Joe Rosenthal’s famous photo of the flag-raising — it had just been published — and she said she just had to climb up there and touch the flagpole, even though the battle was still raging on other parts of the island.
“ ‘It was like the biggest Fourth of July celebration I’d ever seen — except it was all real,’ (she said).
"But that’s not the part of her story that got to me. She said there she was, all of 22 years old, and all the wounded Marines were calling her Mom. One of them, she remembered vividly, was crying, and she tried to console him and asked him why.
"And he told her: ‘Mom, I’m crying ’cause I’m thinking of all the men that I killed.’ "
Annie Blachley wrote the book, Good medicine: our Las Vegas Doctors and the Golden Age of Medicine. In this book, she wrote of a nurse from Wisconsin named Dorothy Marie O’Donnell. She grew up in a small farming community in Wisconsin and received her nursing training at St. Mary's Hospital in Rochester, Minnesota, graduating in 1943. Blachley wrote about how O’Donnell recalled nurses being trained to “do everything,” bathe, give back-rubs, change linens, provide treatment and medicines, bedside care, often 12 hours per day, six days per week, all for $125 per month.
O’Donnell served in Okinawa, in charge of an orthopedic ward. The Battle for Okinawa extended from April 1 through mid June 1945. US forces landed with relatively little fanfare. The fierce fighting occurred inland. Nurses began to arrive on the island on May 3. As a result, the Army was able to set up ten field hospitals on the island to care for the wounded. The duty was tough, despite the fact that the hospitals were not “close to the front.”
Barbara Tomblin, mentioned earlier, wrote about this in her book. Tomblin described the mud and rain, naval artillery shells missing their marks and Japanese air attacks.
A typhoon hit while she was there, and they had to move patients on litters into caves until the storm was finished, and then prepare them for evacuation to the US. She went on to Japan to serve with the Occupation Force. The 31st Field Hospital claimed having the highest patient census, admitting 4,500 patients during the battle. Nurses not only cared for US troops, but also cared for wounded Japanese soldiers and civilians, and Japanese civilians down with various diseases. Okinawa was among the first landing targets with a high Japanese population and Japanese urban centers. It was one of Japan’s Home Islands.
There were more than 59,000 American nurses who served in the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) during WII. The Army had only 1,000 on the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. Six months later, there were 12,000 on duty. During this war, they worked closer to the front lines than nurses had ever done before. That said, commanders in the Pacific were very reluctant to put female nurses close to the front lines, in the dense jungles, subject to ferocious Japanese attacks accompanied by unparalleled brutality, even to the dead. As a general rule, the nurses were kept to the rear and on hospital ships and at hospitals in safe havens. Nurses in the Pacific were subjected to very strict rules regarding their behavior and interaction with male soldiers. They were often under guard 24-7 and escorted to and from the hospital facilities.
Army nurses clearly made their mark. Less than four percent of American soldiers who received medical care in the field or underwent evacuation died from wounds or disease.
"Beneath the statistic studded crust of the report lies the drama of civilized men in a primitive country fighting miasmatic jungles in steaming tropical heat to provide sanctuary for fighting men on a front 1,000 miles northward.
"It is the story of medical science battling hitherto unknown maladies, of antiseptic surgery far from the paths of civilization, of soldiers improvising successfully to meet the challenge imposed by ... the jungle and by arduous supply lines extended over thousands of miles of ocean.
"It is the story of weary corpsmen and nurses in mud-spattered uniforms singing nostalgic carols to the wounded on Christmas Eve ... of administration ... of blood counts, diagnoses, medication, surgery, statistical reports ... of bed pans, diets and details.
"The staff and personnel of the 54th General Hospital ... regard this unit as typically American; as a strong link in the Services and Supply chain ... tempered in the flame of democracy and forged on the unrelenting anvil of the tropics."
Angels of Mercy. God Bless you all, then and now.
Update Update April 8, 2012: Dorene Lynch, daughter of David C. Burns, has sent us a set of photos Mr. Burns acquired while aboard the USS Comfort as part of the Army medical crew. He served as a medic and was aboard during the attack. I have added her contribution at the end of this report. There are, in my view, some historic photos in the Burns Collection. He served as a medic and was aboard during the attack. He is now 92. I have added her contribution here. There are, in my view, some historic photos in the Burns Collection.
On May 3, 2012, UP reported that officers from the USS Comfort said the lone Japanese kamikaze circled the Comfort for five minutes before crashing into it directly above its large Red Cross emblem. Commander A. Tooker, USN, the ship’s captain, said the kamikaze made one pass at the ship 50 miles south of Okinawa at night while the crew was evacuating several hundred casualties. The UP reported:
“Then the pilot circled the brightly lighted ship for five minutes before diving into the starboard side and smashing into the surgery room, where the majority of 68 casualties occurred. Major Dorsey Brannon … an Army doctor who was blown through a surgery window said five operations were being performed at the time of the attack. Six doctors, six nurses, several patients and several of the ship’s enlisted men were killed in the operating room, which was turned into a charnel house of dismembered bodies and wreckage. Second Lt. Evelyn C. Bacheler, an army nurse … was blown on top of a patient on an operating table, but escaped injury.”
David C. Burns, USA, medic, USS Comfort
Hole in the starboard section of the USS Comfort
Hole in the starboard section of the USS Comfort
Kamikaze damage to USS Comfort starboard side
Temporary repairs to USS Comfort’s starboard side
Burial at Guam, May 3, 1945
Burial at Guam, May 3, 1945