The Story of a Great White Ship

(This is a story I found that had been typed up MANY years ago by someone named “Toby”. It was tucked away, along with some very old photos, with with my mother-in-laws belongings that had been boxed up and stored in our attic for years now. She was a nurse in the U.S. Navy  stationed in Honolulu (the U.S. Naval Hospital at Aiea Heights, Territory of Hawaii) and Maui 1944-46. This is a sliver of history; a glimpse back.)



The Story of a Great White Ship

The largest Navy this world has ever seen has a fond and somewhat grateful nickname for its most famous hospital ship, the U.S.S. SOLACE. Every bluejacket knows her as the “Great White Ship” with the raked masts and the raked stack……and even the marine “Leathernecks” and the army “Dog-faces” can pick her out on the horizon and unmistakably recognize her.

A war correspondent that had followed every major action in the Pacific was so impressed with the omnipresence of this “Great White Ship” that he dubbed her with the sub-title of the “Work-horse of the Pacific”, another added glory that she has rightfully earned as her record will reveal.

The SOLACE was built in 1927 as the S.S. Iroquois for the Clyde Mallory Steamship Company, and until 1940 she ran as a passenger liner between Atlantic Coast and Caribbean ports. She is 410 feet long, has a gross tonnage of 6209 and a displacement tonnage of 8650. She has twin-screw turbine propulsion and a shaft-horsepower of 8500, with a cruising range of 7,000 miles and a speed of 18 knots.

In 1940 she was purchased by the Navy for a reported sum of about $1,100,000 and converted into a hospital chip at the Atlantic Basin Iron Works, Brooklyn, New York at a cost of approximately $3,500,000. After a shake-down cruise, the SOLACE, fully equipped as a modern hospital with a complete staff of physicians, dentists, nurses and hospital corpsmen, proceeded via the Panama Canal to Pearl Harbor and took its place with the Fleet on October 27, 1941.

Captain Benjamin Perlman, USN, was the Commanding Officer and Captain Harold L. Jensen (MC) USN was the Senior Medical officer.

Its reputation as the “Great White Ship” was destined to have an early foundation. On that fateful December 7, 1941, when the Japanese invited the scorn of the civilized world by their treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor, the SOLACE set a noteworthy precedent for Naval Medicine by handling efficiently and expeditiously a large number of casualties from the stricken battleships. This work was quickly recognized by Admiral Chester Nimitz, and he presented the ship with a letter of citation. At a later date in Portland, Oregon, while the vessel was undergoing repairs, a Navy Unit Commendation was authorized by the Secretary of the Navy and presented to the SOLACE at a ceremony held on board September 11, 1945.

The commendation reads as follows:

The Secretary of the Navy takes pleasure in commending the UNITED STATES NAVY HOSPITAL SHIP SOLACE for service as follows:

For extremely meritorious service during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. Alert and prompt in preparing for any emergency after approximately twenty Japanese planes appeared, enroute to attack Pacific Fleet ships and shore installations, the USS SOLACE immediately secured all watertight doors and hatches and instituted measures for the effective handling of casualties. Rescue parties in motor launches and boats were quickly dispatched to the USS ARIZONA and other stricken ships; they braved flames and explosions to rescue the burned and injured from the decks and the blazing water alongside; they unhesitatingly risked their lives during repeated trips under the same perilous conditions, each time returning to the SOLACE with boats fully laden with injured and dying. Working to the point of exhaustion, the entire staff, doctors, nurses and corpsmen, rendered valiant and self-sacrificing service throughout this emergency, thereby sustaining and enhancing the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

All personnel attached to and serving on board the USS SOLACE on December 7, 1941, are hereby authorized to wear the NAVY UNIT COMMENDATION ribbon.

 /s/ James Forrestal
Secretary of the Navy

Captain M. J. Aston (MC) USN relieved Captain Jensen as the Senior Medical Officer on December 23, 1941.

For a considerable period of time the SOLACE was the only hospital ship operating in the Pacific was theatre…..and she bore the heavy burden with distinction. In early March of 1942, she was ordered to the South Pacific and proceeded to Samoa. The University of Pennsylania Medical Unit reported about in May 1942, and they were among the first groups of Reserve Medical Officers to be sent to sea duty as medical units.

The SOLACE serviced the Fleet at Pago-Pago, Tongatabu, Efate, and Noumea, including numerous casualties from the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Solomons campaign (particularly Guadalcanal) and other actions. In addition to serving as a station hospital ship, several trips were made in evacuating casualties to New Zealand and Australia. In February 1943, Commander C.L. Waters USN, relieved Captain Perlman as the  Commanding Officer. In early August 1943, Captain John T. Bennett (MC) USN relieved Captain Aston as the Senior Medical Officer.

The “Work-horse of the Pacific” left the South Pacific theater in the latter part of October 1943, and proceeded cia Pearl Harbor to San Francisco……bringing back a load of wounded heroes that had formed the Nation’s front-line-of-defense. After three days in port, the ship departed again for the South Pacific, and on the ninth day out received the first orders ever given to a U.S. Navy hospital ship to enter a combat region for evacuation of fresh casualties.

This was the beginning of many historic trips and a new pate in the annals of “Navy Doctors at War”. Action at places like Apamama Atoll, Tarawa, Roi-Namur (Kwajalein) and Eniwetok of the Marshall Islands, all bring to mind a picture of a lonely, white, un-armed hospital ship darting in and out amongst the beaches and Transport areas on her tender mission of mercy. The bulk of the patients evacuated from these action areas were transported to Pearl Harbor hospitals.

From the latter part of March 1944, to the end of May 1944, the SOLACE evacuated patients from Milne Bay (New Guinea) to Southwest Pacific base hospitals and served as the station hospital for the Seventh Fleet at Manus Atoll in the Admiralty group of islands.

Commander Edward B. Peterson USN, was destined to take command of the vessel for the subsequent, and perhaps most violent, engagements of the war. The “Work-horse of the Pacific” proceeded to the beach-head at Saipan and in June and July evacuated 1335 casualties to base hospitals in the Solomons. In July and August 1944, over a thousand patients were evacuated from the Battle of Guam to base hospitals at Kwajelein and Pearl Harbor. These duties at Saipan and Guam were to serve as object lessons in the dangers that a hospital ship is exposed to from air attack while serving in a Transport area……and in the later and more vicious operations at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the lessons learned were taken to good advantage.

The subsequent operations at Anguar and Peleliu of the Palau group of islands involved the treatment and evacuation of over a thousand casualties. These patients were largely marine and army personnel and were evacuated to Manus and Noumea.

Then came a very busy buy somewhat unexciting 3-month assignment for the personnel of the “Work-horse of the Pacific” that was, by this time, thoroughly accustomed to being “in the thick of things”. This involved servicing the Third and Fifth Fleets and shore establishments at Ulithi Atoll with medical and dental care. During this period many hundreds of casualties from our fast Carrier Task Forces were received and treated. All of the materiel and personnel facilities of the SOLACE were made available freely and generously to the over-worked Fleet……and although everybody worked magnanimously, the load was far beyond capacity and hardly an hour went by that didn’t bring in another boat-full of patients from the ships anchored nearby.

The next set of orders had again cast the SOLACE in her most familiar role; that of “going right in there” with the marines. This was the bloody Iwo Jima campaign and the “Great White Ship” was evacuating casualties on the fourth day after the initial landing. The entire operation was a sever test for this type of vessel. Iwo Jima has no well-protected harbor and the weather in February is very unfavorable. Rough seas and heavy weather plus the thought that the Japanese were not complying with the Geneva agreement (of rendering immunity to hospital ships) made this the most difficult task that the SOLACE had ever handled. However, in spite of the handicaps, a record of over 400 patients were embarked in one day and three evacuation trips were made to base hospitals at Guam and Saipan. A total of almost two thousand patients were handled during the Iwo Jima campaign.

Life didn’t become any easier or pleasant on the SOLACE for the next and last major campaign with concentration at Kerama Retto and Okinawa Shima. Here the Japanese threw their most lethal and final punch; the Kamikaze (divine wind) suicide air attack. Whereas, in the past, most of the casualties came from marines establishing beach-heads, this action brought a high predominance of injured sailors from incapacitated ships……and here more burn cases were seen than at any other time since Pearl Harbor.

One still, moonlit night off the Okinawa beach-head, a stealthy Jap[anese] raider darted out of the sky to make a clearly defined and un-mistakable “run” on the well-illuminated SOLACE. The bomb just missed its mark but the incident was a harbinger of “things to come”. Shortly thereafter, in the same general vicinity, the hospital ship, USS COMFORT, was attacked and severely damaged by a Kamikaze attack. This was uncivilized warfare (as wars go) and for a short time it was necessary for the SOLACE to blackout at night. Contrary to the Geneva agreement, the SOLACE found it necessary to sail without the normal illumination of her mercy crosses so clearly painted on her sides and stack….and for the first time in history it was deemed necessary to protect a hospital ship with a Destroyer escort.

Captain W.W. Hall (MC) USN is deserving of special mention in performing an excellent job as Senior Medical Officer though-out the history-making Iwo Jima and Okinawa campaigns. He has since been relieved by Captain Edward S. Lowe (MC) USN, present Senior Medical Officer. The following men served as Chiefs-of-Surgery and Chiefs-of-Medicine in chronological order:


Condr. G.A. Eckert (MC) USNR
Comdr. L.K. Fergusen (MC) USNR
Comdr. H.K. Gray (MC) USNR
Capt. W.W. Strange (MC) USNR

Chief of Medicine

Comdr. E.G. Hakansson (MC) USNR
Condr. C.W. Brunson (MC) USNR
Capt. R.A. Kern (MC) USNR
Comdr. H.B. Sprague (MC) USNR
Capt. E.H. Drake (MC) USNR
Comdr. A.P. McGinty (MC) USNR

Over four thousand casualties were evacuated in seven trips from the Okinawa theatre. Frequently all personnel attached to the ship functioned on a 24-hour basis……catching a wink of sleep only after sheer exhaustion. 1800 units of fresh, whole-blood, 1200 units of plasma, 136,000 sulfa tablets and 2 ½ billion units of penicillin were administered during the Iwo Jima and Okinawa operations.

Throughout the Pacific war the “Great White Ship” evacuated and treated more fresh battle casualties than any other hospital ship…..and the mortality rate was lower than would generally be expected at a modern hospital in the United States. She was admitted and treated in the vicinity of 25,000 patients and about 70% of these were battle casualties. The old, “Work-horse of the Pacific” has sailed over 170,000 miles without a major and adequate yard overhaul.

To ALL HANDS who have so generously given their best as servants to the SOLACE on her many errands of mercy, a “GRATEFUL SALUTE……and a JOB WELL DONE”.

(I happened on to this story today while going through a very old box of photos that belonged to my mother-in-law who has now been deceased for about ten years. She was a nurse serving in the U.S. Navy, and was stationed at Mare Island, CA (1942-44), the U.S. Naval Hospital at Aiea Heights (Territory of Hawaii) and Maui from 1944-46. She spent some time serving on the Navy medical ship U.S.S. SOLACE as well as at the Naval Hospital at Pearl Harbor. The above photos were hers).


For more on the U.S.S. Solace, read at Wikipedia.

For some fun pictures of Nurse Betty..

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8 thoughts on “The Story of a Great White Ship

  1. My Farher-In-Law served as a pharmacist mate on this ship. He served the last years of WWII and was on board from Saipan thru Okinawa and back to the States. He said he would go around a administer shots. I said they must have gone thru a lot of needles, and he said not really the shots were penecillian. He has a scarf that one of the Japanese POWs who was being treated on the Solace drew a picture for him. Thanks for the article. My Father In Law has no interest in computers so I would like to print and send a copy of this page to him.

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