FreightWaves Classics: The USS Repose Helped Save Wounded Soldiers in Three Wars
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On October 16, 1965 – 57 years ago yesterday – the United States Navy hospital ship USS Repose was recommissioned for the Vietnam War. For more than a decade, the ship had been moored with the reserve fleet in Suisun Bay in northern California.
World War II/1940
The ship was built in 1943 by Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock Company in Chester, Pennsylvania, and launched the following year for service in World War II. The ship was 520 feet long, displaced 11,141 tons and had a top speed of 18.7 knots (21.5 mph). She was launched on August 8, 1944 and was later acquired for conversion into a hospital ship in Brooklyn, New York by Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation. Following her conversion, the USS Repose was commissioned on May 26, 1945, less than three weeks after the end of the war in Europe.
At that time, the ship had a capacity of 750 beds and a crew of 564 people. USS Repose departed Norfolk on July 8, 1945 and sailed to the Pacific theater. Repose served as a casualty transport from several Pacific ports and also served as a base hospital ship in Shanghai and later Tsingtao, China. He supported the occupying forces in northern China. The ship remained in Asian waters (with an occasional round trip to the United States) until July 1949.
After returning to San Francisco, USS Repose was decommissioned on January 19, 1950 and added to the reserve fleet.
However, the ship’s time in the reserve fleet was relatively short. She was activated on August 26, 1950 (two months after the start of the Korean War) and sailed for Pusan, Korea, picking up a United States Navy crew at Yokosuka, Japan en route.
The USS Repose served in South Korean waters and evacuated patients to Japanese ports as needed. The ship returned to San Francisco and the Mare Island Naval Shipyard for repairs and the installation of a helicopter landing pad. (For more on the Mare Island shipyard, follow this link.) The Repose returned to South Korean waters; the armistice took effect on July 27, 1953, but the ship remained in service until early 1954.
The hospital ship returned to the United States and was berthed at Long Beach Naval Shipyard until transferred to the Naval Reserve Fleet on September 27, 1954. On December 21, 1954, Repose was decommissioned at the shipyard Naval Station Hunters Point in San Francisco Bay.
After nearly 11 years in the reserve fleet at Suisun Bay, USS Repose was recommissioned on October 16, 1965 for service in Vietnam.
American personnel had served as military advisers to the South Vietnamese armed forces shortly after the defeat of the French in 1954. However, there were still fewer than 30,000 Americans in Vietnam as of early 1965. By the fall of 1965, there were nearly 185,000 US personnel in the country.
The USS Repose reached Vietnam on January 3, 1966. She was deployed to Southeast Asia for more than four years and earned the nickname “Angel of the East”. During her deployment, the doctors and nurses aboard the Repose treated more than 24,000 patients, including 9,000 injured. About 8,000 surgeries took place on the ship, which served not only military personnel but also Vietnamese civilians.
During the time of Repose out of Vietnam, the experiences of the ship’s doctors and nurses helped define state-of-the-art hospital ships. Rooted in combat zones, Repose and Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (MASH) worked to quickly bring the wounded on board for immediate medical treatment.
In a 1966 issue of Navy’s all hands magazine, an overview of what was on board the ship was presented. The article stated in part: “Repose is now equipped with the latest diagnostic and treatment equipment, including a frozen blood bank; a heart-lung machine; a sonar echo-encephalograph and a recompression chamber. He concluded, “This is a modern, floating 750-bed hospital manned by 24 doctors, 30 nurses and 256 hospital staff.” In addition, the ship also had three operating rooms, a laboratory and X-ray facilities.
The hospital ship was on duty and providing assistance on July 29, 1967, when a fire on the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal killed 134 sailors and injured 161. An electrical anomaly caused a rocket to be fired at an F-4B Phantom, hitting an external fuel. tank of an A-4 Skyhawk. Flammable jet fuel spilled onto the flight deck, ignited and set off a chain reaction of explosions. The ship survived, but with damage exceeding $72 million, not including the damaged aircraft.
The 1970s and the end of the line
The USS Repose departed the Vietnam War zone on March 14, 1970 and was decommissioned in May 1970. It was docked in Long Beach, California and was used as a hospital annex for Naval Hospital in Long Beach. However, this was expensive and the Repose was sold for scrap in 1975.
FreightWaves Classics thanks ggarchives.com, US Navy, USS Repose Memories Facebook page, wikipedia, womenofwwii.com, and ysfine.com for the information and photographs that contributed to this article.