Witness to Pearl Harbor: USS Solace

By André B. Sobocinski, Historian, U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery

USS Solace

0755, Sunday, December 7th, 1941.  Pearl Harbor, T.H.  A group of physicians eating breakfast in the wardroom of the hospital ship USS Solace (AH-5) become startled when several explosions were heard.  As the ship began to vibrate the impression that an earthquake had hit soon shifted to thoughts of Navy planes engaged in target practice.  Once the sounds of gunfire and additional explosions were heard it was clear something was wrong.  One of the physician’s later recalled, “We went out on deck and could scarcely believe our eyes.  We saw Japanese torpedo and bombing planes headed straight for the battleships and for the Naval Air Station on Ford Island. . . We saw the Arizona burning, and two or three of the other battleships listing badly. Japanese planes were flying all around and dropping bombs between us and the [USS] Dobbin.”

USS Solace had been in commission for less than four months when the attacks on Pearl Harbor occurred.  Since October, the ship had been was anchored just north of Battleship Row where it served as a floating dispensary for the Pacific Fleet.  The daily sick call may not have been a fitting build up to that fateful day, but no one would ever accuse Solace’s cadre of corpsmen, dentists, nurses, and physicians of not performing exemplary under the most trying circumstances.

At 0815, hospital corpsmen-led rescue parties loaded onto small boats to render assistance and pick up personnel from damaged ships.  Corpsmen on one motor launch even steamed to the wreckage of the Arizona braving the inferno to retrieve several wounded sailors. In the days after the attack many of these same corpsmen had the grim task of searching for and retrieving the remains of service personnel in the harbor.

Patient ward aboard USS Solace after the Pearl Harbor attack.

At 0820, the Solace received its first casualties.  Each casualty was tagged on the quarterdeck, given morphine and then sent to various wards.  Casualties included shrapnel and machinegun wounds, lacerations, and compound fractures.  More than 70 percent of the casualties suffered from first and second degree burns. And almost all the patients suffered from shock. 

For burn patients, tannic acid was applied to exposed areas and plasma given. Those with severe wounds and compound fractures were sent to the operating room.  A total 141 casualties were received and treated aboard the ship, many of them during the attack.  Throughout the day medical personnel operated under emergency conditions and prepared to abandon ship at any moment.

Seventy eight years after, Pearl Harbor still represents the Navy’s greatest disaster.  It also marked the first time in history that a U.S. Navy hospital ship operated in the midst of a battle. Remarkably—whether the enemy was adhering to the articles of the Hague Convention, was judicious in its attack, or if it was just sheer luck—the Solace escaped damage and no crew members were injured or killed.

USS Solace was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for its role at Pearl Harbor.  And 13 of its nurses and 13 of its hospital corpsmen were later cited for their heroic actions on that day.  

The Solace went on to play a vital role in supporting fleet operations throughout World War II receiving a total of seven battle stars in support of the Tarawa, Saipan, Kwajalein, Guam, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa campaigns.  It was decommissioned on March 27, 1946 and sold by the War Shipping Administration to the Turkish Maritime Lines where it served as the passenger liner Ankara for 27 years.