The Grey-Hulled Cousins of Hospital Ships: A Short History of the Navy’s Evacuation Transport Ships

By André B. Sobocinski, Historian, BUMED

On October 12, 1944, Lieutenant Commander Delbert McNamara wrote a letter to the Commander, Fifth Amphibious Force in which he praised the medical care he received aboard USS Rixey (APH-3).  McNamara, himself a Navy doctor, was wounded when an enemy shell penetrated the 3rd Marine Division hospital during the Battle of Guam.  McNamara wrote that between July 26th and July 29th, 1944:

USS Tryon (APH-1)
All photographs from BUMED Archives

“…the USS Rixey received many casualties resulting from the enemy counter-attack against the Third Marine Division and its supporting units on the night of July 25-26.  These casualties all received prompt and extremely skillful care at the hands of the surgical staff of the ship.  Two surgical teams operated more or less continuously for about thirty-six hours.  .  .During the passage to Pearl Harbor these high standards of medical care were maintained.  All the patients received the most careful and scientific care possible under the circumstances and without exception appreciated the unusual care they were receiving.”

The letter represents the first testimonial of a patient aboard what was considered an experimental “medical” ship.  USS Rixey (APH-2), along with her sister ships USS Tryon (APH-1) and USS Pinkney (APH-2) were auxiliary vessels originally designed for double duty—to carry warfighters into battle as well as to treat and evacuate casualties as “evacuation ships.”

A patient leaves USS Pinkney for further treatment at base hospital on
New Caledonia, 1943

The Tryon and Rixey were each named after former Navy Surgeons General (J. Rufus Tryon and Presley Rixey) who were instrumental in the adoption of hospital ships; Pinkney earned its namesake from the Fleet Surgeon of the Mississippi Squadron who served as a senior medical officer aboard the hospital ship USS Red Rover during the Civil War (Ninian Pinkney).

Prior to being acquired by the Navy, the Tryon, Pinkney and Rixey had originally been envisioned as “fast merchant ships” and used for carrying passengers as well up to 8,000 tons of cargo. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, they were designated for Navy use and converted into “attack and hospital transports.” 

Each ship measured 450 feet long, 62 feet wide and could reach a top speed of 18 knots. And each contained space for personnel landing craft, a sick bay, and berthing spaces that could accommodate over 1,200 personnel.  The shipboard medical contingent typically consisted of ten medical officers, one to two dentists, two hospital corps officers or warrant pharmacists (serving as medical administrators), and up to 60 hospital corpsmen.

Stern of USS Rixey, 1943

These Tryon, Pinkney and Rixey did not quite fit any existing ship model at the time.  Despite their grey hulls and being free of medical symbols they were sometimes lump into to the same category as their white-hulled cousins. In an article published in Our Navy, Felix Averill attempted to categorize the ship into known parlance: “Battlewagon? Cruiser? Sleek tin can?  Guess again. . .If she could be typed as any one class of vessel it would be as a hospital ship!” Of course, this was not quite correct.

In a confidential memo from Assistant Chief of CNO, Fleet Maintenance and Assistant Chief for Logistics Projects, to Navy Bureau Chiefs, dated September 8, 1942, Rear Admiral W.S. Farber addressed some of the misconceptions already floating around about these ships. “It is anticipated that subject vessels will be utilized as normal convoy loaded transports (AP) until  such time as the evacuation of wounded is required from outlying bases, at which time they continue as AP’s for the outbound voyage and become Evacuation Transports (APH’s) for the return voyage.”

Farber went on to emphasize that the vessels were NOT hospital ships, were not protected under International Law and, besides, they contained an armament of 5”, 3” and 20 m.m. guns.

The early experiences of these ships further focused on how they were used for the remainder of the war.  The three ships were deployed in 1943 where they were used to evacuate casualties from the Pacific campaign to Australia.  Within its first nine months of action the Tryon alone evacuated over 10,000 casualties.

Between March 1943 and August 1945, Rixey transported 46,518 troops, treated and transported over 16,000 casualties, and travelled over 160, 000 miles.  She was used extensively in the Battle of Guam (July-August 1944), Invasion of Leyte (October 1944), Invasion of Luzon (January 1945), and Invasion of Kerama Rhetto and Ie Shima (March-May 1945).  The medical team aboard regularly treated shock, burns, fractures and severe soft tissue wounds, head and neck wounds, neurosurgical injuries and conducted amputations and blood transfusions.  Over a nine-day period, while supporting the Marines in the Battle of Guam, Rixey received 830 casualties including Dr. McNamara.

USS Pinkney (APH-2)

In February 1943, as part of her first official mission, USS Pinkney transported troops to the Florida Islands and then evacuated wounded Marines from the bloody battles of Tulagi and Cavutu.  Soonafter she was called upon to transport casualties from mobile and base hospitals in the Solomons and New Hebrides to New Caledonia and New Zealand.  Over 19 months of action, Pinkney proved its versatility and mettle in answering the call.  She transported torpedoes and ammunition to the island of Tulagi and to warships; she embarked and carried Army and Navy nurses to forward deployed hospitals across the Southwest Pacific.  At one point, Pinkney was even called upon to transport French war brides and their babies from New Zealand to New Caledonia.

Beginning in September 1944, as naval forces turned its attention to the island of Peleliu, Pinkney carried part of the First Marine Division into action and then stood offshore for five days—maneuvering around enemy mortar fire—before loading up with casualties (including some of the same Marines she transported) and evacuating them to the Admiralties.  She, Tryon and Rixey were later assigned to the Philippines where they played instrumental roles in retrieving casualties from ships damaged from Kamikaze attacks in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.  On April 28, 1945, while supporting operations in the Battle of Okinawa, Pinkney’s superstructure received a direct hit by a Kamikaze.  The attack penetrated four decks down and killed 16 patients and 18 members of her crew.  Pinkney was later repaired and returned to action.

Collectively the three ships received 14 battle stars for their efforts in World War II. The ships were each decommissioned in 1946.

Sources:

Averill, Felix.  “With Caduceus and Gun.” Our Navy, March 1947.

Dunn, Steven.  USS Rixey and the APH Class. Navy Medicine Magazine, March-April 1995.

Farber, W.S. Letter to Bureau Chiefs, September 8, 1942.  BUMED Correspondence Collection, Record Group 52, National Archives II, College Park

“History of USS Pinkney (APH-2).”  Naval History Division, Ships Histories Section.  Navy Department Library

Massman, Emory. Hospital Ships of World War II: An Illustrated Reference. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. 1999.

McNamara, D.H. to Commander, Fifth Amphibious Force. “USS Rixey, Comments on medical care received aboard.” BUMED Correspondence Collection, Record Group 52, National Archives II, College Park.

“Medical History of the USS Pinkney (APH-2).”  The United States Navy Medical Department Historical Data Series, World War II. 1946.

“Medical History of the USS Rixey (APH-3).”  The United States Navy Medical Department Historical Data Series, World War II. 1946.

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