Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Kamikaze attacks USS Comfort hospital ship - April 1945

"Kamaretta red, smoke boat make smoke"

On April 28, 1945, at night, the USS Comfort Hospital Ship left Okinawa for Guam with a full load of wounded patients resulting from the US invasion of that island. A Japanese kamikaze plane smashed into the ship where Comfort's three operating rooms were located.

The crash killed 30 persons, including six Army nurses and seven patients, and wounded 48 others.

The invasion of Okinawa had begun on April 1, 1945. It was codenamed "Operation Iceberg."  It was a long and very bloody battle. Major combat operations ended on June 21, 1945.

 USS Relief (AH-1)

USS Comfort (AH-6)

Two hospital ships, the USS Relief (AH-1) and the USS Comfort (AH-6), loitered off shore, taking aboard the wounded.

During the initial attacks, they stood off to the rear, in international waters, usually alone, waiting for the order to come to move in and take wounded. 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 painting of the USS Comfort during WWII done by Mark Churms,

The hospital ships 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.

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.

 The ship carried only wounded troops and crew. The ships were not armed.

As a general rule, the hospital ships would work hard to avoid normal shipping lanes, and would sail alone: unarmed, alone, unafraid.

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.

The hospital ships often had to locate themselves amidst the vast armada offshore. As a result, they were vulnerable to lousy enemy marksmanship. Furthermore, in the tropical Pacific, typhoons, foul weather and fog were frequent, and seas were often very rough.

The Comfort was launched on March 18, 1943 for the Maritime Commission to serve as cargo ship. She was reconfigured as a hospital ship and commissioned in May 1944. Of the two, Comfort was the new ship, Relief the "old hand."

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 ramped up that number significantly, to 700 beds. Cots, sofas, chairs etc. were assembled in such a way to get more beds. 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.

The Navy built her and operated her as a hospital ship. The Army provided the medical crew. Here you see them on deck, prior to their trip to the Pacific Theater, via Australia, departure June 21, 1944.
When 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.

Commander Harold Farnham Fultz, USN, shown here, was in command of the Comfort.

The Army had its own hospital ships, employing merchant marine crews using Army medical personnel. The USS Relief's medical crew was Navy.  The Army controlled those ships, while the Navy controlled the Comfort.

 Using an Army medical crew aboard a Navy ship was a new concept, first tried with the Comfort.

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 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. She even had a psychiatric ward, 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.

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.

Close-up of a Japanese kamikaze just before he crashed on LISS Essex-25, November 1944.

By the time of the Okinawa invasion, 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.

Scores of Japanese suicide motorboats ready for operations against a US invasion of the Home Islands
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.

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.

Hours later, another fighter played a few games over the hospital ships, but did not attack.

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, “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. The ships took a beating from the seas going back and forth. 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.

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 a 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 were 16-19 years old, and those who entered at 18 or 19 were, by age 20, seasoned and hardened war fighters.

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 when she was departed the combat zone headed for 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.

Let's move to 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 I 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 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 (Comfort'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 attack was no mistake. The Comfort was lit, was out of the battle area, and to my 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

"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:

"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."

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."

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.  I found part of the Purdy’s history. 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 I 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 presents six "WWII Victory Newsreels," assorted American newsreels made during 1945. One of these is about the USS Comfort. I 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.

This next three shot show the nurses, crew and others attending the burials.

Dorene Lynch, daughter of David C. Burns, sent me 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. These 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.”

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

Off-loading patients


A poem about the first USS Comfort
Rhymes of the Fleet, 1918

USS Comfort at anchor, 1919, she was formerly the Passenger Steamship Havana and was de-comissioned in 1921.
 William Nelson Morell 

 "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!"

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