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On October 16, 1965 – 57 years ago yesterday – the United States Navy hospital ship USS Repose was recommissioned for service in 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/1940s
The ship was built in 1943 by the Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock Company in Chester, Pennsylvania, and launched the following year for service during World War II. The ship was 520 feet long, displaced 11,141 tons and her maximum speed was 18.7 knots (21.5 mph). She was launched on August 8, 1944 and was then acquired for conversion to 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 war in Europe ended.
At that time, the ship had a bed capacity of 750 and a ship’s crew of 564. The USS Repose left Norfolk on July 8, 1945 and sailed to the Pacific theater. The Repose served as a casualty transport from several Pacific ports, and also served as a base hospital ship in Shanghai and later Tsingtao, China. It supported the occupation forces in northern China. The ship remained in Asian waters (with an occasional return trip to the U.S.) until July 1949.
After returning to San Francisco, the 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 Korean War began), and sailed for Pusan, Korea, picking up a U.S. Navy crew in Yokosuka, Japan en route.
The USS Repose served in South Korean waters and evacuated patients to Japanese ports as necessary. The ship returned to San Francisco and the Mare Island Naval Shipyard for repairs and the installation of a helicopter landing pad. (To read more about the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, follow this link.) The Repose returned to South Korean waters; the armistice took effect on July 27, 1953, but the ship remained on station until early 1954.
The hospital ship returned to the United States and was docked at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard until being transferred to the Naval Reserve Fleet on September 27, 1954. On December 21, 1954 the Repose was decommissioned at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard 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.
U.S. personnel had served as military advisers to the South Vietnamese armed forces beginning shortly after the French were defeated in 1954. However, there were still less than 30,000 Americans in Vietnam at the beginning of 1965. By the fall of 1965, there were nearly 185,000 U.S. personnel in the country.
The USS Repose reached Vietnam on January 3, 1966. She was deployed in Southeast Asia for over four years and earned the nickname “Angel of the Orient.” During her deployment, the doctors and nurses onboard the Repose treated more than 24,000 patients, including 9,000 casualties. Approximately 8,000 surgical operations took place on the ship, which not only served military personnel but also Vietnamese civilians.
During the Repose’s time off Vietnam, the experiences of the ship’s doctors and nurses helped to define state-of-the-art hospital ships. Anchored in combat zones, Repose and the mobile army surgical hospitals (MASH) worked to quickly bring casualties aboard for immediate medical treatment.
In a 1966 issue of the Navy’s All Hands magazine, an overview of what was on board the ship was featured. The article stated in part, “Repose is now fitted out with the latest in diagnostic and treatment equipment, including a frozen blood bank facility; a heart-lung machine; a sonar echo-encephalograph and a recompression chamber. ” It concluded, “It is a modern, floating 750-bed hospital manned by 24 doctors, 30 nurses and 256 hospital corpsmen.” In addition, the ship also had three operating rooms, a laboratory, and x-ray facilities.
The hospital ship was on station and gave aid 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 on an F-4B Phantom to fire, striking an external fuel tank of an A-4 Skyhawk. Flammable jet fuel spilled across the flight deck, ignited, and triggered 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 left the Vietnam war zone on March 14, 1970 and was decommissioned in May 1970. She was berthed in Long Beach, California, and was utilized as a hospital annex for Long Beach Naval Hospital. However, this was costly and the Repose was sold for scrap in 1975.
FreightWaves Classics thanks ggarchives.com, the U.S. Navy, USS Repose Memories Facebook page, wikipedia, womenofwwii.com, and ysfine.com for information and photographs that contributed to this article.
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My father was aboard the Hospital Ship Repose during WW11.
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