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Crew Aboard Navy Hospital Ship Solace Saved Lives, Cared for Wounded Following Attack on Pearl Harbor

Image of Crew Aboard Navy Hospital Ship Solace Saved Lives, Cared for Wounded Following Attack on Pearl Harbor. U.S. Naval Reserve Medical Corps surgeon (Dr.) Howard Owen Smith Jr. cared for burned and injured patients aboard the U.S. Navy hospital ship Solace following the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941. First-hand accounts of the attack and its aftermath detail the carnage and the care the ship’s crew gave the wounded and the dying. (Courtesy, BUMED Library and archives)

The U.S. Navy hospital ship Solace and its crew heroically saved many lives and cared for the injured on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, 1941, and in the aftermath of the surprise Japanese aerial attack that propelled the United States into World War II. It is the “date which will live in infamy.”

The USS Solace was aptly named. Her name is “synonymous with mercy,” according to her official history from the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command.

The Japanese attack began at 7:55 a.m. Hawaii time. By 8:20 a.m., Solace received its first patients, according to an account by the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. The attack, which came in two waves, ended shortly before 10:00 a.m.

Hospital Corpsman Underwood’s Recounting

During the battle and over the course of three days, Solace’s 466 nurses, doctors, and crew saw an estimated 700 casualties—the wounded and the dying—according to Jim Underwood, then a 19-year-old Solace hospital corpsman, who spoke to a Wisconsin newspaper in June 2011.

Underwood said on Dec. 7 alone, Solace “helped evacuate 464 wounded and others from the water—418 of them survived,” he told a Lubbock, Texas, newspaper in September 2010.

“We did everything that they did on land in taking care of [the wounded],” said Underwood. “We were basically like nurses. We had two nurses and a bunch of 17- and 18-year-old kids. It was bloody and soaking wet. We didn’t get to bed for three days.” Solace medical staff were aided by deck crew, U.S. Public Health Service doctors, and civilian nurses, according to the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command.

“My battle station was at the gangway,” Underwood said. “Casualties came up that gangway either by stretcher or ambulatory. About 70% of our casualties were burns. They were coming from boats—other ships’ boats were coming in. We had two boats that were out. They just happened to be leaving the ship” when the attack started. “We were getting boats from all directions.”

“My duty was to attach identification tags and mark the ward [the wounded] where to go to. The doctor would designate the ward, and the nurse would give them a shot of morphine if they needed it—and most of them did. The deck crew served as stretcher bearers, so they came and were taking them away as fast as we could get them in, or leading them away in a lot of cases.”

Solace was moored about 125 yards from the battleship USS Arizona. The Arizona sank in the first wave of the attack after taking a direct hit from an armor-piercing bomb that struck the ship’s forward magazine, causing a massive explosion that killed 1,177 officers and crew, nearly half of the total number who died that day.

Pharmacist mates from the Solace boarded the Arizona to rescue as many service members as they could from its fiery, crumpled, and gaping deck. On their return trip, they picked up a lone sailor swimming in burning water. After unloading casualties, Solace’s boats made repeated trips to the battleship USS West Virginia to transport crewmen to the hospital ship, according to Underwood. West Virginia, torpedoed multiple times, sank at her berth with the loss of 106 men.

Solace Nurse Willgrube

Ann Danyo Willgrube was a Solace operating room nurse and recounted her Pearl Harbor story in a 1981 letter.

She was awakened by what she initially thought was a boiler explosion. “The ship shook, and everyone ran out on deck to see what happened,” Willgrube wrote. “I looked out the porthole in my room and saw smoke pouring out of the Arizona. The next minute, our chief nurse burst into the room and told me to dress quickly and report to the quarterdeck for duty because [they] were bombing us.”

Willgrube and Underwood were but two of the many medical heroes that day.

Lynn “Doc” Munger

Lynn “Doc” Munger was a 23-year-old U.S. Navy medical corpsman during the Pearl Harbor attack stationed at a small medical unit on shore.

In an interview with the Library of Congress when he was 98, he said this about the large number of wounded: “Shortly after it got quiet at Pearl Harbor and I knew the planes … had left for a while, we started getting casualties by the truckload in our little medical unit. And the first truckload had been thrown in rather helter-skelter, no arrangement or anything, just a bunch of--of wounded people, wounded soldiers--soldiers and sailors and Marines. And, uh, one of them in the bottom was not living. And so, I got old in a hurry.”

“’Cause there was a dead one in the bottom and I--I built myself a shell more or less around me that you have to do when you--when you're a medic. You have to not get personal with any of them. And you have to accept what's--what's there in front of you.” The Jeeps and trucks bringing in the wounded piled them in, Munger said, “because it was a matter of time. They wanted to get--get these people to a hospital.”

I'll never forget we--we had so many burns and they're very, very painful. A burn is the most painful one of the wounds,” Munger said and mostly came from flash bombs.

“We had to give them morphine, morphine sulfate grains, a quarter. And … [then] we were out of morphine and the doctor turned to me and said, "Well, they will have to suffer now." And I said no. I said, "Let's get some cold water and splash on them, on the wounds." He said, "A good idea." And we did that, and that--that gave them some comfort.”

“You can't convey to another person the situation as it really is in a bombing, in a mass bombing like that,” Munger said. “The air is full of shrapnel, you swallow the smoke, smell like burning gun powders, fibers, and you have to experience that to ever know it. But it's not good. It's like all hell broke loose and at once.”

Caring for the Wounded

In addition to the many injured with first- and second-degree burns, the wounded had shrapnel and machine gun wounds, traumatic amputations, penetrating abdominal wounds, lacerations, and compound fractures. Almost all suffered from shock. A number of men also suffered from asphyxia caused by their exposure to leaking oil, smoke, and salt water, the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command said in a report on medical activities at Pearl Harbor.

When Solace realized Pearl Harbor was under attack, the crew prepared supplies of sterile morphine solution, tannic acid solution to cover burns and saline solution for shock. Sulfa drugs, new at the time, helped prevent infection from wounds and burns.

Most burns were treated with tannic acid jelly and solution, picric acid, gentian violet, and the triple dye, with or without silver nitrate. Sulfanilamide powder was mixed with these substances in some instances.

Aboard the Solace, the crew applied dressings soaked in tannic acid solution on burns. They also applied dressings dipped in a mixture of mineral oil and the sulfa drugs and applied that to burns. These liquid applications were "more easily applicable and more practical" than the tannic acid jelly that was smeared on burns out of tubes, the medical report states.

For her role during those chaotic days, Solace received the Navy Unit Commendation—She is the only ship of her type so honored.

Said Willgrube: "We never had disaster drills, yet when we realized that we were actually at war, every person on board that ship seemed to know instinctively what to do. It simply proves how important discipline in the military is. It not only saves lives but wins wars, too.”

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