Captain Erik G. Hakansson, Medical Corps, U.S. Navy, stood on the deck of the hospital ship Solace (AH-5) with a movie camera as the morning watch began on Sunday, 7 December 1941. Shortly after 0800, amid the growing tumult of battle, the 56-year- old chief of medical services filmed the battleship Arizona (BB-39), less than a half-mile away. He captured images of descending spray from near-misses of ordnance dropped by Japanese high-level bombers.
Then, with heart-stopping suddenness, a cataclysmic explosion erupted from the Arizona as a bomb detonated her forward magazines. Those who had survived that blast, but who had been horribly wounded, would soon desperately need the help that the Solace could provide. Captain Hakansson steeled himself for the bloody work that lay ahead.
The Solace—formerly the passenger liner Iroquois—was, in terms of naval service, a new ship, less than four months in commission. Regarded by The Marine Engineering and Shipping Age as “the largest and fastest ships in the Atlantic coastwise trade” at the time of their entry into service in the summer of 1927, the Iroquois and her sister, Shawnee, boasted “all the latest improvements for the safety, comfort, and enjoyment of ocean travelers.”
Envisioned expressly for cruising between New York City and Miami, the Iroquois took shape in the skilled hands of the workers at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in Virginia. Naval architect Theodore E. Ferris designed her for the Clyde Steamship Company of New York. Incorporating a cruiser stern and a bulbous bow in her design—the latter adopted to decrease water resistance and a feature more often found on naval rather than merchant vessels—the Iroquois could carry 640 passengers in first class and 114 in steerage, served by a crew of 166.
On 18 July 1940, the Secretary of the Navy approved the name Solace, “a name synonymous with mercy.” The Navy took over the Iroquois—acquired from the Agwi Steamship Company—“as is, where is,” at New York City on 22 July. She was formally renamed on 29 July 1940 and designated as AH-5. Converted at the Atlantic Basin Iron Works Corporation of Brooklyn, the Solace was commissioned at her conversion yard on 9 August 1941, Captain Benjamin Perlman in command. The ship moved to the New York Navy Yard for final fitting out, then proceeded via Hampton Roads, Virginia; the Panama Canal; and Long Beach, California, to Pearl Harbor, arriving on Navy Day, 27 October, to begin her work with the Fleet Train.
During the first dog watch on Friday, 5 December 1941, the Solace discharged and admitted patients as usual. Among the departing patients was Seaman First Class Gerald R. Bolling, who left to return to his ship, the Arizona, recently moored on Battleship Row after brief exercises at sea. Soon afterward, the Solace embarked Ensign Eugene T. Kirk from the battleship Maryland (BB-46), diagnosed with “encephalitis, acute.” Still later, during the first watch on board the Maryland, Fireman First Class Dallas J. Brackin was diagnosed with acute appendicitis and departed with orders to report to the Naval Hospital. With Brackin’s condition worsening, however, the boat crew transporting him was compelled to take him to the Solace instead, a shorter distance than the voyage to Hospital Point.
Saturday, 6 December, proved a quiet day for the Solace. She discharged three patients and received six—sailors from the gunnery-training ship Utah (AG-16) and the battleship Oklahoma (BB-37) among them.
The next morning, however, as Lieutenant (junior grade) James M. Gallagher, 32, the Solace’s navigator, ate breakfast in the wardroom, he glanced toward the ships moored along the northwest side of Ford Island. He noticed the Utah beginning to list to port, a sight that held his attention. “My first impression,” he later wrote, was that “they were having a damage control drill.” Below, from one of Solace’s crew spaces, a sailor saw the Utah listing and remarked that it was “. . . a hell of a time . . . to be using some old battleship for target practice.”
Heavy explosions down at the other end of Ford Island prompted Gallagher to exit the wardroom and go out on deck. A Japanese plane passed, just 500 feet away. As the Japanese attack unfolded, 29-year-old Lieutenant (junior grade) Raynham Townshend Jr., the officer of the deck, called the Solace to general quarters. He ordered the hospital ship’s number-one motor launch (Seaman First Class Steve L. Gallos, coxswain)—one of the crew being an ambulatory patient, Apprentice Seaman Edward A. Johann—and number-two motor launch (Seaman First Class James V. Saccavino Jr., coxswain), to proceed immediately to the Arizona. With the captain’s gig in its skids undergoing maintenance, Townshend sent the number-two motor boat to the officers’ club landing at the navy yard to pick up the captain and the executive officer.
Stretcher parties under Acting Pay Clerk John A. Keefer and Chief Pharmacist’s Mate Joseph A. Cunningham scrambled aboard the Arizona as her crew abandoned ship. Moving close to the roaring flames, the Solace’s pharmacist’s mates brought off all the survivors they could find. At 0820, the Solace began admitting the wounded and bringing aboard the dead, some barely recognizable.
In the absence of senior line officers, Lieutenant (junior grade) Richard H. Bates, U.S. Naval Academy class of 1930, assumed command. With Gallagher at the conn, the Solace, in accordance with orders from commander, Battle Force, cleared her moorings near the northeast shore of Ford Island at 0850 and moved across East Loch, past emptying nests of destroyers, to an area off the north- northwestern tip of the island. She dropped anchor at 1004, then moored between 1025 and 1045. At the latter juncture, Captain Perlman, Commander Thomas E. Flaherty, the exec, and Captain Harold L. Jensen, senior medical officer, returned to the ship.
That morning, all hands on the Solace, aided by doctors from other ships, Public Health Service physicians, and civilian nurses, strove mightily to treat the wounded and dying. Her valiant boat crews made several trips into the oily harbor waters, perilously close to fires from burning fuel on the surface. Saccavino once steered his launch so close to the flames that his jumper began to smolder, compelling him to jump into the water to quench it.
Fireman Second Class Frederick C. Ley Jr., the engineer on number-one motor launch, rescued a drowning officer. Later, that same boat, its crew quickly changing clothes, transported a salvage party under Carpenter Millard G. Bowman to the Oklahoma, where they assisted in rescuing sailors extracted from the overturned hull. Subsequently, all engaged in those operations received commendations. Ley was awarded the Navy Cross.
The Solace and her crew and medical staff maintained that standard of excellence for the remainder of World War II. Her mission of mercy took her to the Southwest and Central Pacific, and finally to Okinawa. Ultimately, however, more capable hospital ships joined the fleet, and the Navy deemed the Solace no longer necessary.
Stricken from the List of Naval Vessels on 21 May 1946, the ship was sold to Turkey and became the Ankara, cruising the Mediterranean into the 1970s. Sister ship Shawnee had burned and been scrapped in 1949, but the Ankara lasted until 1981. She was scrapped four decades after her day of destiny at Pearl Harbor: The Solace was the only hospital ship awarded a Navy Unit Commendation during World War II. “All hands worked most energetically to handle the casualty cases,” Captain Perlman reported on 12 December 1941. “Too much praise cannot be given to the doctors, nurses, and corpsmen of the ship.”