Too Close for Comfort
by Dale P. Harper
Trafford Publishing, 2001, 149 pages
The USS Comfort (AH-6), an American hospital ship with beds for
700 patients, left Okinawa for Guam with a full load of wounded patients at
3:55 p.m. on April 28, 1945. The ship proceeded after dark with full
illumination and had large red crosses painted on it in several places to clearly mark it as a hospital ship
without any weapons. At 10:41 p.m., 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. Too Close for Comfort briefly tells the wartime history of the
only hospital ship hit by a kamikaze plane and includes several personal
accounts of the devastation caused by the attack.
The author, Dale Harper, served in World War II as a
radarman on an LST (Landing Ship, Tank) and has written many articles for World
War II Magazine. He tells Comfort's wartime history chronologically
in 13 chapters and includes numerous historical photos. Chapters I to VI deal
with the period from the ship's commissioning on May 5, 1944, to its
participation in the Battles of Leyte and Luzon. Chapters VII to XI cover Comfort's
time in Okinawa, the kamikaze attack, and its aftermath. Chapter XII discusses
the sinking of Awa Maru, an unarmed Japanese relief ship, by the
American submarine Queenfish on April 1, 1945. The final chapter tells
about Comfort's return to the US. The appendices total 50 pages, a
third of the book, and include many official US Government documents related to
hospital ships and the Awa Maru sinking.
Although much of the book tends to be a somewhat dry
description of facts about the ship and its wartime history, Chapter IX and X's
several personal accounts about the kamikaze attack on Comfort provide
many insights into the carnage, confusion, and terror caused by the crash. For example, Second Lieutenant Louise
Campbell, a nurse who assisted in rescue efforts, gives a detailed account of
the terrible scene, including the following comment (p. 65):
The hardest thing for the men to take was the fact that
nurses had been killed, injured and horribly burned. They kept talking about it
and muttering threats against an enemy that would willfully do such a thing.
Harper contacted more than 20 former Comfort
personnel in order to obtain the moving personal accounts and other information included in this book.
The personnel included individuals from the Navy, which operated the ship; the
Army, which ran the hospital facilities; and the Red Cross, which performed
various tasks to provide physical and emotional support to patients.
After Comfort's return to the US for repairs, the book
ends rather abruptly even though the ship was not decommissioned until April
1946. The book briefly mentions the 1987 reunion of Comfort personnel in
San Diego, but it does not contain any other information about what
happened to Comfort and her personnel after the end of the war.
Nurses from Comfort inspect engine
wreckage from kamikaze plane
American hospital ships had several close calls prior to the kamikaze
attack on Comfort. Japanese planes attacked the USS Hope (AH-7)
twice in December 1944, but this hospital ship barely escaped damage in both instances.
The USS Relief (AH-1) and USS Solace (AH-5) were attacked in April 1945
by Japanese planes, but they also luckily escaped without any casualties or
damage. The book does not mention whether Comfort personnel had heard of
any of these close calls prior to the kamikaze plane crashing into their ship.
Even though hospital ships were to be protected under provisions of the Geneva
Convention, American hospital ships in the Pacific clearly faced many dangers
during World War II.
This book devotes about 30 pages to the Awa Maru incident, which the
Japanese government described as follows, "This is the most outrageous act
of treachery unparalleled in the world history of war" (p. 130). Harper
speculates that the kamikaze attack on Comfort was in retaliation for Queenfish's
sinking the Japanese relief ship Awa Maru with four torpedoes on April 1,
1945. Over 2,000 Japanese passengers lost their lives in the sinking. A document
was recovered from the dead kamikaze pilot who hit Comfort, and this
paper indicated the numbers of various types of American ships, including two
hospital ships, at several locations off Okinawa. The author argues that the
pilot deliberately selected Comfort as a target even though he knew that
there were numerous warships in the area. Also, Comfort's Captain Tooker wrote
to Admiral Nimitz that he had heard a Tokyo radio broadcast on April 9, 1945,
that included the following words, "We are justified in bombing hospital
ships as they are being used for repair ships for returning wounded men back to
the fighting front" (p. 92).
The personal accounts and many photos in Too Close for Comfort make it
a fascinating history about a type of ship not covered in detail in other books on
the Pacific War.