Thursday, June 16, 2022

Good Deeds Done, Goodwill Won: USS Consolation Becomes SS Hope

By Zac Cunningham
School Programs Educator

Rendering aid to those imperiled on the sea is an ancient tradition among mariners. The Sailors of the United States Navy are no exception. Whether “disaster relief…, rescues at sea, refugee assistance, emergency medical deployments, [or] nation building activities,”[1] humanitarian assistance is an important mission of the Navy. The fleet’s gleaming white hospital ships are perhaps the most visible reminders of this benevolent task.

Hospital ship USS Consolation (AH 15) served as an especially unique reminder of American humanitarianism in Asia during the Cold War, first for the Navy itself and then for a non-governmental organization (NGO).
USS Consolation (AH 15) returns to San Francisco on March 30, 1955, after supporting Operation Passage to Freedom in Vietnam during its voyage in the Western Pacific. (NHHC)
In the Cold War, American humanitarianism was driven by a desire to help the world’s peoples while trying to win support for the U.S. in its struggle against the Soviet Union. Consolation first took up this cause in Asia when it sailed for Korea from Norfolk, Virginia on July 14, 1950. During the Korean War, medical staff on Consolation treated wounded Korean soldiers and civilians while helping set up Korean medical facilities.[2]

With the Korean armistice, America’s Cold Warriors shifted their focus to Vietnam. In 1954, the Geneva Accords partitioned French Indochina into Communist North Vietnam and U.S.-allied South Vietnam. For 300 days, civilians were permitted to emigrate and settle in whichever Vietnam they wished to live. Countless refugees fled to the South. In Operation Passage to Freedom, U.S. Navy landing ships, commissioned auxiliary craft, and Military Sealift Transportation Service vessels facilitated this mass movement of people.[3]
Refugees board LST 516 for their journey from Haiphong to Saigon in October 1954 during Operation Passage to Freedom. (NHHC)
USS Consolation supported Operation Passage to Freedom from September 4 to September 27, 1954, off present-day Da Nang.[4] Yeoman First Class William Bennet recalled the ship provided “medical support for the forces that were involved in the evacuation process” but did not engage in any evacuations itself. In fact, Bennett did not remember any refugees aboard.[5] Hospital Corpsman Louis McCluskey did not recall providing treatment to any refugees. He said that some doctors and nurses did visit local churches and orphanages.[6] Nurse Anne Peterson, however, remembered a handful of sick Vietnamese aboard and, despite the language barrier, tried to instill some goodwill with medical care and smiles.[7] In the end, the crew’s contact with the Vietnamese was limited. Since it did not transport or treat many Passage to Freedom evacuees, Consolation’s role in winning support for the U.S. proved limited as well.

Consolation returned to Asia six years later. On March 16, 1960, the Navy transferred the ship to Project HOPE, an NGO planning to, as the Washington Post reported, “bring the latest American medical techniques to foreign countries.”[8] One of those countries was South Vietnam, where the rechristened SS Hope visited in the summer of 1961.[9]
SS Hope in Saigon Harbor, 1961 (Project HOPE Archives)
Hope’s American volunteer doctors and nurses treated Vietnamese patients for eye problems, ulcers, throat cancer, and other maladies. The ship, however, was “primarily a teaching and training institution, a floating medical school.” Associated Press correspondent Relman Morin reported, “Its main objective is to instruct Asian physicians, nurses, students, and midwives.”[10]

At Saigon, Hope trained 28 Vietnamese doctors and 20 nurses, treated nearly “11,000 patients and performed over 500 major operations,” completed a mass inoculation program against “diphtheria, typhoid, tetanus, and pertussis,” and left behind 2,000 books for the local medical school plus tons of supplies.[11]

At the same time, Project HOPE founder Dr. William B. Walsh explained that because “the power with which [the United States] emerged from World War II has been greatly resented” the ship was also “a dramatic and effective symbol of that national trait that makes our power bearable.” The trait being that the American people “reach out to other people with the wish to help them when we have little or nothing to gain from it.” Walsh wanted Hope “to make friends for the United States and . . . cause ripples of goodwill to spread throughout troubled Eastern waters.”[12]

Hope’s goodwill influence is difficult to quantify. Similar to Consolation’s brief stay in 1954, the ship remained somewhat isolated from the Vietnamese people during its three-month port call. Security around the vessel was tight and a round of gunfire reportedly hit the ship on July 4, 1961. Walsh claimed that, nevertheless, “the area outside the cordon was always full of people who simply stood and stared at the Hope.” The ship still managed to receive 9,000 visitors in its first month in Saigon, among them President Ngo Dinh Diem, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Frederick Nolting, Jr., officials from the U.S. Military Advisory Group and U.S. Operations Mission, professionals and business leaders from Saigon, important refugees from the North, Buddhist monks, and even American tourists.[13]
President Ngo Dinh Diem (center foreground) tours SS Hope on June 24, 1961, with (l-r) Project HOPE Public Information Officer Robert A. Peterson, Minister of Health Dr. Tran Dinh De, and Deputy Chief of U.S. Mission H. Francis Cunningham, Jr. (USIA USOM photo, Project HOPE Archives)
If America’s Cold War humanitarianism was driven by a desire to help the world’s peoples while trying to win support for the U.S. in its struggle against the Soviet Union, then Hope’s visit to Vietnam perhaps shored up the support of an already allied government.[14] As SS Hope and USS Consolation, this hospital ship truly was a unique reminder of American humanitarianism in Asia during the Cold War.

[1] “The Navy’s Humanitarian Mission,” Naval History and Heritage Command,
[2] “Consolation (AH-15), 1945-1974,” Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, Naval History and Heritage Command,
[3] Jan K. Herman, Navy Medicine in Vietnam: Passage to Freedom to the Fall of Saigon, Washington, DC, Naval History and Heritage Command, 2010.
[4] Operation Passage to Freedom Participating Ships, Task Force 90 Final Report, verified by Ronald B. Frankum, Jr. Ph.D., Millersville University of Pennsylvania, Department of History,
[5] Interview with William Bennett, OH0609. Vietnam Center and Sam Johnson Vietnam Archive. No Date, Mr. William Bennett Collection, Vietnam Center and Sam Johnson Vietnam Archive, Texas Tech University,
[6] Interviews with two (2) U.S. Navy sailors, 1039AU2402. Vietnam Center and Sam Johnson Vietnam Archive. 2001, Ronald B. Frankum, Jr. Collection, Vietnam Center and Sam Johnson Vietnam Archive, Texas Tech University,
[7] Ronald B. Frankum, Operation Passage to Freedom: The United States Navy in Vietnam, 1954-1955, Lubbock, Tex.: Texas Tech University Press, 2007, pg. 123.
[8] “Navy Gives Hospital Ship to HOPE for World Help,” Washington Post, March 17, 1960, B8.
[9] “U.S. Hospital Ship Arrives in Saigon,” Washington Post, June 16, 1961, A17; “Hospital Ship Hope Ends Asian Mission,” New York Times, August 27, 1961, 15.
[10] Relman Morin, “Ship with Heart Helps 18,000,” Chicago Tribune, June 28, 1961, 2.
[11] William B. Walsh, M.D., A Ship Called Hope, New York: Scholastic Book Services, 1964, 3-4, 15.
[12] Ibid., 282-3.
[13] Ibid., 233-4, 256-7.
[14] Zachary A. Cunningham, “Project HOPE as Propaganda: A Humanitarian Non-Governmental Organization Takes Part in America’s Total Cold War,” (master’s thesis, Ohio University, 2008), 140-142.

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