By Tricia Menke, NMAS Curator of Education
The United States Navy may be best known as the premier naval fighting force on the planet, but there is more to the Navy than war prowess and high tech ships. Since the early 20th century, naval ships have deployed for humanitarian reasons around the world, supporting Americans and foreign nationals alike in times of crisis. Oftentimes, these humanitarian missions require partnerships with other branches of the U.S. military, with civilian organizations, and with foreign governments to successfully complete these aid-based missions.
In the early 20th century, the U.S, military was still primarily a warfighting machine, leaving humanitarian relief up to civilian organizations like the American Red Cross or religious groups. That changed in 1923 when the devastating Great Kanto Earthquake rocked the shores of Japan, killing thousands and sweeping away entire cities in the earthquake’s aftermath. The shocking 9.0 magnitude earthquake, then the worst natural disaster in Japanese history, lasted only fourteen seconds but leveled almost every building in Yokohama. The quake then triggered a tsunami, which only magnified the destruction. Amidst the wreckage was the United States Naval Hospital in Yokohama. When reports of the disaster reached Washington D.C. early on September 2, 1923, Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby swiftly ordered the Asiatic Squadron to Yokohama. Over the next week, more than a dozen U.S. ships arrived with supplies, helping hands, and medical support. In total, the United States Navy gave more than $2 million in relief supplies, coupled with over $12 million from the American Red Cross. Working in tandem with the Japanese government and American Red Cross, the Navy deployed more humanitarian aid than ever in its history.1
Since the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, the cleanup of natural disasters has become a regular mission for the U.S. Navy. Over the last century, the Navy has deployed to Asia, Europe, the Gulf of Mexico, Central America, and the Pacific in the wake of disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. “Our mission usually breaks down to three different categories. One, is to save lives. We want to provide immediate response and save as many lives as possible. The second thing is to alleviate suffering. There are people who have been victimized by the storm, they have lost just about everything… The other piece of that, from a military perspective, our role is always going to be temporary because we’ve helping local government, local infrastructure, local first responders, get back on their feet.”2
Refugee and Rescues at Sea
Every now and then, the Navy performs high stakes rescues at sea of refugees, lost sailors, or stricken ships. One of the most striking examples of this type of mission was the 1994 Cuban Raft Crisis. In the wake of Fidel Castro’s announcement that any citizens who wanted to leave the island would not be prevented from fleeing, 35,000 refugees took to the sea aboard small boats and makeshift rafts. In response, the United States sent more than seventy Navy and Coast Guard ships to rescue the fleeing Cubans. Pulled from the water by the Coast Guard, Cuban refugees were transferred to Navy ships for transport to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. There, thousands of refugees waited in tent cities for word on whether or not they would be granted asylum in the United States. Over the next year, the refugees and the Navy worked in uneasy cooperation while politicians in Washington worked out the next moves.4 The aftermath of humanitarian missions, such as the 1994 Cuban Raft Crisis, can be fraught with uncertainty and stress, but the Navy’s primary mission of saving lives always takes precedence.
No matter what sort of disaster or crisis the Navy is responding to, medical relief is always at the forefront. Since the Civil War, the Navy has employed the use of hospital ships, specifically dedicated to emergency medical operations. In 2020 and 2021, the USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort made headlines for providing support to Americans in New York and Los Angeles during the COVID-19 pandemic; however, Mercy and Comfort’s ancestors were at work long before the COVID years, in both war and peacetime.
One long-term humanitarian medical mission occurred in September 1973, when USS Sanctuary departed for a three-month goodwill cruise to South America. The first mixed male-female crew of over 500 enlisted sailors and 60 officers traveled to Buena Ventura, Colombia and Port-au-Prince, Haiti to deliver medical aid, material aid of over $500,000 worth of donations, and civil engineering projects to the people of these communities.5 “[The mission, known as “Project Handclasp,”] gave us the chance to be a part of the relatively new idea of providing people-to-people assistance to countries requesting our aid, through the combined resources and coordination of the civilian and military communities. ‘People-to-people’ provided the key to the entire endeavor. Rather than give blanket aid to Colombia and Haiti, we were encouraged to get out and meet and associate with the people of both countries; not only through ‘Project Handclasp,’ but on an individual basis.”6 USS Sanctuary’s 1973 voyage marked the beginning of similar goodwill projects, which continue to this day. Today’s hospital ships, USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy, continue the tradition of medical aid cruises around the world.
Over the last century, the United States Navy has transformed from a warfighting machine to force for good on the water. While this still takes the form of warfare, humanitarian missions make up an increasing number of Navy deployments. From natural disasters to rescues at sea to medical aid, Navy ships are ready to send help to all corners of the globe.
- Joshua Hammer, The Great Japan Earthquake of 1923, Smithsonian Magazine, May 2011.
- Rear Admiral Cedric Pringle, “Humanitarian,” Sea Story Podcast, U.S. Navy, 2019.
- Bruce A. Elleman, Waves of Hope: The U.S. Navy’s Response to the Tsunami in Northern Indonesia, Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 2007.
- “Between Despair and Hope: Cuban Rafters at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, 1994-1996,” University of Miami Libraries Digital Exhibits, www.scholar.library.miami.edu/digital/exhibits/show/guantanamo.
- “USS Sanctuary (AH 17),” Naval History and Heritage Command, https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/s/sanctuary.html.
- The Sanctuary Experience, 15 December 1971 – 14 December 1973, Cruise Book, United States Navy, accessed https://archive.org/details/SanctuaryExperience19711973/page/n33/mode/2up