RFA Maine (4) was a ‘Slow Boat to China’
On 19 September 1949 the three hundred bed RFA Maine (4) sailed for service in the Far East from her berth in Grand Harbour, Malta G.C. and so started what Lord Fraser of North Cape, First Sea Lord in 1950 described as ‘One of Britain’s most useful contributions to the United Nations effort in the Korean War has been His Majesties’ Hospital Ship Maine’.
The 26 year old ship had been laid up in Malta before being called to sail to Hong Kong. The serious turn of events during the Chinese Civil War had found HMS Amethyst trapped in the Yangtze River and should the situation have deteriorated, evacuation of the 130 - 150 patients normally in situ at RN Hospital, Hong Kong would have become imperative.
The normal RFA crew, with a peace time complement of RN Medical staff and ‘Thomas’ the ship’s dignified grey tabby neutered cat, were dispatched to Far Eastern Waters.
From the start the condition of the ship was a continual challenge to the professional resources and ingenuity of the RFA crew. In 1940 under the name of ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ she had been sabotaged by the Italians shortly before being captured by the British. She was salved and patched up by the British as a Hospital Ship. Her condition was poor – seams opened up in the boilers, air conditioning blew feebly and the steering failed on more than one occasion. One evening in the Straits of Malacca when the steering failed she had to be conned from the emergency steering position aft. Earlier the ship had spent 16 nights in Aden for other repairs after Maine had been becalmed in the Red Sea.
The ship limped onto Colombo and there met HMS Amethyst which had escaped her Chinese captivity. Somehow the Maine reached Hong Kong with the firmly established label ‘Slow Boat to China’. There followed a self maintenance period.
March 1950 saw the Maine accompanying the Far Eastern Fleet on its spring cruise to the Philippines. The next port of call was Singapore for a refit (!).
A return to Hong Kong and then the cruising season started again with the Far East Fleet’s Summer Cruise to Japan. While in Japanese waters on the 20 June 1950 the Korean War broke out and RFA Maine was sent to Pusan at the southern tip of Korean having been placed at the disposal of the US Admiral in command. Hospital trains delivered the wounded. Seriously wounded were allocated to the one ward with efficient air conditioning. The typhoon season was starting and few surgical operations were possible during the 2 -3 day passage back to Osaka, Japan.
The medical team worked punishing hours at the height of the conflict from 0800hrs to 0200hrs with a 5 hour break and then 0700hrs to 2100hrs.
RFA Maine was the only hospital ship in theatre and was grossly over worked with insufficient numbers of medical crew for war circumstances. Two embedded reporters of British newspapers – Ralph Izzard of the Daily Mail and Randolph Churchill of the Daily Telegraph – sent critical despatches back to their Editors.
The ship did not carry a Chaplain as part of the crew but occasionally carried one on passage to join or visit other ships in the United Nations fleet. When no Chaplain was onboard many of the young wounded men died without the comfort of the last rites of their church or a final blessing.
In the late Autumn 1950 all ships at Pusan fled with the exception of the Maine when RFA Fort Rosalie with red flags flying broke her typhoon moorings and went out of control. Minds were really concentrated as the Fort Rosalie was carrying a full load of ammunition.
The Medical team’s numbers were increased with more Sick Berth Attendants being sent out from the UK together with two additional Nursing Sisters. The arrival of three American Hospital Ships allowed the Maine to commence to carry badly wounded and seriously burned British troops to Hong Kong.
Christmas 1950 saw the Maine on the way back to Kure, Japan. By March 1951 the Maine needed another refit and this time it was undertaken in Japan.
In 1950 the services of RFA Maine were recognised by a special message of appreciation and thanks from Vice Admiral Charles T. Joy U.S.N. , Commander US Naval Forces, Far East.
RFA Maine mechanical problems continued. On 10 October 1951 she lost a propeller on a westward passage through the crowded and narrow Shimonoseki Straits. (The Straits are the connection between the Sea of Japan and the Inland Sea). She was towed to safety by USS Reclaimer (ARS 42) with USS Yuma (ATF94).
The Republic of Korea awarded a Presidential Citation dated 20 April 1952. The ship received a Battle Honour from the Admiralty – the only occasion that a British Hospital Ship had been so recognised.
During the Korean War, Britain’s only Hospital Ship in Far Eastern Waters carried 13,000 casualties.
The RFA Crew and the RN Medical team received recognition for their labours with numerous awards, appointments to orders and mentions in despatches not only by their Sovereign but also the President of the United States of America.
RFA Maine’s service in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ended, when in 1954, she was sold at Hong Kong and towed to the breakers.