Smithfield pride for Comfort and Mercy

Published 2:23 pm Wednesday, May 13, 2020

By Tracy Agnew

Regional Editor


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Whenever the U.S. Navy’s hospital ships, Comfort and Mercy, deploy to serve in times of humanitarian crisis, Smithfield’s Ed Mortimer feels a certain sense of pride when he hears about it.

“I’m proud of what we did,” Mortimer said.

During his 30 years of active-duty service in the Navy, Mortimer, who retired as a captain, was one of the Navy’s ship acquisition program managers. In that role, he supervised the conversion of two commercial tanker ships to become the Comfort and the Mercy. 

Both ships have responded to care for patients during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Mercy left its homeport of San Diego and traveled to Los Angeles to help relieve the health care system there; the Comfort did the same, going from Norfolk to New York.

Mortimer has lived in Smithfield for about 20 years. He was a shipyard manager in the New Orleans area for 11 years between retiring from the Navy and moving to Smithfield. He’s a native of Salisbury, Maryland.

With all of the publicity surrounding the Comfort and the Mercy, Mortimer took some time this week to reminisce about the process of delivering the two ships.

“When (Ronald) Reagan became president, he recognized the Navy and the other services had deteriorated,” he said. “He went to the various services and said, ‘Tell me what your needs are.’”

Mortimer said one of the items on the Navy’s list was a hospital ship. The Marine Corps was also in favor of that idea, viewing it as a ship for military wounded that could wait offshore anywhere there was a battle or a beach invasion.

It was soon decided two ships were needed — one each for the Atlantic and the Pacific, Mortimer said. Those working on the project also quickly realized the ships would likely be used more for humanitarian missions than for military efforts, which has turned out to be the case.

Mortimer said he worked with a team of six to eight doctors to design the hospital parts of the ship. He also worked with a lot of other organizations — the International Red Cross, the Military Sealift Command, the Coast Guard and others — to satisfy all their requirements.

“Considering the number of players who could have thrown a hand grenade into the pot, nobody did,” Mortimer said.

There were some snags, though, that wouldn’t come up with most Navy ships. 

“It was because it was different and a unique ship,” he said. “We were approaching things somewhat differently.”

The pipes that transported the medical oxygen throughout the ships had to go on the exterior of the ship, to prevent oxygen leaks in the interior spaces of the ships. The ships also had to get a special waiver to have weapons on board — as hospital ships, they have no offensive weapons but do have defensive weapons. The International Red Cross wanted to know what would be done with the offensive weapons of military casualties being brought to the ship.

“We created what we called an armory, which would be locked at all times except when casualties were coming on board,” Mortimer said.

The team also worked hard to get the most up-to-date medical technology on board the ships while still controlling the cost of the program.

“Those sorts of things were the sticky wickets, but I’ve seen worse ones in other programs,” he added.

Mortimer retired around the time the Comfort was delivered. He did get to tour it in San Diego prior to his retirement.

Mortimer said he doesn’t always keep track of the ships’ movements, but does feel good about their service whenever he hears about them. The ships have helped during the pandemic and also in the aftermath of natural disasters around the world like hurricanes and earthquakes.

He said the team working on the ships worked well together. “With all the individual players that had to be satisfied, I would say it was politically as trouble-free as I’d seen a program,” he said.