Mason City, IA, December 27, 2013
By: Mary Henkin
Cover of Letters of HOPE by Ann MacGregor

Ann MacGregor traveled with the SS HOPE from its launch in 1960. Throughout her six-year journey, she wrote letters to her mother that she later retrieved and made into a book entitled Letters of HOPE.  Her story is the story of health care in the developing world and tells how she fell in love aboard the world’s first peacetime hospital ship

In 1958, Ann MacGregor (née Roden) was an Iowa nurse who dreamed of travelling to foreign lands and helping others.  She read about the development of a hospital ship that would sail to third world countries training local doctors and nurses in health care. She immediately decided that she would win a place on board.  After a grueling interview, she was selected as one of 22 nurses to be the first to sail aboard the SS HOPE.

“All I could think during the interview was, ‘when are they going to tell me if I’m chosen?’” MacGregror said. “There was nothing like Project HOPE at the time.”

In September 1960, the ship set sail for Indonesia, and MacGregor was thrilled to be on the exciting maiden voyage.  MacGregor, who received her degree from University of Michigan School of Nursing, spent her first mission with Project HOPE training local nurses. Before the ship returned home, she decided to return the following year.  She would eventually spend six years aboard the SS HOPE visiting Indonesia, Vietnam, Peru, Ecuador, Guinea, and Nicaragua.


The journeys were packed with surgeries and health education, and the ship was almost always welcomed with great excitement and appreciation from the local communities.  However, on one occasion MacGregor recalled, the reception on shore was chilly at best.

“In May 1962 we docked in Peru, and we saw signs lining the streets reading, ‘Yankees Go Home.’”

But HOPE doctors and nurses soon bonded with the locals and the power of medical diplomacy forged mutual respect.

“The Peruvian women decorated the SS HOPE with flowers from stem to stern, and there were literally between 30 and 40 thousand people lining the docks as we set sail to leave,” MacGregor said.

In 1966, the SS HOPE set sail to Nicaragua, and 32-year-old MacGregor was named Chief Nurse.  She met John K. MacGregor, a general surgeon, on board and began considering marriage for the first time.

“As Chief Nurse, I was very involved in the orientation of all the physicians who came to serve on the HOPE.  In 1966, Dr. John K. MacGregor, a general surgeon, from Mason City, Iowa, arrived to serve three months.  After a few weeks, we found we were often at the same table for dinner.  The conversation at dinner eventually continued outside on deck and more often than not, on the ‘flying bridge.’ I was struck by how much we had in common.  As the months went by, it was clear to both of us that our friendship was developing into something much deeper.  After John left the ship, letters went flying back and forth.”

Ann MacGregor with fellow nurses traveling aboard the SS HOPE

The couple was wed by the Chaplain of the SS HOPE in Ann’s childhood home in South Bend, Iowa in December 1966.

MacGregor is 79 years old today, and the people she met aboard the SS HOPE still remain her closest friends.

“Those years defined my basic values for me and really established how I would live the rest of my life,” MacGregor said.

The SS HOPE was decommissioned in 1972.

Letters of HOPE can be purchased for $30.  Contact Ann MacGregor at

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