50 YEARS since 1964 earthquake catastrophe: Military integral to recovery

  • Published
  • By Chris McCann
  • JBER Public Affairs
It was a quiet Friday evening in Anchorage, March 27, 1964. The Good Friday holiday meant many people were having festive meals at home.

Then, at 5:36 p.m., the earthquake struck - a 9.2 on the Richter scale, the largest ever in North America and second only to the 1960 quake in Chile. The temblor lasted about four minutes, though people said it seemed to last forever.

Dorothy Armstrong, a flight attendant with the Flying Tiger line, was on crew rest in Anchorage when it struck.

"Being a California girl, I recognized it was an earthquake," she said. "However, being close to a Strategic Air Command base, another event did enter our minds!"
Residents described telephone poles whipping back and fourth, three-foot waves rolling across the ground, and mass devastation. Much of the Turnagain neighborhood slumped into Cook Inlet - the remains are now Earthquake Park, near Ted Stevens International Airport. The J.C. Penney building downtown was destroyed - falling concrete killed Mary Rustigan, 44, and 19-year-old Lee Styer. He'd run out of the store to check on his brand-new car.

One hundred thousand square miles was affected in southcentral Alaska, but the effects were felt around the world. Twelve people were killed in Crescent City, Calif.; boats were damaged in Hawaii and Los Angeles. Tide gauges in Freeport, Texas, recorded waves similar to seismic waves. During Easter weekend of 1964 in Sydney, Australia, surfers were doing life-saving competitions. Neville Crane, a lifeguard and surfer there, said the waves at Collaroy beach are normally gentle and small - but on Easter Sunday they'd turned menacing, peaking at more than 20 feet.

"It wasn't so much the sheer size of the waves," Crane said. "It was the awesome velocity and force after breaking." Nothing like it had been seen before in Sydney, nor has there been since.

In Shoup Bay, Alaska, a tsunami wave peaked at 219 feet. The quake itself killed only 15, according to the U.S. Geological Survey's information. The tsunami was the most lethal - killing 113, especially in Seward, Valdez, and the village of Chenega, which was entirely destroyed by a seismic wave 27 feet high. It killed 23 of the 68 residents.

The temblor resulted in vertical displacement of more than 520,000 square kilometers. Near Girdwood, a vast area along the Seward Highway to Portage dropped several feet, sinking into the Cook Inlet. The trees, suddenly absorbing seawater, died.

Clear Air Force Station, about 80 miles south of Fairbanks, was knocked offline for six minutes after the quake.

Alaska, still a new state, had limited disaster-response, and that was geared mainly to protections from a Soviet military attack. What they did have was military - from the Navy and Coast Guard personnel at Kodiak to Soldiers at forts Richardson, Greely and Wainwright, and Airmen from Elmendorf and Eielson Air Force bases, as well as numerous air stations. The inherently fluctuating nature of military operations proved invaluable training. Alaska National Guard troops, in town for their annual two-week training, were extended by three days and put to work protecting businesses and homes from looting.

"The military in Alaska, from the moment of the disaster, mustered their full strength to assist their neighbors," wrote Air Force Lt. Gen. R.J. Reeves, commander of Alaskan Command, in a letter to Army Maj. Gen. Eugene Salet, commander of the U.S. Army Training Center at Fort Gordon, Ga. "The military services proved once again that they are ready, willing, and able to cope with emergencies, whatever their origin."

Within two minutes of the earthqake, the Alaskan NORAD command center in the Alaskan Command headquarters building on Elmendorf Air Force Base became the hub for damage assessment, response and recovery.

The military around Anchorage re-established long-line communications within 12 minutes. Within 90 minutes, 95 percent of both Fort Richardson's and Elmendorf Air Force Base's local communications were restored, at least to a limited degree. Telephone communication was restored to the rest of the city within two hours, and calls for assistance began pouring in to the command center. The 1929th Communications Group, American Telephone and Telegraph, the Pacific Company, Western Union and Canadian telephone companies activated circuits to Chicago, San Francisco, and Dallas. Two and a half hours after the quake, the ACS building on Government Hill offered two teletypes and three phones for public use.

By March 31, only four days after the quake, four water-purification units were flown into Anchorage from Fort Lewis, Wash.

Georgiana Jana Llaneza, who was 11 years old at the time, recalled that 23 people took refuge in her family's relatively undamaged basement. The children gathered snow to melt for water for washing and the toilet. Snow boiled with a bit of bleach supplemented military-provided water. By April 5, water service was restored enough to provide potable water to most of the area.

Military personnel set up four field mess halls around Anchorage; although the only immediately available food was C-rations, Army cooks served hot meals for many of the locals and volunteer workers. One mess hall served 7,642 meals and used 198 pounds of coffee by April 2.

Elmendorf's 5040th Food Service Squadron, in four days, served 44,487 regular meals and 11,820 C-ration meals. Since all civilian bakeries were down, the one on base went to 24-hour operations, making 14,000 pounds of bread each day for four days.

The lack of food in the community often wasn't for lack of preparation.

Several people recalled that they had plenty of home-canned food stored. Glenna Silvan, who was 12 and living in Palmer, said her mother raised a massive garden every year and canned the food.

"The root cellar that was built into a hill had disgorged the year's food supply off its shelves onto the middle of the floor," she wrote. "There was a three-foot-high pile of home-canned salmon, green beans, berries, stew and canned caribou and moose meat, and every kind of homemade jam imaginable." Military and civilian personnel distributed typhoid shots due to the possibility of disease, given the standing water of breakup and the fact that many sewer lines were broken. Barracks around the bases were opened to civilians who needed lodging.

Given the remoteness of Alaska, airlift was critical in most cases to distributing food, clean water, and supplies to villages and islands. However, the air traffic control tower had been badly damaged, and was unusable. A transport pilot parked his plane and began conducting air traffic with his radio.

The Military Auxiliary Radio System and the Civil Defense net joined forces; the Fort Richardson MARS station handled outbound messages only, with inbound communications going to Fort Wainwright and Wildwood Station. By April 15, they'd handled 9,379 messages.

At dawn the next day, 17 C-123 Providers left Elmendorf's runway carrying equipment and supplies south and east to Valdez, Seward, and Kodiak. During the next 21 days, nearly four million pounds of cargo was flown out in Operation Helping Hand. Massive airlift operations by the Military Air Transport Service shattered records, hauling in two and a half million pounds of cargo - from baby food to heavy equipment - from Lower 48 bases.
Then-Lt. Col. Harry Heist was based at Dover Air Force Base, Del. On Easter Sunday, the base launched its first two missions in support of OHH with C-124 Globemaster II aircraft. At McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., they took on electric generators and vans to bring to Alaska.

During his short stay, Heist recalled Ship Creek, near the gate, was teeming with oblivious salmon.

The Military Air Transport Service, Alaska National Guard, and Alaskan Air Command collaborated to move a 520,00-pound Bailey Bridge from Elmendorf to the Kenai Peninsula, to replace the destroyed bridge at Cooper's Landing. Bailey bridges, frequently used in World War II, are pre-engineered and built on-site from a ready-to-assemble kit. Moving the bridge took five days and nearly 60 sorties.

One of the hardest-hit buildings was the eight-story Elmendorf hospital. Patients were evacuated into nurses' quarters and barracks - 181 patients, 18 babies, and 45 staff personnel made the move in just 18 minutes. With the help of the 64th Field Hospital from Fort Richardson, they created treatment rooms, a surgery theater, casualty rest areas, pediatric area and an obstetrics area. Within an hour after the quake, one woman had delivered twins by flashlight. Three trips by C-135 Stratolifters evacuated 58 patients from the base to Travis Air Force Base, Calif., for treatment.

U.S. Army Alaska fliers flew 589 hours on 556 sorties using mostly CH-21 Shawnee and U1A Otter fixed-wing aircraft. While they were primarily transporting equipment and people, they had a much broader mission.

The destruction was so massive and widespread, it was impossible to document from the ground. Military aircraft took more than 2,400 photos and filmed more than 4,200 feet of film to help responders and geologists determine the extent of the damage. Army OV-1 Mohawks took to the air March 28, and the Air Force's Strategic Air Command sent Reconnaissance Stratojets and B-58 Hustlers to Alaska to document Anchorage, Seward, Kodiak, Whittier, Valdez, and as much of southcentral Alaska as possible.

Alaska's hardscrabble mentality certainly contributed to the resilience of the area. But the military presence made it happen.

(Editor's note: Information for this article came from Good Friday, 1964: The Great Alaskan Earthquake, by Patrick M. Coullahan and Allan D. Lucht of the Society of Military Engineers; alaskanearthquake1964.wordpress.com, a collection of personal accounts; CAP Alaska Earthquake Report (1964), published by the Civil Air Patrol; The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964, Volume 1, by the National Research Council Committee on the Alaska Earthquake, and Doug Beckstead, JBER historian.)