The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964

By Tom Rodriguez

The second most powerful recorded earthquake in history measured 9.2 on the Richter Scale.  It occurred in Alaska on Good Friday, March 27, 1964.  It killed 131 people and caused an estimated $750 million in damages.  The Alaskan towns of Kodiak and Valdez were totally devastated by a sunami and tremors from the earthquake were felt as far away as California, Hawaii, and Japan.

As I write this story, it has been 56 years since the Great Alaska Earthquake.  Despite all of the years that have passed, my memories of that fateful day remain very vivid.  Over the years, I have told and retold the story of the Great Alaska Earthquake many times to friends and relatives.  It was and still is one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life.

The day before the earthquake and early on the day of the earthquake, it had snowed quite a bit but it was still a rather mild day for that time of year in Anchorage, Alaska.  It was a Friday and I was looking forward to the weekend.  After getting off work, I undressed down to my boxer shorts and lay down on my bed to relax before taking a shower.  The barracks were filled with guys just getting off work and others who had just finished eating in the mess hall downstairs.

I had just said hello to my friend, Billy Ray Bauman, as he passed through the bay doors of our second floor wing when suddenly the building began to shake violently.  It is still impossible for me to accurately describe the power and strength of the shaking.  Suffice it to say that everything in sight was moving and things were crashing down all through the large bay.  My roommate’s wall locker fell down a few feet from my bed.  Without thinking, I got up and jumped over the fallen wall locker, ran through the two open bay doors and started down the nearby stairs leading to the first floor.  When I got to the stairwell, there were already men ahead of me and many more following right behind me.

As I headed down the stairs, the building was shaking violently and the stairwell was swaying back and forth making it hard to keep my balance.  I took stairs two at a time as thoughts about my dying or getting hurt raced through my mind in what must have been milliseconds.  Ahead of me, the violent shaking had caused some guys to run into each other and a couple of them went tumbling down the stairs.  At the bottom of the stairs was a small hallway that led to two large heavy double doors leading to the outside.  A crowd had converged there and a couple of guys were sprawled on the floor near the doors and one of them was bleeding profusely from a cut on his forehead.  I remember that everyone coming down the stairs behind me were jumping over him in order to get outside.

As I ran out the double doors, I went about thirty feet and then turned and faced the barracks.  Men were still running out frantically and some ran right at me.  Like a crazed man, I pushed them to either side and kept my place in the middle of the sidewalk, which at the time was covered with about two inches of snow.

Outside it was crazy, the ground was still shaking violently and across the street and to the west of our building I could see telephone poles and light poles swaying like blades of grass and some snapping like twigs.  To the north, I could see soldiers from other buildings outside trying to keep their balance.  It felt like the world was coming to an end and that we were all going to be swallowed up by the earth.  Then, all of sudden, the shaking stopped and everything became strangely quiet.

I don’t remember how long I had been standing outside before it dawned on me that I was outside in the snow dressed only in my underwear.  I had been so busy dealing with the earthquake and trying to stay on the sidewalk that I hadn’t given a thought to how I was dressed, or the fact that I was standing in about two inches of snow in my bare feet.

When I looked around, however, I saw that I was not the only one in that predicament.  Not only were there other guys in their shorts, but there were a few that were stark naked.  Later, I learned that some guys were in the shower when the earthquake hit and had to run out of the barracks with nothing on.  It was madness, pure and simple.

A couple of minutes after the shaking stopped, I began to jump from foot to foot in an attempt to keep my feet from freezing.  Other men were doing the same thing and I remember noticing for the first time a trail of blood on the white snow caused by a cut on the foot of a guy from the first floor.

After a while, guys started yelling up to Sergeant Green from our company, who was at the window in the orderly room where he was pulling duty as the Charge of Quarters for the night.  Because I was the Company Clerk for Supply Company, I yelled to Sgt. Green to go to my room and throw down my boots, pants and shirt and my field jacket.  Someone else told him to throw down some blankets.  After about five minutes, Sgt. Green threw down my clothes and I got dressed in the hallway downstairs.  Before going up to the Orderly Room, I yelled out that I was going to see about letting everyone in Supply Company back into the building to get dressed.  They all clapped and yelled.

When I got to the Orderly Room, which was a mess from a fallen broken light fixture and typewriters, bookcases and file cabinets that had fallen down, I told Sgt. Green that I needed to try to call the First Sergeant.  Sgt. Green said he had already tried getting in touch with Big Jim, which is what almost everyone called First Sergeant James Matthews.  I then went out to check on both bays and saw nothing but downed wall lockers, broken mirrors, broken framed photographs, and clothes strewn everywhere on the floor.

When I got to my area, my wall locker was on the floor along with my roommate’s locker and broken glass was scattered all around from smashed pictures and mirrors.  I didn’t have time to straighten things out because I had to get back to the orderly room and have Sgt. Green start letting the men from our company back into the building a few at a time to get their clothes and jackets on.  He said okay and went downstairs to supervise letting men from our company back into the barracks. 

To this day, I do not know exactly how long the earthquake lasted.  To me it seemed like it lasted for about ten minutes, but in reality it was actually four minutes and thirty-eight seconds, or at least that is what I remember reading in the newspaper a couple of days later.  All I know is that it seemed like one hell of a long time.

At six-thirty that evening, the First Sergeant arrived and surveyed the damage to the company area.  I accompanied him and in the restroom we discovered that the plumbing didn’t work when he tried unsuccessfully to flush a toilet.  We both laughed when Big Jim said that some poor bastard must have got caught while he was sitting on the crapper.  After his inspection, Big Jim went downstairs to battalion headquarters to confer with Colonel Stevenson, the Battalion Commander.  He was gone about a half hour and when he returned, he told us that the barracks were going to be evacuated until the damage to the building could be evaluated.  He then called in several sergeants and had the word passed around that there was going to be a full battalion formation at seven-thirty with full field gear.  With that order, everything came alive.  It is amazing how quickly discipline can bring order to a chaotic situation.

At seven-thirty, I walked out to the formation with the First Sergeant and we ran into Colonel Stevenson who told Big Jim that he wanted two men from each company to stay in the building overnight. Big Jim looked at me and said, “What about it, Rod, want to do it?”  The way he asked, I really had no choice and said “Okay Sarge.”  In a way, I was glad because I thought it would be better staying in the building than sleeping outside in a tent.  Shortly after that, Colonel Stevenson announced that the battalion would be marching out to an area about two miles away.  He also told everyone that a mess tent was being set up and that hot food and coffee would be available by the time they got there.

As the battalion moved out, Big Jim came over and discussed the procedures for the night with Sergeant Singer and I.   Big Jim said that we were to patrol our assigned areas every hour and check for safety problems or looting.  He said that we would be relieved at eight o’clock in the morning.  The men remaining in the building included Sergeant Singer and I, plus three other company clerks and three sergeants from the other companies in the battalion.

At about eight-thirty that night, I was on the second floor patrolling in the dark when the building started to shake again.  It was a big aftershock and I heard things falling down but I knew better than to start running in the dark so I rode it out alone on my hands and knees in the hallway.  I later learned that the first aftershock measured about 6.0 on the Richter Scale.  When I went downstairs to check with Sergeant Singer, there were a few other guys there and one of them said that the aftershocks would continue most of the night and probably for a few days.  Sergeant Singer said that he had found a radio and had picked up an Anchorage station and had heard that things were pretty bad in downtown Anchorage.  He also said that a huge seismic wave might hit Anchorage later that night and that there was a lot of destruction throughout the State.

About an hour after the first aftershock, another one hit.  When it did, I made my way downstairs and went outside.  When it stopped, I went back into the building.  Over the next few hours, we had two more strong aftershocks.  By then it was about three o’clock in the morning and I was sitting in the hallway near the stairs.  I tried to take a little nap but another strong aftershock jolted me awake.  That time, however, I didn’t even bother to get up or run outside.  I was just too damn tired, cold, and sleepy.

Daylight finally arrived and in the daylight we could see several small to large cracks in the three foot thick concrete walls of the building.  Otherwise, the outside of the building did not look that bad, probably because the building had been built to withstand the Alaskan cold.  At eight o’clock we were relieved and told to go out to the bivouac area if we wanted to get something hot to eat.   Before we left in Sgt. Singer’s car to ride out to the bivouac area, plumbers and electricians had arrived and started to restore water and electricity to the building.

The second day after the earthquake was a pretty good day.  There had been a few aftershocks but nothing to delay the repairs on cause widespread panic.  Radio and television stations were operational and there was non-stop news coverage about the earthquake and the tremendous destruction it had caused all over the state.  As it turned out, the tsunami tidal wave never reached Anchorage.  Unfortunately, other towns weren’t so lucky.  The port town of Valdez was almost totally devastated by a 200 foot tsunami which killed 28 people.  Three hours later, the port town of Seward  was hit hard by a 50 foot wave and its docks were wiped out and the water line receded 200 yards.  We also learned that several men were killed at the Anchorage docks and that one was killed at the Anchorage International Airport Tower.  All told, 131 people died as a result of the earthquake and the tsunami that followed.

Fortunately, the military bases at Fort Richardson and Elmendorf Air Force Base were in relatively good shape so the two Base Commanders volunteered the Army Corps of Engineers and construction crews to help the City of Anchorage dig out and they had a lot of digging to do.  In the prestigious Turnagain Arms By the Sea neighborhood, there was total devastation.  One house would be at ground level wile the house next door was thirty feet below, and that pattern wa repeated for blocks and blocks.  It looked like a bombed out area reminiscent of Berlin at the end of World War II.  In the central downtown area, the entire façade of the five-story J. C. Penney building collapsed and crushed a car, killing the occupant.  Other buildings also collapsed and several people were injured.  On 4th street downtown, the center of the street had caved in and left a hole about thirty feet deep.

Unfortunately, due to the large demand created by the mainland media and concerned relatives, telephone lines and telegraph services were clogged up for weeks.  In fact, it took about ten days before my parents finally got through to me.  It was great talking to them and I reassured them that I was all right.  They told me that the newspapers and television stations had made it sound really bad and that they were sure that I had probably been injured.  They told me that a few days after the earthquake, President Johnson had declared Alaska a disaster area and promised federal assistance.  On national television, Walter Cronkite ran photos of the devastation on his nightly news show and all of the major news bureaus sent news teams to cover the aftermath of the earthquake.  It was an exciting time and everyone had a story to tell.

There were a few men traumatized by the earthquake and the following aftershocks.  Those were the guys that after two weeks were still sleeping in their clothes and boots.  A few of them wrote letters to their Senators and even to the President.  In time, however, things quieted down and everyone went back to their normal routines.

One amusing story related to the aftermath of the earthquake was a cruel joke that my buddies played on me about a month after the earthquake.  We had been drinking a lot at the PX one night and when we got back to the barracks I went to bed while my friends played cards in the recreation room.  I was pretty drunk and fell asleep quickly.  About an hour later, my friends snuck into my area and two of them got on the floor and grabbed hold of the back legs on my bed.  They then proceeded to shake the hell out of the bed.  I jumped up immediately and yelled “Earthquake” and headed for the bay doors.  My yelling woke up a lot of people and the lights went on.  I had reached the double doors when I heard my buddies laughing.  I stopped, looked around and saw them laughing their fool heads off.  Pretty soon, everyone in the bay was laughing.  My buddy, Larry Jennrich, said  “You should have seen yourself Rod, you shot up like a bat out of hell.”  They were laughing so hard, that I also started laughing.  Pretty soon everyone was telling their own earthquake stories.  Someone told about the guys who caught taking a crap when the earthquake hit and everyone laughed hysterically when Ronnie Glass admitted that he was one of the guys who got caught on the toilet.  It turned out to be a great night.

I will never forget the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964 as long as I live.  People lost their lives that day, and maybe under different circumstances, one of them could have been me.  I think often of my time in Alaska, and of the two years that I spent with friends living in and exploring that fantastic land.  I think often of climbing high mountains, deep sea fishing on the Seward Inlet with whales blowing nearby, of hunting moose high up in the Chugach mountains, of fishing for salmon and cooking them near the Eagle River, of staring in wonder at the sight of the Aurora Borealis as the multi-colored lights danced eerily across the night sky, of playing fast-pitch softball on the Fort Richardson Post Softball Team and of playing on our post championship company team, of playing flag football on our post championship company team, and learning the complexities of the sport of Curling with my own team, “The Rodriguez Rink.”  These many years later as I write about Alaska, I know that Alaska was a once in a lifetime experience for a then young Mexican-American boy from Topeka, Kansas

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