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News > Disaster Prep on the Anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake
Disaster Prep on the Anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake

Posted 9/6/2010   Updated 9/6/2010 Email story   Print story


by Robert B. Sligh
5th AF History Office

9/6/2010 - Yokota Air Base, Japan -- If you live in Japan and notice something happening on September 1, you're probably right. Since 1960, each September 1 the Japanese conduct disaster drills. That's a prudent precaution in a land on the edge of the Pacific "ring of fire." I've felt a few earthquakes in my two tours here. I'm sure you have, too. But the reason they conduct the drill on September 1 is a matter of history.

On September 1, 1923, Tokyo, Yokohama, and the surrounding areas were jolted by a magnitude 8.3 earthquake. After the quake, which did plenty of damage by itself, Tokyo and Yokohama suffered massive fires, as many buildings and houses were made of wood. One estimate placed the death toll at 140,000. Many more were injured. Thousands of houses were destroyed and nearly two million people were homeless.

As a historian, I knew of the Great Kanto Earthquake and, living in Japan in 2004, wanted to find out more. That's when synchronicity happened. I'd mentioned the 1923 quake at a staff meeting. The next thing I knew, I had an email from my boss, Lt. Gen. Thomas Waskow, Fifth Air Force and U.S. Forces Japan commander. His grandfather, Maj. Gen. Percy Bishop, U.S. Army, had been part of a U.S. military relief operation. U.S. relief operation? That was the first I'd heard of it. That began my quest for "the rest of the story," the U.S.' little-known part after the Great Kanto Earthquake..

I learned the U.S. Embassy-Tokyo was destroyed in the quake, and U.S. diplomats stayed at their post--unlike some other nations--and rendered aid where they could, and not just to American citizens. When President Calvin Coolidge learned of the quake, he sent a message to the Emperor offering assistance. The U.S. was the first nation to offer aid.

Then-Colonel Bishop was a line artillery officer in Manila when the quake hit. He and two other colonels were tagged as planners and leaders of a relief flotilla bringing food, blankets, and field hospitals to Tokyo Bay. A keen observer, Bishop painted a grim picture of Yokohama as "literally a city of the dead, totally destroyed. Only smoking ruins where the city stood." The supplies were quickly unloaded and two field hospitals established. U.S. Army supplies amounted to $7 million (1923 dollars), with another $2 million coming from the Navy.

But the story didn't stop there. I kept digging and with the help of Yokota's Red Cross office, I found more documents on the event. The $2 million from the military was just the opener. More aid came from the United States. Americans gave millions. The American Red Cross made a $1.1 million cash contribution and sent another $5.5 million worth of supplies. The Red Cross gave an additional $3 million for a hospital. St. Luke's hospital in Tokyo was rebuilt with some of the U.S. funds.

Other organizations donated as well. The Japan-America Society of New York gave the Japan-America Society of Tokyo $100,000. Private one-to-one donations may have been as high as $500,000. Groups such as the YMCA, Knights of Columbus, the American Legion, the Jewish Welfare Board, and the Federated Council of Churches of Christ, among others, made contributions.

So, if you read about the annual earthquake drill in Japan today, think about America's part in the aftermath of the 1923 quake. Remember, too, it wasn't the last time U.S. forces came to Japan's aid. U.S. forces were involved in the Kobe earthquake relief effort in 1995 and the Niigata earthquakes of 2004 and 2007. I was with the 374th Airlift Wing's C-130s at Niigata in October 2004 and during the Tsunami relief effort in Thailand a few months later. The Japanese Air Self Defense Force was with us. And, earlier this year, U.S. forces and the Japan Self Defense Force worked side by side during the Haiti relief effort. I wish I could have been with them!

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