Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Most Terrifying Moments of My Life

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the most terrifying moments I ever experienced. March 27, 1964 became a turning point in my life.

In 1964, I was stationed at the U.S. Naval Station, Kodiak, Alaska. In late afternoon on March 27, the Public Works staff was working late on our new budget for the next fiscal year. At a little before 5:30 p.m., I took a break to get a drink from the fountain. Our water was basically free, so the flow ran all the time. As I bent to take a sip, the stream of water suddenly began to waver, and then I felt a trembling begin beneath my feet. I commented to a nearby janitor that the williwaw winds of the Aleutians were especially strong that day. He said quickly that it was an earthquake. And not just any quake. Later measured at 9.2 on the Richter Scale, the Great Alaska Earthquake was the most severe shake ever to occur in North America

The old WW2 vintage wood-framed building began shaking violently and making groans and pops that seemed to announce its imminent collapse. No one in the office hesitated. We dropped what we were doing and ran outside in our shirtsleeves, forgetting that the temperature was about 15 degrees F. Other people streamed out of the close-by civilian barracks. We all stood awestruck, working hard to keep our balance on the rippling earth beneath our feet. On nearby Old Woman Mountain, the base water tower swayed drunkenly, splashing water out the top. We were certain it would topple. The violent shaking went on for what seemed an eternity, filling our ears with a deep, threatening rumbling.

As we stood there shivering, Lieutenant Lee Doebler, the Assistant Public Works Officer, suddenly said, “Screw it. I’m not freezing to death.” Without hesitation, he went back into the quivering building, emerging a few minutes later wearing his “Kodiak mink” parka and carrying an armload of hooded anoraks. The other officers donned them gratefully. Lee also brought the base utility blueprints.

Many of the civilians from the barracks were our trade supervisors. Lieutenant Commander “Red” Raber, the Public Works Officer, was soon organizing them into survey teams to tour the base and spot utility breaks and other urgent damage. Several teams departed even before the earth finally stopped shaking. In the eerie silence that followed, we realized that power was off to the base.

After tasking Lee Doebler and me to set up an emergency response control center, Commander Raber left for our steam-powered electric plant to restore electricity. Night was coming on quickly, and artificial light was a necessity. After less than an hour, word came from the Air Force weather station on the western tip of Kodiak that a tidal wave was headed toward our base. An order for everyone to evacuate to the Naval Communications Station up in the mountains came soon thereafter.

I can imagine what Hollywood producers would do with this scenario. They would envision desperate people jamming the streets and honking horns. Panic would reign supreme. People would be fighting to get to the head of the line. In fact, quite the opposite occurred.

Almost all the men on the Naval Station were either still on duty when the earthquake hit or reported immediately thereafter. They were all soon working quickly to organize the evacuation. Essential survival gear was broken out and loaded on vehicles. Base security trucks cruised the streets, announcing the evacuation orders by loudspeaker. Completing as much work as possible within the time remaining, the Public Works survey crews were some of the last to depart.

In military and civilian housing, the wives banded together, bundled up their children, and packed their cars with food. Those with vehicles took those without transportation aboard. In an orderly, courteous fashion, the women crept through crowded streets until free of the main gate. Security teams waited at the communications base to direct them to shelter in buildings. As an essential service, the COMSTA had 100 percent emergency power backup, so the lights were burning and the heat was on. The wives of the base’s chief petty officers took charge and got everyone settled in.

My final job was to see that all the equipment in the motor pool made it safely off base. The pool crew and I passed out keys to anyone who happened by. Finally, we started departing ourselves. I got the last set of keys. It was to a 4-wheel drive, crew-cam pickup truck with a stick shift. I’d never driven one, but I figured it out after a few minutes. I believe that, other than the roving Security crews, I was the last person off the Naval Station. 

At the NAVCOMSTA, I found my wife, Annette, and our two small children safe and sound at the Acey-Deucy Club. Lee Doebler was there with his drawings, as were most of the survey crews. Lee and the trade supervisors started organizing the recovery effort while we waited for the tidal wave: marking breaks on the drawings, identifying materials needed for repairs and the sources in the warehouses. Midway through this effort, Commander Raber and the power plant crew came in. The commander’s uniform was covered with oil below his armpits.

When the tidal wave warning came, Commander Raber ordered the power plant crew to remain in place and shut down and vent the boilers. Otherwise, the freezing water would have caused explosions that would cripple the plant for an extended period. The crew remained in place until water began to flood into the building. After tying themselves together with a long extension cord, Raber led the crew to safety uphill from the plant. They had to wade out through five-foot deep floodwater coated with oil from a broken pipeline.

Numerous separate tidal waves ravaged the base before midnight. When they finally subsided, there was no electricity, heat, or other essential services. The berthing piers were shambles of broken timbers. The Public Works crews entered the base first. Before dawn, they repaired 27 major water breaks, restoring service. When the sun came up, the water ran and the toilets flushed. The difference that made proved immense.

I would need ten blog posts to tell the whole story. Except for some severe aftershocks, the time of stark terror had passed. Restoring all essential services would consume weeks; repairs, months and years. Those of you who have watched Coast Guard Alaska on the National Geographic Channel have seen the results of our work. The hangars, parking aprons, and runways shown at the Kodiak Coast Guard base are those we worked on.

For his exemplary service during the recovery, LT Lee Doebler was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal. Commander “Red” Raber was decorated with the Legion of Merit. This old Seabee also received his first “mention in dispatches.”

Note: Warren Bell is a historical fiction author with two novels for sale either for Kindle or in paperback from Both are set during WWII, with Fall Eagle One taking place in Europe, and Hold Back the Sun set in the war in the Pacific. 

No comments:

Post a Comment