Story by Andre B. Sobocinski, BUMED Historian
U.S. Naval Hospital Yokohama and the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923
Nearly 20 years after an era of self-imposed seclusion was broken by an American trade treaty, the Japanese ports in Tokyo Bay had blossomed into thriving marketplaces of foreign trade. Principal among them was Yokohama. By 1872, the former fishing village offered visitors the first railroad in Japan, steamship lines to major American, Chinese and European ports, and a foreign sector that was home to the U.S. Navy’s first permanent hospital in the Far East. Naval Hospital Yokohama was established on May 16, 1872 on a 100-foot bluff overlooking the city proper. Its primary mission was to provide medical support to personnel attached to the Asiatic Squadron. During its life, the hospital and its complement of personnel contended with severe cholera and influenza outbreaks, an influx of sick and injured expeditionary forces during the Boxer Rebellion, Spanish-American War casualties, and the ever-present threat of devastating earthquakes.
The toiling tides of fate wore heavily on the stately two-story red brick colonial-style hospital. By 1906, it had been eclipsed as the Navy’s preeminent Asiatic hospital by the newly commissioned Naval Hospital Cañacao, in the Philippines. And although still rated as a 100-bed hospital at the turn of the century, it was widely recognized as a convalescent facility. The patient load alone echoed this fact. By 1922, rarely were more than five beds occupied at a given time and an American warship had not visited the port of Yokohama in over a year. In every aspect Naval Hospital Yokohama had long outlived its usefulness and was waiting to be removed from the books. As fate would have it, Mother Nature would see to this.
The first day of September 1923 had started beautifully. Chief Nurse Edith Lindquist, who had been stationed at Naval Hospital Yokohama since April 1923, noted that the sunrise had dawned with deep shades of rose on this day. She thought it was the perfect background for the white-sailed fishing boats on the bay. Two hours later an abrupt rain and windstorm swept through, washing away momentary thoughts of the placid morning. A few minutes to noon, she approached a window on the second deck to look at the storm’s effects.
Down the corridor on the hospital’s second deck Pharmacist Lawrence Zembsch lay on his bed motionless in his quarters with his wife Gladys sitting by his side. He had recently returned to the hospital suffering “nervous exhaustion” following a special mission to retrieve and cremate the body of a Marine officer on Palau. He was the hospital’s only patient.
Downstairs, Petty Officers Chester Belt and Claude Smith stood hovering by the main entrance. Their recent adventures were fresh on their minds as they discussed the week’s frivolities in the bustling port city. They were among eight hospital corpsmen currently stationed at the hospital. All but one was in the hospital. Belt and Smith’s excitable, yet hushed tones colored the stillness of the moment.
As consistent as the creaking quietude of the hospital hallways was Medical Director Ulyss Webb. A 22- year veteran of the Navy, Dr. Webb arrived in Yokohama in June 1922 to serve as the hospital’s commanding officer as well as its pay officer and special disbursing agent (and inevitably its executive officer and chief of staff!) As lunch time approached, there was little question where Dr. Webb would be—in his office contending with mounds of paperwork.
In the city proper, a wind blew off the bay gradually drying out the streets recently soaked by the passing storm. Vendors and shop owners were returning to puddle-covered avenues and began preparing their wares of silk, bamboo, and tea for sale. The chorus of “wheeling and dealing” was punctuated by the guttural roar of a steam ship leaving Yokohama.
On the cement passenger pier, Navy nurse Nellie Treuthart and PhM3c Cedric Foster watched friends depart aboard the Canadian liner SS Empress of Australia. Neither Truethart nor Foster would have thought this first day of September 1923 was particularly unusual.
Back at the hospital, the clocks ticked 11:58 AM. Within seconds the earth heaved like an angry sea, accompanied by a deep rumble peppered with the sounds of things coming apart. Breaking glass and distant screams pierced the chaos. Officers’ quarters, mess hall, the coal depot all crumbled into heaps. Outside, witnesses saw Dr. Webb’s wife fleeing the nearby commanding officer’s quarters to seek refuge in the hospital cemetery. The concrete pier Treuthart and Foster still occupied, collapsed underneath them, dropping them both into the bristling bay. Over on the bluff, the entire hospital building fell like a poorly constructed movie set. It was hard to believe this had just happened. In a single span of four minutes, everything in Yokohama had been shaken into ruins by a 7.9 magnitude earthquake.
Chief Nurse Lindquist was among the first to free herself from the pile of fallen bricks. Remarkably she suffered only minor bruising. As she looked around every building in view was demolished. She saw two hospital corpsmen assessing the damage and heard the disembodied cries of the buried calling for assistance. Later she relived the first moments of the quake: “without any warning of any kind, the portion of the United States Naval Hospital, Yokohama, in which I was, seemed to raise and shake violently, a barely perceptible pause, and again the building shook with renewed violence. Though we were accustomed to frequent shocks, this one was quite different and seemed to tell me to get out. I was on the second floor and there was no way of reaching the stairs in the center of the building, as already the walls were beginning to collapse, so I quickly went out onto a small balcony. As I stepped out of the door, the railing shot off and the floor started downward with me. The rumble and roar of buildings breaking up is something not soon to be forgotten. I could see our roof coming down, also the British naval hospital across the way, and the theater on the corner falling. I was thrown to the ground with the balcony floor on top of me, which sheltered me from the falling debris.”
Petty Officers Belt and Smith, along with HA1c Cary Groom, PhM1c Norman Grothe, PhM1c C.E. Yost, and hospital orderly Fujiyama were each able to free themselves from the fallen structures and almost immediately began search and rescue operations. They were soon joined by nurse Lindquist, and the civilian gardener named “Ito.” Within moments another hard shock came and the group scrambled to the ground before continuing the search for survivors. They called out the names of their colleagues one by one.
“Lawrence. LAW-RENCE.” No answer.
“Anthony. AN-THO-NEE.” No response.
“Doctor Webb. DOC-TOR WEBB.”
Beneath the collapsed masonry and wood a disoriented Ulyss Webb responded to their calls. “I’m over here.”
When the tremors began, Dr. Webb ran for the corridor but was only able to reach the door of his office when the hospital collapsed on top of him and carried him into the basement. He awoke, and found himself pinned by a 4 x 6 wooden beam across his pelvis and abdomen; his legs were buried in a mass of bricks and masonry. He soon heard the frayed calls of an unseen rescue party calling out his name. The gardener Ito sawed the timbered restraint from atop his left knee and the petty officers dragged Webb to safety. The search for others proved less successful. Lawrence and Gladys Zembsch, PhM3c Paul Cannon and PhM3c Antonio Ingloglia, and civilian employees Tagaki (cook), Nakahara (servant), Shibayama (laundry man), and Uki-San (maid) could not be found and it appeared likely that they all had been crushed to death.
A massive fire had broken out in Yokohama and had quickly spread by a 60-mph gale. Webb would later relate, “The road was full of a mass of fleeing, screaming refugees. A gale was blowing, the whole city was burning, the air was full of smoke and cinders, the British Naval Hospital across the way was blazing.”
For three hours the remaining hospital complement worked in these conditions searching for the others, only stopping when the piles of debris that remained of Naval Hospital Yokohama were ablaze.
At the site of the fallen pier, Petty Officer Foster swam to nurse Nellie Treuthart and assisted her to a place of safety. As she related, “I could not swim and would have been drowned or crushed to death but for Pharmacist’s Mate F[oster] who came to my rescue.” The area of the bay had become a soup of people trying to stay afloat. Foster and Treuthart struggled their way to a stairwell used as a gangplank for ocean liners. As Treuthart crawled up the steps, she got her first look at post-earthquake Yokohama.
“Looking down over the city all was desolation. The Grand Hotel was a mass of ruins, having caught fire and burned all afternoon. . . There were explosions of tanks of oil, gas, and ammunition around us all the afternoon, and at one time I counted six sampans loaded with lumber and all on fire floating around us. The birds looked white and acted bewildered, the sun was like a ball of fire, and it seemed there was no future for any of us.”
On the bluff, it became clear that if there was any hope to escape the flames it was now. There was only a single avenue of escape—through the grounds of the burning British naval hospital and down the side of the bluff. Lindquist remembered “Everyone had been too busy to save any personal belongings so we were not hampered. Two of the hospital corpsmen assisted the commanding officer and the other two, the injured hospital corpsman [Yost]. On our way to the edge of the bluff the fire was very close, and the air was full of smoke and cinders which made our eyes very painful.”
The flying cinders blew onto the fleeing Navy party burning holes into their clothes. Webb later reported, “By ropes and by clinging to grass roots and shrubs, by digging in our fingers and sliding and rolling, we lowered ourselves over the cliff to the reclaimed grounds of the water’s edge.” As they looked around they saw men and women jumping into the water to escape the raging flames. In the mass confusion ships in the harbor, including the Empress of Australia, sent their boats to shore to rescue the people in the water and ashore.
At 6 p.m., nurse Treuthart and Petty Officer Foster had been transported by a Japanese motorboat to the very ship they had said goodbye to earlier in the day. They still did not know the whereabouts of their colleagues at the naval hospital and their outlook dimmed when a fellow refugee aboard the ship claimed that the entire staff of the hospital had died in the earthquake. At 7:30 p.m., when the survivors from the naval hospital arrived aboard the Empress, the dire rumors were finally put to rest. On Wednesday morning, September 5th, the first American Navy ship arrived in Yokohama. USS Huron was soon joined by four others that day. In all, 21 Navy ships steamed to Japan providing necessary food, clothing, medical supplies, and attention to those stricken by disaster.
In the following week, Japanese Home Minister Goto Shinpei, who was to oversee reconstruction efforts, announced that the government was going to build theaters and movie houses in the devastated region “to provide free entertainment for the people this winter, as a means of diverting their minds from the earthquake and of relieving the monotony of their lives.”
In the weeks to follow, Japanese officials began tallying the number of killed and missing in the earthquake, and resulting tsunami and fires, and counted more than 140,000 people killed or presumably dead. Among the deceased were eight personnel attached to Naval Hospital Yokohama: Pharmacist Lawrence and Gladys Zembsch, PhM3c Paul Cannon and PhM3c Antonio Ingloglia, and civilian employees Tagaki, Nakahara, Shibayama, and Uki-San. The hospital they served and occupied was gone but remained on the books until its decommissioning on March 10, 1924. Twenty-six years later, the U.S. Navy opened a new hospital in the Kanto region of Japan. Naval Hospital Yokosuka was initially established to provide medical support to personnel attached to the 7th Fleet and casualties from the Korean War. Today the facility occupies land that once housed an Imperial Japanese hospital that was first opened in 1875 and demolished by the same earthquake that destroyed Naval Hospital Yokohama on that fateful day of September 1,1923.
-Davies, Peter. “Yokohama.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Maritime History. Volume 4. New York: Oxford University Press. 2007. pp 463-64
-“Japan Plans Free Movies to Divert Quake Sufferers.” The Baltimore Sun; Sep 16, 1923. p 9.
-Lindquist, Edith and Nellie Treuthart. “The Earthquake in Japan.”The Naval Medical Bulletin. GPO: Washington, DC. July 1924. pp 95-99.
-Lindquist, Edith to Nurse Corps Superintendent Beatrice Bowman. On Board the President McKinley, 12 September 1923. National Archives Record Group 52. General Correspondence #25587.
-“Navy Orders Relief Ships Dispatched to Yokohama.” The Washington Post; Sep 2, 1923. pg 2
-Webb, Ulyss to Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby. Report of the Disaster [at Yokohama], 11 September 1923 aboard USS Huron. National Archives Record Group 52. General Correspondence #125587.
-“Yokohama is Japan’s Principal Entry Point.” The Washington Post, Sep 2, 1923. p 2.