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Bill Thayer

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Part II
Chapter 7

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
One Man's Fight
for a Better Navy

Holden A. Evans
[Former Naval Constructor, U. S. N.]

published by
Dodd, Mead & Company
New York

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Part II
Chapter 9
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Part II

 p186  Chapter VIII

The San Francisco Earthquake

In 1905 the Bennington disaster had taken my attention from my proper work. Again in the spring of 1906 a greater and more terrible disaster was for a time to transfer my thoughts and efforts from normal duties. This was the San Francisco earthquake.

In the early morning of April 18 a violent earth-shock threw me out of bed, and I found myself on the floor of my bedroom in my house on Mare Island. The house was swaying giddily, falling objects were crashing, the children were screaming with terror, and there was a dreadful roar. The end of everything had come; there was no doubt of that in my mind. I had no particular sensations but simply accepted the inevitable.

But that awful shock passed. The crying children made their way to us and were reassured and quieted. They were still much frightened but felt that Mother and Father would protect them.

Then my professional sense of duty returned to me. I had a valuable naval vessel in the drydock. Had it crashed? Was everything in ruins? I tried a front window, but it stuck, jammed by a twist in the frame structure. One of my side windows opened. I put my head out but could see or hear nothing. Not a shout nor a whistle nor a cry of alarm, only an ominous silence that seemed to brood over everything.

Downstairs I bounded to the telephone — an old‑fashioned wall set. I cranked and cranked the bell handle, with no result. The shock had broken all the connections. Returning to my room, I threw on some clothes, then ran out of the house toward the shops.

 p187  Halfway across the park I met the head shipkeeper, coming to report to me. The ship in drydock sm safe, he said, but one side of the new joiner shop had fallen out, and the new boat shops had also been damaged. He hadn't stopped to inspect anything else.

We ran back to the drydock together. I went down to the bottom but found everything safe. The ship had been properly docked, perfectly supported by blocks and shoring. Our shop damage was not serious. The navy yard had escaped lightly from what had evidently been a major earthquake.

On my way home I found that all the officers and their families from our end of the row had left their houses, too, and were gathered together in the park, my family with them. But I was now very tired. A strong reaction had set in, and I wanted rest.

Over the protest of my family and neighbors, I entered my house alone, went upstairs, threw myself across the bed without undressing, and almost instantly fell asleep. Shortly after seven o'clock I was awakened by shouts from downstairs, telling me that breakfast was ready. The sleep had greatly refreshed me, and I went down to eat. No more shocks having occurred, my family told me, they and all the others had ventured to return to the houses.

We had barely finished breakfast, when we felt a new shock. It was a slight one but now, fearing the worst, we all once more rushed out into the park, where we would be safe from falling objects. All along Officers' Row the others were doing the same thing.

The shocks now continued, gradually growing more severe until at about eight o'clock there came a terrific convulsion of the earth. We were tossed off our feet and thrown about. The children were screaming, trees and telephone poles swayed and bent, and again there was that dreadful roar. I would have taken my oath that the trees and poles went back and forth as much  p188 as thirty degrees, though reason tells me it could not have been possible.

Then once more the earth became quiet. What had happened to the rest of the world? No one could tell, as telephone and telegraph lines had been broken. But we all had the feeling that we were in the midst of an immense calamity.

We were not long to be kept in suspense. Soon a boat came up the Bay, bringing a message to the admiral. San Francisco was in ruins and on fire. The water mains were broken, and the population was in a panic. The demoralized authorities needed help badly. Admiral McCalla was a man who could act decisively and quickly. He ordered the entire force of Marines, under Colonel Karmany, to proceed at once to the stricken city. He instructed the yard organization to open our storehouses, load barges, and rush food and supplies as needed.

All the rest of the day and of the next rumors and stories of the disaster came to us on Mare Island — dreadful stories, some true, some fantastic. But however skeptical we were, there was nothing untrue about the great clouds of smoke filling the sky in the south, 30 miles away. San Francisco was burning; and, with no public water supply, there was no way to extinguish the flames.

Early in the morning of April 20, a message came to my house from the admiral, instructing me to join him in twenty minutes. He was going to San Francisco and wished me to accompany him. He selected me alone, of all the officers of the yard.

We went by tug and landed at Fort Mason on the northern edge of San Francisco. There we met a panic-stricken crowd leaving, or trying to leave, the doomed city. Fear was on every face — dumb fear that seemed to have crowded out all intelligence. They didn't know where they were going, they didn't care — anywhere away from this dreadful place — to the open hills, where there were no walls to fall on them or fire to burn.

 p189  Some in their blind terror had snatched up worthless articles to save. I saw one woman carrying only an empty bird cage, having apparently forgotten that her pet was dead. Many carried or led their dogs.

One of the city's then rare automobiles awaited the admiral, having been sent from Marine headquarters. We drove through desolation and came out at a point on Van Ness Avenue. There we got out and sent the car back to headquarters for someone else to use.

Van Ness Avenue had been the line selected on which the city's forces must stop the fire or see San Francisco swept clean and nothing left on which to rebuild. It was a broad thoroughfare running from the Bay at Fort Mason south to Market Street, and it had once been the fashionable residential street of the city. We had not driven down Van Ness, because it was impassable for cars, and for a curious reason.

At regular intervals of approximately forty yards, deep, wide cracks had broken the pavement, running almost straight across the avenue from curb to curb. The earth must have heaved in vertical waves with crests and hollows, like a cross sea outside a steep coast or breakwater. The cracks probably marked the crests of these earth waves.

And otherwise Van Ness Avenue presented a sorry sight. Everything below, to the east, was being abandoned to the conflagration, and the fighters were widening the Van Ness gap by blowing down every building on the fire's side of the avenue. Every few minutes one heard the thud of exploding dynamite. Bricks, dust, and other debris, mixed with black smoke, shot up into the air, and then one heard the thunder of a collapsing building.

The admiral watched this work for some time and then predicted positively, "They are going to stop the fire here."

He said he would see Colonel Karmany, and then we would  p190 return to Mare Island. Our Marines had set up their headquarters not far away, and we made our way there on foot.

"Admiral," I said, as we went along, "every man with military training is needed here. I should like to remain."

The admiral stopped and looked at me.

"I'd been hoping to hear just that thing from you, Mr. Evans," he said. "Besides military training, you know organization and how to handle men. I'll turn you over to Colonel Karmany."

As I have previously mentioned, Colonel Karmany was a good friend of mine. He was pleased with my decision to remain. "I'll put you on my staff," he said.

"No, Colonel," I objected, "I didn't stay here to do staff work. I want to be out among those panic-stricken people, where I'm needed."

"Hm!" he considered. "That's a bit embarrassing. You are senior to every officer under my command." (I had recently been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Commander.) "It would hardly be in keeping with your rank to put you on active work."

"That's easily fixed," I replied. "For this emergency consider me without rank — a civilian. Pick out your lowest ranking second lieutenant, and you'll find me quite ready to serve under him."

"Well," said Colonel Karmany, "I never heard any proposition like that before. Still, if you mean it, you can be most valuable to me in the relief work and at the same time do me a favor."

He went on to tell me that in his command there was a young second lieutenant, who was facing a court martial because of an escapade, and who, if court-martialed, might be dismissed. The colonel, however, believed that the youngster had the stuff in him to make a good officer and was trying to get him off. Now he saw an opportunity. He would pick out an important district and place me temporarily in charge of it, the lieutenant going with me. I would organize the district. When I had completed the  p191 work, Colonel Karmany would issue formal orders placing the lieutenant in command. Thereafter I would serve under him, making certain that everything went all right. If the lieutenant made a good record in the San Francisco relief work, his colonel felt sure that the higher authorities would deem it proper to rescind the order for the court martial.

The lieutenant was called in, and Karmany explained the plan to him. He was only too glad to grab at such an opportunity. Thus it was that for a few days a naval constructor, with a rank of lieutenant commander, served under a low‑ranking second lieutenant of Marines, who in turn was under the general command of a major general of the Army, Funston, who had taken charge of the military control of the stricken city. I doubt if that combination was ever repeated.

Colonel Karmany assigned us to the important Lafayette Park district, which was crowded with refugees. On the way, the lieutenant told me of two young women of his acquaintance who were in trouble. The whole front wall of their apartment house had fallen, and they had no place to go. Could I take them into my house on Mare Island? I assented and wrote a note to my wife, giving it to the lieutenant. He left to find his fair refugees and arrange for their transportation on a Navy tug. I went on to Lafayette Park.

The people of San Francisco, rich and poor alike, were in a serious plight. The earthquake had damaged the water system and had broken sewers and drainage connections. In many houses that were still standing, the fire flues had been cracked or shattered. With no facilities for fighting fire, except by blowing down buildings in this path, all fires in homes had to be prohibited, so there was no heat. Many people were without food, and some looting had started.

It is a curious fact that though the rules of martial law were applied in San Francisco during and after the great fire, no  p192 martial law was ever declared. Military forces, under General Funston, took charge of the city and administered it to bring about order and calm, using such measures as seemed necessary. A number of looters were probably shot, but, strictly speaking, their summary executioners had no legal warrant for their acts.

As I sized up my district, I saw five major problems or projects ahead. In the order of their importance they were: 1. Provide food; 2. Stop looting and preserve order; 3. Provide latrines and other sanitary necessities; 4. Provide shelter for the aged, and 5. Inspire confidence in the whole population.

The food problem was of paramount importance. The section of the city in which the poorer people lived had been completely destroyed. The refugees, many of them foreigners, had fled up to the better residential section. Our district was crowded with them, and they were developing an ugly spirit. Many felt that their homes had been allowed to burn, while the authorities concentrated their efforts on saving the homes of the rich. One even heard threats to burn the rest of the city — make it a clean sweep. Add hunger to the bitterness of an undisciplined crowd like that, and it might easily become a destructive and murderous mob.

"We'll keep their bellies full of food," I said. "There's nothing that cools down a man's resentment like a square meal."

There was plenty of food available. The problem was to get it, transport it to the district, and distribute it. I fought for drays and wagons, got them, and started a line of supply. By nightfall I was feeding everybody in the district.

And feeding them lavishly. There was no rationing now. Every applicant got whatever he wanted. I saw numerous "repeaters" in the line but did not try to eliminate them. Later on, I knew, the Red Cross would move in with a permanent relief organization, and they could issue food tickets and the like. My job was to keep the bellies full and the homeless mob fairly contented,  p193 waste or no waste.

A friend of mine, a son of one of the most prominent families in San Francisco, came to our headquarters and found me there. I congratulated myself before him that in our district, at least, there were no hungry people that night.

"Ho, there are plenty of them," my friend scoffed.

I gave him an argument on this point. Our food stations were set up in convenient places. People had only to visit them to get whatever they needed.

"That's just it," he said. "There are still hungry people in your district who won't line up with that mob to get food. For instance, in our house there has been no food for twelve hours."

I hastened to send supplies to his home and afterwards made a discreet canvass of the district to see that pride was not keeping others away from the free food distribution.

Simultaneously we were getting ahead with our other problems. The restoration of order was the most pressing one. Following the first shock and demoralization of the disaster, the insufficient forces of the city had for two days devoted themselves to the attempt to stop the fire. The homeless, hungry and frightened hordes of refugees moved unchecked, and there was no doubt that a good deal of looting was going on. Then the military forces moved in and took charge, and the order at once went to the soldiers to shoot to kill anyone found looting.

So far as Colonel Karmany's Marines were concerned, this was a risky responsibility. It happened that most of the Mare Island Marines were recruits, men and boys who had been only a few months in the service. The danger was that in putting down looting they might make mistakes and precipitate a real tragedy. The lieutenant and I frequently visited our sentries, carefully explaining the instructions and warning them to be very sure before they did anything drastic. We kept up this surveillance as long as the danger lasted.

 p194  But Karmany was a good officer, and in the short time he had had these men under his command, he had made real soldiers of them. To their everlasting credit they stopped looting, restored order, and never once made any blunder. One wise thing Colonel Karmany did was to issue white service caps to his men, so that they could be easily identified day or night. Before their tour of police duty was over, they were favorably known throughout resurgent San Francisco as the White Caps.

Restoration of sanitary facilities required work of a different nature. In this, besides tools and building supplies, the chief need was labor, and the only way to get labor from the disorganized population was to commandeer it. Thus, when we had a latrine to build and the materials were on the ground, I would give the order, "Corporal, commandeer so many men."

Whereupon the corporal went out and took every able-bodied man he met until he had his required number. Then he put them to work. A corporal of Marines was no connoisseur of the social classes. All he asked was that a man was strong enough to handle a plank or skilful enough to drive a nail, otherwise bankers and ditch-diggers looked alike to him.

That first day a corporal brought a civilian to me, reporting that the man refused to work. I asked the unfortunate fellow what excuse he had.

"It's this way," he said. "I started out early this morning to try to get to Oakland and find my family. But I've been commandeered twice already and have put in more than five hours of work. Just look at my hands."

His hands were blistered and bleeding. He was an office man, unaccustomed to manual labor. I told him that for the sake of the general morale I could not make an exception in his case; but, if he would work half an hour for me, then I would let him with a written statement that would probably pass him through the other districts without being commandeered. He agreed and  p195 pitched in with a will. After that I made it a practice to give certificates to civilians showing the hours they had worked in my district.

The small Lafayette Park presented a piti­ful sight. It was full of old people, dazed and helpless old men and old women, sitting on the benches or lying on the ground, with no one to care for them. And this on a chilly April evening, with rain threatening. I was really amazed at the number of elderly people who had been living alone on money sent by absent relatives. Some were so decrepit they could scarcely move about.

On Pine Street I commandeered two large houses in sound condition and turned them into dormitories, one for the old men and the other for the old women. Then I went back to the Park and talked to them but found them all opposed to going into any buildings. They preferred the cold, wet, open park to shelters that might come tumbling down on their heads. It took much persuasion on my part to induce any of them to go to the dormitories, and it was not until next day that I got them all under cover.

What little sleep I had that first night I snatched, rolled up in a blanket on the ground. It rained occasionally, and I was far from being comfortable. But a young man in good health felt ashamed to consider his own discomfort when he remembered those poor old people on the benches, huddled in their wraps and courting pneumonia and other illnesses. One of my daughters still preserves that blanket as a souvenir of the San Francisco fire.

Next day a wealthy woman whose name I shall not mention, came to us and offered us quarters in her house, which was near the Park. We accepted thankfully, but after we had installed ourselves we found out the reason for her generosity.

"Now," she said with satisfaction, "with two officers here, my house will not be commandeered."

 p196  By the end of the fourth day I had the district organized, with everything running smoothly. I reported as much to Colonel Karmany, and he issued formal orders placing the lieutenant in command. Thereafter I served without rank under the lieutenant.

I had no toilet articles with me, nor had I had any change of clothing since I started out from Mare Island with Admiral McCalla, and Colonel Karmany gave me permission to return to my home for the night. A tug was going up the Bay late in the evening, and it would return the first thing the next morning, so I would not be away long.

It was about 11 o'clock that night when I arrived at Mare Island. As I walked across the park, I was surprised to see my house ablaze with lights. As I drew near, I could hear music, and through the windows caught glimpses of a merry crowd inside. Evidently I was unwittingly giving a party, and with me right then a party struck a sour note. I was tired and dirty, and I had just come from scenes of heart-rending misery and suffering.

As I entered the house I saw what was happening. I had completely forgotten about my two refugees, the lieutenant's girl friends. One of them, who seemed to be the center of the gayety, sat at the piano keeping things going. She was a rather stout young woman, not at all good-looking, but who had plenty of what is today called umph. She was the life of the party.

But I was in no mood then to appreciate her talents. Angrily I told my wife to stop the revels, and, without greeting anybody, I went upstairs, had a hot bath, packed a bag with clean clothes, and was soon asleep. Before anyone was up next morning, I was on my way back to San Francisco.

We had not accomplished everything in our district we had set out to do, except one. We had provided food and shelter and set up adequate sanitary arrangements, had ended looting and brought about orderly existence, but we still had a nervous population  p197 on our hands. To inspire confidence in the people was a psychological problem. A chance discovery of mine helped solve it.

Colonel Karmany had brought down the horses from Mare Island. I used one that next night to inspect the sentries and generally look over the district, becoming for once a real "horse Marine." After my ride several citizens told me that the clatter of my horse's hoofs on the pavements in the quiet of the night had been a comfort to them. It assured them that, should a new disaster come, help and protection were near.

After that, the lieutenant and I rode regular rounds through the district the whole night long, and the more noise our horses made, the better.

At the end of ten days I felt that I was no longer needed in San Francisco. My work at Mare Island was calling me, and I asked Colonel Karmany to return me to the navy yard. It had been a hard, trying experience; but, aside from the satisfaction of helping those in need, I was to have a permanent reward. Some time later the Acting Secretary of the Navy sent me a letter, enclosing a copy of a letter written to the department by Colonel Karmany, which had been placed with my official record. I can not refrain from quoting it here:

I have the honor to invite your attention to the services rendered by Naval Constructor H. A. Evans, U. S. Navy, while the Battalion of Marines under my command was on duty in San Francisco, Cal., recently. Mr. Evans joined this command, voluntarily, on April 20th and served for ten days, when he was returned to his regular duties by order of the Commandant. He was attached to one of the four sections into which the Fourth Military District was divided, and at one time was in command of this section. He was zealous and rendered important and efficient service, and to him belongs the credit in a large degree for the prompt suppression of disorder in that section  p198 and the establishment of relief stations and camps for the refugees. The loss of his services was much felt by me, when it became necessary to withdraw him.

Very respectfully,
L. Karmany
Lieut.‑Colonel, U. S. M. C.,
Commanding Marines.

I may add that the lieutenant was not court-martialed.

Back at Mare Island I found my two refugees still there. I was now in a frame of mind better to appraise the peculiar talents of the stout young lady, and I had to admit that she was very amusing. She had a remarkable personality. In her presence one's worries and sorrows vanished and gayety became unconfined. With no facilities at all, she could arrange parties that drew the whole Navy set of Mare Island. Not only could she arrange them, but she was doing so, evening after evening. My house had become the Navy Yard Night Club.

This magnet's name was Miss Elsa Maxwell. Later her fame as an arranger of original and amusing parties for the wealthy had spread not only over the United States but to Paris and Monte Carlo. In fact, she made it her profession.

But an endless succession of parties, even when arranged by the most expert party-arranger in the world, grew wearing, especially when one man's house was always the scene of them. I was footing the bills for the beer and whisky and suppers; I had a job to consider and studying and planning to do at night. I began to hint that there was a time limit after which refugees were no longer refugees.

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