At 5:20 a.m. on 28 December 1908, a powerful earthquake struck southern Italy. The city of Messina was devastated, with at least 95% of its buildings reduced to rubble and almost 100,000 of its 150,000 residents killed. RAdm. Charles S. Sperry, Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, dispatched the storeship Culgoa from the homeward-bound Great White Fleet to the disaster area, and ordered “all medical stores from every ship that could be spared” transferred to the storeship, which also embarked four hospital apprentices and two medical officers.
The ship’s bakers and cooks prepared almost 3,000 loaves of bread and 2,200 pounds of boiled ham while enroute. Culgoa reached Messina on 8 January 1909, and boats filled with desperate local residents soon swarmed around her. CO Cdr. John B. Patton ordered provisions distributed to all comers.
The next day Culgoa transferred 55 tons of supplies ashore and landed men to begin excavating the U.S. Consulate to retrieve the remains of the U.S. Consul and his wife. XO Lt. Louis J. Connelly found Messina “practically a complete wreck. Many streets…filled to the level of the second floor with debris.” When Culgoa later relinquished the sad task of excavating the Consulate to the tender Yankton, the storeship got underway and visited several cities and towns near the Strait of Messina, issuing “stores…needed for the sick and the delicate.” The local residents particularly appreciated “small packages [of salt, tea, cocoa, biscuits, and canned meat] so they could be carried to the interior.”
RAdm. Sperry later expressed his “complete satisfaction with the manner in which [Culgoa had] performed this arduous and somewhat delicate duty.” One hundred years later, the Navy continues to answer the call when disaster strikes anywhere around the world.