Apr 18

1906 San Francisco Earthquake: The Navy Responds!

Sunday, April 18, 2010 5:25 AM

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On April 18, 1906, at 5:13 AM, a massive earthquake shook San Francisco, knocking down hundreds of structures. Vessels of the Navy’s Pacific Squadron departed San Diego that same morning.

Chicago, Boston, and Princeton were heading for Long Beach when the flagship Chicago received a wireless message about the earthquake. Closer at hand were ships undergoing repair at Mare Island Navy Yard including the destroyers Perry and Preble. Perry’s commanding officer, Lieut. Frederick N. Freeman, unable to get underway due to a disassembled engineering plant, was reassigned to the Preble along with many of his crew and all of the yard’s available surgeons and nurses.

Preble, now with Freeman in command, steamed down the bay, passing the Navy tugs Active and Leslie that were making best speed towards the devastated city. Preble anchored off Howard St. at about 10:30 AM. On arrival, Freeman immediately contacted local officials to see how his Sailors and medical personnel could be best employed.

In his after action report Freeman wrote: “From this time on the Active and Leslie, with their own crews and the crew of the Perry, worked without rest until the fire was under control on April 21; and without exaggeration, the saving of a large portion of the waterfront was due to the efforts of these men.” Armed with fire hoses fed off of the tugs, Sailors battled the flames while restoring order to one of the seedier areas of the city. Passed Midshipman John E. Pond commented on the large number of drunks along the waterfront: “…uncontrolled crowds rushed from saloon to saloon, looting the stocks and becoming intoxicated.”

Having preserved the waterfront, Freeman redeployed his tugs and men to support firefighting efforts in adjacent sections of the city. Pond observed he was a skipper whose men would go to Hell and back for him. I can hear him now, ‘Come on, men, sock it to ‘em!’ and they did.” To stop the spreading flames Sailors ran from building to building, tearing down awnings and other flammable materials. With the help of a Marine detachment, burning buildings were dynamited to reduce the inferno. However, the wind whipped flames would not succumb.

Sailors were forced to continue battling some 70 hours with no sleep and little food. With the arrival of the Pacific squadron, Freeman’s men could finally stand down. Eventually, the fires did die down and the process of rebuilding would begin.

A newspaper editor noted “with astonishment, the apparent immunity from the conflagration from the foot of Broadway to the Transport Dock.” He then “went there in person and saw the Navy was in charge…the ferries, the wharves, the ferry building, branch post office, harbor hospital were safe, and to the Navy, and the Navy alone, was their safety due.”

For more about U.S. Navy Operations during the 1906 Earthquake and fire to include Lt. Freeman’s report, click here.