On the morning of September 1, school children finished class like any late summer day. Teachers dismissed them for lunch. They ran outside and raced each other down the narrow streets to their homes where mothers and grandparents were cooking.
At 11:58, the Earth shook suddenly and violently. Stoves overturned. House walls collapsed on the children, grandparents, and the burning coals. Sounds of rumbling, crashing, and voices screaming filled the streets. Flames roared.
The east Japan Kanto earthquake of September 1, 1923, killed 140,000 people in Yokohama and Tokyo. The U.S. Naval Hospital at Yokohama was leveled. Occurring just after the massive destruction of the Great War in Europe, post-war starvation, and the worldwide influenza epidemic, the Kanto earthquake in east Japan was the largest natural disaster in human history.
The U.S. Government immediately offered humanitarian aid to the Imperial Government of Japan. After hesitation by Japanese military bureaucrats, the Japanese diplomatic office accepted the American offer. With unprecedented speed, the U.S. Navy acquired food, medical supplies, and other relief materials in China and dispatched ships from Qingdao and Shanghai for Yokohama.
In Qingdao harbor, an American Sailor from Tennessee, Charleston Ward, was aboard the USS Black Hawk (AD 9). Ward kept a leather-bound photo album, inscribing the inside cover with his intended mission, “Seeing China.” The first page holds four whimsical photos of his shipmates and himself on liberty in Ganacao, the Philippine Islands, including a photo of shipmates holding drinking glasses aloft, captioned by Ward: “Where Prohibition’s Unknown.”
The earthquake in east Japan changed everything.
At the U.S. naval base in Qingdao, either Charleston Ward or a shipmate photographed the massive mobilization of humanitarian assistance in snapshots.
Then, in Japan, Ward filled each side of his album page with four photographs depicting the devastation in Yokohama and Tokyo. The sense of urgency is visible.
Each photograph is captioned with the location and subject. Ward’s sensitive arrangement of the images shows horrible human suffering. Some photos graphically depict dead human bodies piled in the streets and along the Tokyo harbor; others, the removal and cremation of human remains in piles in the streets. But he also recorded hope for saving lives.
The Sailors of the USS Black Hawk and the other U.S. naval ships distributed their cargos, helped where they were allowed, then departed from Yokohama. Charleston Ward transferred to other ships and sailed around the world, amassing more photographs. In April 1925, he was honorably discharged from the Navy, married, and settled in southwest Michigan, then in La Porte, Indiana.
Twenty years passed. The same Japanese militaristic bureaucrats who used the Kanto earthquake as pretext to eliminate their political enemies and consolidate militaristic power then inflicted war upon China and the United States.
In February 1944, the old Sailor learned that American earthquake relief supplies from September 1923 were found on South Pacific islands that U.S. forces had recaptured from the Japanese Army. For the first time in 20 years, Charleston Ward brought out his old Navy photo album and added something to his personal record of his Kanto earthquake response.
The afternoon of March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake devastated eastern Japan and triggered massive tidal waves. The Japanese government deployed 40 naval vessels and 300 aircraft to begin relief and recovery. But unlike the Kanto earthquake of 1923, Japan – a close U.S. ally — swiftly requested American humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HA/DR). Eight “first-responder” U.S. Navy vessels to Japan included the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) and the USS Essex (LHD-2), but soon grew to 20 U.S. naval ships, 160 U.S. aircraft, and more than 20,000 U.S. personnel. The joint Japanese-U.S. naval mission, called “Operation Tomodachi” (“True Friends”), prompted Japanese Prime Minister Kan to send Defense Minister Kitazawa to the USS Ronald Reagan to relay Japanese national gratitude:
“Japan and the U.S. are true friends [‘Tomodachi’]. I never have felt such a strong feeling of friendship with the U.S.”
Humanitarian aid and disaster relief is a subject the National Museum of the American Sailor seeks to develop in its historical collections. We are grateful for Charleston Ward, his niece, and the niece’s husband for preserving and donating his historical collection. Know a Sailor who participated in the U.S. Navy’s “Operation Tomodachi” in 2011, or in some other humanitarian work with the Navy? Contact the Museum Archivist at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be sure to read more about Pearl Harbor and Japan in these other NMAS’ blog articles: