Marines among those who ran to the rescue in 1906 San Francisco quake

19 Aug 2011 | I Marine Expeditionary Force Public Affairs

In 1906, Marines were more than the first to fight.  They were first to fight fires, rescue earthquake victims and restore order. 

The Bay area’s military ran toward the fray, working to secure the fractured city, quench fires and save lives.  Reports filed by Navy and Army officials after the earthquake testified to the military’s response when the earth shifted and one of the greatest natural disasters struck.

The San Andreas fault groaned to life about 5:15 a.m. on Apr. 18, 1906.  Among the immediate damages were toppled buildings, ripped open cobblestone streets and wounded and dead citizens across the hilly city.  Worse yet, gas lines burst open and raging fires.  Water mains also burst, hampering the city’s firefighters in their task to fight the blaze.  The city’s fire chief sent the urgent request for military assistance to U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Frederick Funston, the ranking military authority in the area.  He promptly sent word back to the city’s mayor troops would assist.  Although martial law was never declared, Marines were among the soldiers and sailors who mobilized across the city.

Lt. Col. Lincoln Karmany was the commanding officer of the Marine Detachment on Mare Island and Capt. Arthur T. Matrix commanded the Marine Barracks Naval Training Station San Francisco.  Together they organized their Marines to restore order and being firefighting operations. 

According to a 2006 article in Prologue by Rebecca Livingston, Marines from USS Independence and recruits from the Marine Barracks at Mare Island arrived landed ashore within three hours after the earthquake struck.  From letters collected at the time, their performance was admirable.

Arthur H. Dutton was the editor of the San Francisco News Letter and a member of the Press Club of San Francisco. In a letter to Navy Rear Adm. Bowman H., McCalla, now part of the collection of the Museum of the City of San Francisco, he praised the Marines’ actions, noting their discipline.

“I was at Fort Mason when the Marines arrived, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Lincoln Karmany,” Dutton wrote in his letter. “I have been much in contact with troops, both American and foreign, but I never saw a finer looking, better disciplined body of men. From the moment of their arrival, the Marines performed their duties like clock-work. Stoves were up, coffee being made and served out, latrines built, prisoners guarded, refugees succored, and everything else done to meet the situation,–and all quietly, methodically and thoroughly.”

Accounts of Dutton’s letter were reported May 8, 1906 in the New York Times.

The accounts of Marines in action after the 1906 earthquake were reported by Navy Lt. Frederick N. Freeman, stationed aboard the torpedo boat destroyer, USS Perry.  The ship was moored at Mare Island when the quake struck.  Freeman organized firefighting parties and patrols for security in the city, which was rapidly deteriorating.

“My force was unarmed with the exception of the officers, who carried revolvers; and the police, of whom I only saw two, were absolutely helpless,” Freeman stated in his report. “The crowds rushed saloon after saloon and looted the stocks becoming intoxicated early in the day."

Freeman was infuriated with locals who took advantage of the situation.  The scene was grim, he stated.  Women and children needed rescuing in the Rincon Hill neighborhood after the fire swept through in less than a half hour.  Even more infuriating, he said, were men who refused to aid “old and crippled men and women,” and refused to work for nothing less than 40 cents an hour.

But with a few Marines, Freeman started to clean up the waterfront.

He wrote, “I instructed First Lieutenant Smith, U.S.M.C, who had been in charge of a small squad of five men from the Active, to organize a patrol for the waterfront. This he did with excellent results, stopping all looting along the water front, closing all saloons, and assisting the relief work along the waterfront.

It wasn’t all security patrols.  Marines were battling blazes, too. 

“The fire would have been communicated by a number of coal sheds and cooper-shops,” Freeman reported. “A detachment of Marines at this time made its appearance, on their way back to Fort Mason, under command of Lieut. [sic] Brewster, U.S.M.C., and gave valuable aid in impressing men to assist the firefighters. About three hundred men were impressed into the service, and soon reduced the buildings under the lee of the burning houses on Telegraph Hill to ruins pulling down fences, removing fuel, etc., and when the fire did get through it was easily extinguished with one stream of water.”

Freeman singled one Marine out, Pvt. William P. Burton for his actions.  It was likely that Burton particularly enjoyed his work.  Burton was noted for his ability to demolish things with dynamite in order to reduce the inferno.

“He was cool and collected and possessed of great bravery, and I recommend that he be commended for his zeal and skill,” Freeman stated.

It wasn’t just Burton who stood out among the Marine contingent.  Livingston’s Prologue article  singled out 1st Lt. Fred. A. Udell, who was a patient at the Mare Island Naval Hospital suffering from a kidney disease.  When the earthquake struck, he climbed out of his sick bed and fought fires for two days, rescued people and even guarded a bank from looters.  Only when the control was restored did he climb back into his bed.  His suffering was bad enough that he was medically retired later that year.

The earthquake even came a chance for one Marine to redeem himself.  Livingston also wrote about 2nd Lt. John H. White, who was a courts-martial prisoner at Mare Island Marine Barracks.  He was in pre-trial confinement for public drunkenness and profane language.  When the quake hit, he was pressed into service.  He performed so admirably, in fact, his charges were dropped on April 21, just days after the crisis hit.  He didn’t get off completely unscathed though.

Livingston wrote, “He received a stern letter that warned him not to take advantage of the situation and that further drunkenness would not be tolerated.”