All Commentary
Sunday, August 1, 1965

The Unsung Hero

This article is reprinted by permission from The National Observer of March 22, 1965.

Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about the great Alaskan earthquake that shattered 52,000 square miles of Alaska on March 27, 1964.

As an Alaskan involved in the great upheaval and its aftermath, I want, from the clarifying dis­tance of a year, to pay tribute to an unsung and sadly neglected hero of the disaster.

The hard-to-sketch calamity conqueror to which honor—or at least full appreciation—is due, is that rather vague, all-embracing thing in our lives known as the “American System” or the “American Way,” and the ele­ments of free enterprise, competi­tion, and profit motive that make it work.

Implied characteristics of those who live by the system are initia­tive, independence, and freedom to act—all of which I saw bloom in abundance under the most ad­verse conditions.

Saved by the System

On that fateful and nearly fatal Good Friday evening when the lights were out, and the heat was off, and the phones were dead in a shattered city, it was the Sys­tem that saved the day.

Many of the experts who ar­rived two or three days after the quake and seismic waves, de­scribed by President Johnson’s Federal Reconstruction and De­velopment Commission for Alaska as causing “one of the greatest disasters in the recorded history of the United States,” didn’t see the System at work in the critical first 48 hours when it was at its best.

From my vantage point in An­chorage’s Providence Hospital, largest private hospital in the state, I watched the disaster from the first shudder at 5:36 p.m. un­til the survival of the state’s lar­gest city (estimated population: 80,000) was assured.

My background will help to ex­plain my transformation from a skeptical observer of the worth of the System under maximum pres­sure to an avowed admirer. From 1951 to 1959, I was employed as a full-time Civil Defense official, starting as regional director and ending as Alaska’s first state di­rector.

In restrospect, I now realize that in years of building a Civil De­fense framework and foundation in Anchorage and western Alaska, my associates and I never really appreciated what the System can accomplish when allowed to work. I’m not sure that we fully realized government is a servant of the governed.

Plans for an Emergency

I dislike needless government intrusion in my private affairs, but I must admit that at the time I was responsible for emergency planning I espoused the “govern­ment knows best and can do the job best” philosophy. My plans, some of which were still intact when the earthquake struck, tried to cover every possible emergency situation with written directives.

The panic and mass hysteria that I feared never developed. The looting and pillaging that I ex­pected just didn’t take place.

All the ingredients needed to rip a community apart were pres­ent in abundance—earth-shaking terror, fear of the unknown, un­founded warnings that a tidal wave was expected, isolation, be­low-freezing weather, darkness, loss of communications. But the composite character of the Ameri­cans involved refused to crack un­der the strain.

My first realization that the System is a tangible, living, and essential thing came at Provi­dence Hospital.

Although their hospital seemed to be shaking itself to pieces, not a single nurse or aide left her pa­tients on any of the hospital’s five floors. No authority told them to stay with their patients; they just naturally honored an obligation to their profession.

As soon as word spread that Providence was the main emer­gency medical center, suppliers anticipated needs almost before they developed. A bottling com­pany sent a truck with distilled water and soft drinks.

Representatives of major drug companies were on the job in min­utes. When not filling orders, all of which were delivered without cost, they carried stretchers. A bakery kept the bread flowing into the hospital and wholesalers did the same with other foods. A com­mercial oxygen company had re­serve tanks in place within an hour.

None of these free citizens had to be called or given written or­ders. They came because service, emergency or not, is a prime in­gredient of private enterprise.

A Flood of Volunteers

All off-duty workers reported to Providence, and so many volun­teers had registered by 8 p.m. that radio stations broadcast the mes­sage that no additional help was needed for the present.

No one had to call Anchorage‘s physicians and surgeons for emer­gency duty. Despite the fact that almost one-third of the city’s doc­tors lost their homes or other property, the medical profession was at its best in meeting every emergency need.

With the exception of the mil­itary forces, which provided mas­sive assistance in manpower and material in every corner of the vast disaster area, the City of An­chorage was government at its best under disaster conditions.

Under the very capable leader­ship of then Mayor George Shar­rock, an airline executive, the city government acted with amazing speed to get utilities in operation.

By Saturday morning, March 28, practically the entire business district was out-of-bounds and un­der military guard. As broken, sunken streets were repaired, the area of “no entry” diminished each day. By Tuesday all banks were operating and open for de­posits or withdrawals. (There were few of the latter.)

Those who wanted to meet the situation by imposing restrictions found an enemy in Anchorage‘s mayor. Soon after the disaster, Mayor Sharrock was under heavy pressure from higher authorities in government to invoke martial law, ration food and fuel, place an embargo on some shipments. He had faith in the System and re­fused to buckle under to the “gov­ernment knows best” element. And the System did not betray his trust.

Early on Saturday morning, I entered a food store near my resi­dence. The inside was rubble, but the store was open for business. A bit hard to find what you want­ed, but as long as my grocer had it, his food was for sale.

Working with candles, lanterns, and flashlights, the owner and his crew had stayed up all night to bring slight order out of chaos.

He knew people would need and want food, and didn’t want to dis­appoint them. There was no dis­cernible hoarding.

This pattern was followed by hundreds of independent mer­chants in every field. It wasn’t easy, but they did it. They had customers to satisfy, payrolls to meet, and bills to pay.

Danger in a Building

An outstanding example of the System was provided by Harry Hill, president of the Lathrop Co., and his son, Donald. The Lathrop Company’s new six-story Cordova Building was tilted and appeared so badly damaged it was declared unusable by government inspec­tors. The company’s two-year-old Hill Building, an eight-story structure housing the Federal Aviation Agency’s Alaska offices, was damaged to the extent that building officials didn’t want re­pair crews to enter it.

Believing his buildings usable, and knowing them to be useless as empty ghosts, Harry Hill disre­garded the advice of government experts. He flew 100 heavy 25-ton jacks to Alaska, and assisted by his son and several brave work­men, began the dangerous task of jacking his buildings back to their original position. Final repairs were completed by late summer and both buildings have been de­lcared safe and are fully occupied. Principal tenants in each are agen­cies of the Federal government.

Within a week, the American System of produce for profit was going full blast. Unless you wanted to retire from the scene and lick your wounds, there was not time for sitting back.

This ode to the System is not in­tended in any way to belittle the efforts of the many agencies of government that have aided and are assisting in the rebirth of Alaska.

The fact is, however, that all the assistance would have been useless if Alaskans hadn’t demon­strated the will to survive and a determination to stay with their stricken towns and cities.

I have noted that the many eche­lons of government have a hefty corps of public information officers who recite with great competence their particular agency’s role in helping Alaska get back on its feet.

But with the passage of time and mounting evidence that Alas­kans are undaunted in their de­termination to rise above the rub­ble, there is a growing recognition that the critical early battle was fought in the hearts and minds of the ordinary citizens who refused to quit when defeat seemed almost inevitable.