Desolation of Nihonbashi and Kanda following the 1923 earthquakeOsaka Mainichi newspaper

Jack Dunnell, Ed.D., 86, has lived in Oak Park and River Forest since 1928. He graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High School in 1943. In the aftermath of the recent earthquake in Japan, he thought the following reminiscence might be of interest to readers. It certainly makes compelling reading.

Dunnell’s father, Warren, served in World War I. “After marrying my mother in 1918,” Jack writes, “they went to Japan in the early 1920s. My mother returned in 1922, but my father was still there on Sept. 1, 1923.” He wrote his wife the following letter from the U.S.S. McKinley, en route to Kobe from Yokahama, dated Sept. 13, 1923:

Saturday at 12 o’clock on Sept. 1, 1923, will long be remembered as a time when one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of disasters of modern times took place. If you can imagine destruction in six hours equivalent to the devastation accomplished by the German armies in five years, an idea of the appalling disaster can be partly appreciated.

On Aug. 30, I left Tokyo by automobile for Miyanoshita, a quiet Hot Springs Resort in the Hakone Mountains, 65 miles from Tokyo.

Saturday morning, Sept. 1, came bright and clear, although the atmosphere was very muggy and depressing — an unusual thing at an altitude of 1,700 feet. About 11 o’clock, the young people prepared for their morning swim in the Hot Springs swimming tank in back of the hotel. Most of the bathers were still in the water and I had just climbed out of the tank, standing on the edge, when the first shock came. It was exactly two minutes to 12, as we afterward found all the clocks stopped at this time.

This first shock was a quick, sharp jerk. The bathing houses on each side of the tank fell over and one of the concrete walls of the tank fell away. This all happened in five seconds’ time. I turned and made my way to the stone steps leading from the tank to the open garden space between the swimming tank and the hotel. It was impossible to stand on two feet. The stone steps crumbled, the ground heaved, sank, twisted and churned. Some way or other I made my way on all fours to the grassy ground. The swimming tank had collapsed and the water from it came rushing down the slope in the gullies all about us. Other people had crawled or made their way somehow to the open space in which I found myself. It was impossible to stand for fully a minute, but it seemed an eternity.

Parts of the mountains about us started sliding down, burying everything in their path. Fortunately for us, these slides went into the ravines and not toward us. The shaking continued, but the worst was over in 45 to 60 seconds.

One man came running out of a house near the hotel crying for help. His sister was caught in the building, the whole second floor having fallen on her. Three of us rushed into the building and found her pinned beneath timbers, furniture, plaster and debris. After working frantically for about five minutes, we managed to dig her out. She escaped with only a few bruises.

The tremors were still very bad and came intermittently, every few minutes. The ground would heave and roll, just like a choppy sea. Things gradually settled and after two or three hours the quakes became less frequent and violent.


I then walked about to see what damage had been done. The concrete swimming tank had completely collapsed with the houses on both sides, and the water had all disappeared. The natural hot springs were completely gone, swallowed up into the earth. One of the most renowned Hot Springs resorts of Japan was ruined, as far as the springs themselves were concerned. There were large fissures everywhere, cracks in the ground every few feet, and large rocks had all rolled, or been pushed, out of their original positions.

The hotel proper, fortunately, did not collapse, so everyone had an opportunity to escape from the building. It was, however, very badly shaken; ceiling and walls had come down, furniture smashed and the building was in very bad shape.

The road above the ravine leading to the hotel had mostly slid away. The Japanese curio shops and houses on the ravine side along this road had all disappeared down the slope. There were two foreigners in one of those shops at the time. One escaped through the front door, but the other disappeared when the house toppled over the bank and was buried in the avalanche of earth that followed. About 65 Japanese were killed in other houses that went down into the gulley.

At this time, I noticed fire and smoke, which I judged was coming from the hotel garage. It had collapsed, killing 10 Japanese and smashing 30 motor cars. The fire was making good headway and the garage and adjoining shop buildings were soon destroyed, including the motor car in which we had driven from Tokyo.

The rumblings and quakes continued all Saturday afternoon. About five o’clock I gained courage enough to go into my room and find some of my clothes where they had all been left, as I had gone to the swimming tank wearing only a bathing suit and a kimono. My room was a wreck. The floor had fallen to the ground, the ceiling hung down in one corner, two legs of the bed were broken, the bureau had fallen on the bedstead, plaster and debris covered everything. I managed to uncover some of my clothes, threw them all into my bag and returned to the open garden in back of the hotel. The recovery of what clothes I could find was done between intermittent dashes out of the building, as small quakes still continued frequently. As each one came I would dash out with something in my arms. For two nights I slept outdoors. The hotel guests pulled out futons and bedding, so we were able to rest quite comfortably on the ground. I do not believe that anyone slept those two nights. There were two or three very bad tremors each night and everyone was quite nervous.

Saturday night we saw the sky all ablaze and knew that Odawasa, a seaside village 6 miles away, was burning. Sunday, the next day, refugees from Odawasa came over the mountains, all roads being destroyed, and reported that Tokyo and Yokahama had been ruined. This was the first news in 36 hours of the outside world.

The next morning I started with a small party to make our way out. Couriers from the Hakone region reported that the motor roads were badly damaged but passable on foot. We therefore started for Numazu on the seacoast 22 miles away. The first part of our journey was to Lake Hakone, 7 miles away.

Proceeding around the lake, we found the Emperor’s Hakone Palace badly damaged. The high stone walls were completely demolished. Many Japanese had taken refuge in the palace grounds, something unprecedented in Japanese history. The new Foreign Hotel on the edge of the lake had collapsed, killing six foreigners and many Japanese. I had taken lunch there on Friday noon, the day before the catastrophe.

We proceeded over the mountains in dismal rain. We continued walking, passing the village of Yamanaka, Mishiwa and finally arrived at Numazu at 6 o’clock Monday night.

Utterly exhausted, we stayed at a Japanese Inn that night. There was only one incident to mar an otherwise restful night. About one o’clock, we had a very severe shake. It woke everyone, even from a dead slumber. Just as we were about to try and sleep again, the hotel cashier appeared, insisting we pay our bill immediately. Another quake might demolish the inn and the proprietor would not get his money if we did not pay at once.

The next noon (Tuesday) we boarded a train for Kobe and arrived there the same evening. I immediately dispatched a cable to the New York office, advising them of our safety.

In Kobe, we learned of the terrible destruction by fire and earthquake in Tokyo and Yokahama. Tokyo suffered most from fire. Yokahama was wiped out by the earthquake. Reports indicated that the part of Tokyo in which I lived was not affected by the fire. I therefore made immediate plans to return.

The devastation in Tokyo was unbelievable. Not so much damage was done by the earthquake as by the fires which started about two hours later.

It was in Asakaska and Hongo, the poor part of Tokyo, that the worst devastation was wrought. The fire in these two wards made a complete sweep of everything. For miles and miles, as far as the eye can see, there is nothing but ashes, brick, a few bleak walls and corpses. When the fire came to this part of Tokyo, thousands of people fled before it across the wide Sumida River, taking refuge in a large park. But the fire came like a roaring giant, leaped across the river (as though it were a creek), caught the thousands unaware in the park, and 32,000 lost their lives in the twinkling of an eye. It is reported the fire swept over them in only a few seconds, burning their lungs; every one of the 32,000 lives obliterated in less time than it takes to tell about it.

On the day I visited this district, a total of 63,000 corpses had been cremated. The details are harrowing and something I want to forget. The river and bay were strewn with dead bodies for many days.

I was anxious to leave the terrible sight of Tokyo, so I packed all my belongings in my steamer trunk and bags, carted them to Tokyo Bay and prepared to sail for Kobe. An American destroyer left for Yokohama the next morning, I was told, to connect with the U.S.S. McKinley.

The destruction of Yokohama was complete. There is not a building left intact. It was reduced to a pile of bricks, stone and ashes in 30 seconds. Yokohama had an estimated population of 450,000. Imagine a city larger than Minneapolis completely reduced to nothing in 30 seconds. It is unbelievable, but it is a fact. I saw Yokohama, the most flourishing port in Japan, in its prime, and I have seen it now. There is nothing left.

We have been given refuge on the U.S.S. McKinley and brought to Kobe under instruction from the U.S. Government. In Yokohama Harbor and Tokyo Bay, the American boats are helping regardless of nationality. The American destroyer that carried me to Yokohama brought French, English, Canadians, Russians and a few Japanese. The American Navy and Merchant Marine have been of service inestimable.

This is the spirit that has prevailed among all nationals throughout the frightful days of the world’s greatest disaster. Tokyo will be rebuilt, possibly Yokohama. It’s the eternal fight of man against the forces of nature. What is material may be destroyed, but the Japanese will still continue to carry on the fight with the spirit of a Samurai. And we whom God has permitted to come through this terrible disaster safe shall hope that we are spared any similar experiences for the rest of our lives.

Jack Dunnell’s parents divorced when he was 3, so he had no memories of his father. When he returned home after serving in the Pacific Theater during World War II, his ship landed in Los Angeles. He looked up his father’s name in the phone book and met him for the first time. They stayed in tough thereafter.

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