News: Vet remembers Alaska’s great quake of ‘64
Story by Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Smith
Friday evening at the post officers’ club was a great way for Army officers to shake off pressure from a full week of training, but on the evening of March 27, 1964, the earth did a little pressure shaking of its own.
The magnitude of the earthquake was 9.2, the second largest quake ever recorded by a seismograph. The tremors shook the Anchorage community literally to its core, destroying man made works and forever changing parts of its landscape.
The unstable ground and string of volcanoes throughout the Pacific serve as a reminder of Alaska’s position in the “Ring of Fire” region. The quake, which occurred on the Christian holiday of Good Friday, is known as the Great Alaska Earthquake and the Good Friday Earthquake. For many Alaskans, the events of that day will be forever remembered.
The same is true for a retired Army officer who was shooting pool at the Fort Richardson Officers’ Club that night.
Retired Army Lt. Col. David Vozka, then assigned as the executive officer of C Company (Airborne), 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 172nd Infantry Brigade, recounted the events.
“In those days it was traditional that at the end of Friday you would go to the classic ‘Happy Hour,’” said Vozka. “So we’re playing pool, and the earthquake started. Now we were familiar with earthquakes. We had been through other earthquakes before, and at the onset of this one, we didn’t think it was going to be any big deal.”
At the beginning of the quake, the tremors were not that strong, so Vozka, along with two others, continued to play their game.
“I’m lined up on the cue ball,” said Vozka, “and all this time the earthquake is gaining in intensity, but it’s not that evident, it’s just a gradual increase. Well, what got our attention was, all the pool balls slid to one side of the table. So, we all looked at each other, and I clearly remember what I said. I said, ‘I don’t know about you guys, but I’m getting the F out of here!’”
One officer crawled under the pool table, while Vozka and the other officer ran out of the room. Vozka went right, ran up the stairs, and out of the building. The other officer went left and was stopped by a mass of officers who were crowded near the bar area named “The Nugget Room.”
Vozka joined a small group just outside the entrance to the officer’s club, which is now the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division’s headquarters building, Building 56, located on 4th Street.
“This is where you really experienced the movement of the ground, and you can’t replicate it, because it is like you are on a toadstool or something with those shockwaves coming through, and you’re riding the waves! You’re just going up and down!”
According to Vozka, the wave crests outside the officer’s club were approximately 18 to 24 inches high and spaced about 10 feet apart.
Vozka’s senses were on full alert because of the moving ground under his feet, his visual of the landscape, and the sound created by subterranean rock being crushed and moved.
“The sound of this earthquake, I don’t know how you could ever replicate it. It was really, really intense, because this is the sound of the bedrock being fractured and torn.”
He said a way to imagine what it may have sounded like is to submerge your self under water in a swimming pool and rub rough-surfaced rocks together.
He said the sounds made from the quake came from far off distances.
“The sounds were not occurring under your feet. This was occurring miles, and miles, and miles away, but the sound is there for you to hear.”
Vozka attained his commission through Eastern Michigan University’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program. While there he took several geology courses, and has a degree in physical geography, so he was familiar with the science of seismic activity, but he said he didn’t fully understand it until he experienced it for himself.
“It was loud. It was very deep, and it was quite, I guess ‘penetrating’ is a good word. It is indelibly inscribed in my mind,” said Vozka.
Vozka was an outstanding young officer, who was selected after a competitive selection process during his initial infantry training to become a leader in the first airborne company in Alaska, a unit which was partially made up of men who had WWII combat jump stars on their jump wings. He also bravely served two tours in Vietnam during his career, but the events of that day still influence him.
“There are some lasting effects after something like this. To this day I refuse to sit under the balcony of a theater. I just won’t do it.”
Aftershocks occurred for some time after the big quake. One aftershock in the middle of the night immediately placed him into reaction mode. He said before he knew it, he was out of bed and holding onto the bedroom door.
“I have no clue how I got there, it was just automatic response,” Vozka said.
During another aftershock, which registered around a magnitude scale of seven, Vozka remembered looking out his office window at the 562nd Engineer Company.
“I kid you not, I watched people from that 562nd Engineer Company coming out of that building to include opening up the second-story windows and jumping to get out!”
On Sunday, two days after the big quake, Vozka and another Soldier acquired an M37A1 Jeep to go see the damage.
“We went down to the Turnagain Arm area,” said Vozka. “I don’t know what excuse we fabricated in order for us to get this jeep and get down there!”
“We just went down, prowled around to see what we could find out, then we reported to the company commander, ‘This is what we saw, this is what we found.’”
They saw a lot of destruction in and around the Anchorage Borough to include the newly-constructed J.C. Penney department store, which had to be torn down because it was totally ruined by the earthquake. He said some of the exterior walls fell down, exposing the merchandise inside.
“You could stand there across the street, and look up there, and say ‘Oh yeah, there’s the shoe racks, women’s dresses,’ and some of those facings came down and crushed at least one car, and killed one person.”
He saw a newly constructed automobile dealership building located adjacent to the Merrill Field airport decimated. Another brand-new apartment building downtown awaiting its grand opening, which was scheduled for Monday of the following week, was completely destroyed as well.
The landscape at what is now Earthquake Park, and areas of the Turnagain Arm at the Cook Inlet, were forever changed by the quake.
According to Vozka, the underlying soil in the area, called Bootlegger Cove Clay, which is high in water content, turns into a gelatinous form when shaken.
“We watched people trying to pick up the remains of their houses that just cascaded down that hillside.”
He talked about sections of the Old Seward Highway that were partially covered in seawater from the downward-shifted land. He said fishermen who wanted to fish salmon on the Russian River had to time their trips in conjunction with the tide so they could get back home during low tide.
Vozka and his wife, Kay, who were married in 2006, make their home in Anchorage. Kay is also a military veteran, having served 14 years in the U.S. Navy. She withstands the harsh winters in Alaska with memories of her extensive arctic experience. Part of her military career was spent as the deputy dispersing officer with Naval Support Services, Antarctica, where she visited the Earth’s South Pole.
She said at the time of the Great Alaskan Earthquake, she was living in California. She always dreamed about fishing with her older brother in Alaska, so she moved to Alaska after she got out of the Navy.
“I thought that after my time down in Antarctica, that if I could stand that then I could stand Alaska, so I came up here.”
Kay said she is thankful her husband was not injured during the earthquake.
“I’m just glad he survived through it, you know, and didn’t go down in a big, deep crack.”
Vozka closed with some simple earthquake advice.
“Stay calm, and be prepared.”