11. March 2011 · Comments Off on Shaker of Worlds · Categories: Air Force, General, Good God, Memoir, Military

I was stationed for four years at Misawa AB, in the very north of Japan, from early 1977 until the very end of 1980. It’s a very rural part of Japan, relatively speaking; very cold in the winter. Misawa was a pretty smallish city, as Japan goes, about seven or eight miles from the coast; the countryside around is as flat as a pancake, and not terribly far above sea-level. There was a nice little mountain range to the north, within a short drive; very scenically wooded. Up to the mountains to see Lake Towada, over the mountains to Mutsu Bay; it was a very pleasant place to spend four years: Misawa’s mission then was as a security service base; a support system for a huge monitoring complex called the Elephant Cage, or just “the Hill.” Which was maybe thirty feet above sea level, which was enough to constitute a considerable height in that part of Japan.

The next big city to the south of Misawa City though – that would be Hachinohe; which was known for a peculiar style of carved and painted wooden horse sculpture. In the late 19th century and into the 20th, Hachinohe was horse-country, and the original Imperial Army establishment at Misawa had been a cavalry post. The next big city to the south after Hachinohe is Sendai – closest to the epicenter of the latest earthquake. It looks from the news headlines that a whole train full of passengers is now missing, from near Sendai. I visited Hachinohe once, maybe Sendai, too. Coming back from leave Stateside, I traveled by train from Tokyo to Misawa, coming home from leave, so I must have passed through there at least once.

There were constant small earthquakes, all during my time there; most usually just a small rattle and shake, rather like being inside a small frame building with a heavy truck rumbling past outside. In fact, sometimes it was hard to tell of it was an earthquake, or a heavy truck, the physical sensation was so similar. If we hadn’t heard a truck, then it was an earthquake. Slightly more emphatic earthquakes shifted furniture, sometimes . . . and at the old AFRTS radio/TV station where I worked, our usual indicator that it was a serious shake would be rolls of teletype paper falling off the shelves of the tall metal bookshelves where they were stored. If the paper rolls began toppling from the shelves, it was time to vacate the building. Which isn’t the recommended practice, generally – but in this particular case, there was an extenuating circumstance. That would be that the base water-tower sat about 100 feet away from the station, a creaky wooden water-tower standing on spindly 90 foot tall wooden supports. If there was ever a shake hard enough to collapse those spindly frame supports, there were good odds that however-many gallons of water in that tower would pour onto a rattle-trap frame building stuffed full of powered-up electronic equipment. So – mad dash by all staff, when stuff started rocking hard enough to fall from shelves.

Being from California, and having been through some small quakes and the big Sylmar shake in 1971 – I could be fairly blasé about the whole Pacific Rim of Fire/seismically active thing. Many of the other members of the unit weren’t – not at first. But with little ones, all the time – they’d get pretty blasé after a couple of months. But every once in a while, there would be much bigger one, which would grab everyone’s attention; once it was a pair of tremors on a Tuesday evening, almost exactly an hour apart; that was a quake which collapsed a department store in Hachinohe, or Sendai. Another time, a girl was briefly trapped in her barracks room, because her dresser slid across and blocked the door. Another shock caught one barracks resident in the middle of a shower; she shot straight out of the bathroom, down the corridor and out of the building, stark naked.

The one thing that struck me about the big quakes was that there really was a noise to them; an absolutely horrific noise. The one thing that I can easily compare it to is to imagine standing on the platform of a railway station, when a long fast train roars straight through the station without stopping. That’s what it sounds like – a long, rumbling and roaring sound; of course, part of this noise is the sound of things falling. In the Sylmar quake, I remember hearing the sounds of the sash-springs in the window-frames rattling like mad. And unlike all those movies of earthquakes – people don’t run and scream much. Most usually, they are getting underneath something, and trying to make themselves small, maybe shouting to someone in the same room or in the same building to do the same – but no running and screaming like a banshee.

This quake off the coast of Japan was several times the magnitude, and the pictures and video emerging are horrific. 8.8 on the Richter scale is something almost impossible to imagine – and to be compounded by tsunamis sweeping in from the sea, and the debris catching on fire – that just adds to the horror.

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