The captain of the Kennecott was best known for the smile permanently fixed to his face. That and the habit of stuffing newspapers beneath his clothing rather than wear a proper sea coat on the bridge. Laughing John they called him. His officers said they had never seen him without that smile until the night the Kennecott wrecked on the shoals of Queen Charlotte Island but I think it first faded in Yokohama.
The Kennecott was the pride of the Western fleet. Modern—the first deepwater vessel to burn heavy crude in her diesel engines, fast—turning better than 12 knots on her sea trial, and expensive—she cost the Alaska Steamship Company $1.2 million when she was launched from the Todd Shipyards of Tacoma in 1920. She was also the pride of her captain.
September 1, 1923 was a Saturday, hot and humid. The Kennecott was still a day out of Yokohama, in deep water, and never felt the tsunami generated when the submarine fault slipped in Sagami Bay at 11:58 a.m. local time. The earthquake measured 8.3 on the Richter scale. In a moment the floor of Sagami Bay was displaced over 700 feet; submarine ridges were abruptly upthrust 180-300 feet; the shore buckled by as much as 24 feet.
A commuter train overturned and fell into the sea carrying 500 passengers. Others were buried alive when train tunnels collapsed.
Within a few minutes of the event tsunamis 16 feet tall swept the shore. The anchor rodes of many ships in the harbor parted. Oil from ruptured storage tanks spilled into the harbor and ignited. Wooden sampans burned like torches.
In the Honjo and Fukagawa districts of Tokyo, 30,00 refugees clutching whatever belongings they could salvage from the wreckage were herded into an open park by the encircling fire storms. Their piteous belongings served only as fuel. They were asphyxiated where they stood, praying for some unlikely salvation or cursing whatever god had abandoned them. Their bodies, piled like windrows, were incinerated.
It was an unimaginable catastrophe. The final estimates were 100,000 dead and another 40,000 missing, presumed dead, their bodies drifting with the tide, buried beneath the rubble, or burnt to ashes.
It was like anchoring at the gates of hell.
The Kennecott arrived next day and dropped anchor at the gates of hell. The bay was choked with debris and bodies coated with crude oil. The mass of refuse moved sluggishly with the tide. Yokohama burned. Yellow dust raised by the collapsed buildings mixed with smoke and everywhere there was the smell of charred flesh.
Captain Johnson touched the horror. Sampans full of the dispossessed crowded alongside his ship begging for food and refuge. The Kennecott was a cargo vessel, strictly beholding to the profit margin of her owners and unequipped for humanitarian aid. He refused them, turned them back to their likely death.
He went ashore to make arrangements to discharge his cargo into lighters. He saw the devastation—80% of the city leveled—and picked his way through ruptured streets choked with bodies and rubble. He probably saw mobs of enraged Japanese hunting Koreans. It was wildly rumored that Koreans were looting the dead, setting fires and poisoning the wells. Another 2,500 were murdered because they spoke Japanese with a Korean accent.
At night the city burned with a macabre beauty.
After several days of waiting in Yokohama harbor, fending off the dead and the dispossessed, the Kennecott offloaded her cargo and sailed in ballast for Cordova, Alaska. It was probably days at sea before the crew could clean the smell of death from the ship.
In Cordova she loaded copper ore for the Tacoma Smelter. On the passage south the captain, always a prudent navigator, missed Dixon Entrance while steering for the Inside Passage and piled his ship onto the shoals at the north end of the Queen Charlotte Islands. She was impaled on the rocks just offshore. The officers and crew escaped by breeches buoy from the bridge of the Kennecott to an offshore stack and from the stack to the beach. They survived two days on the wild western shore of the island, stoking large fires to keep the bears at bay, before being rescued.
Captain Johnson sat in the stern sheets of the motor launch that carried the Kennecott’s survivors to Prince Rupert. It was night and no one saw him slip overboard. At least, no one called out. Laughing John chose to end his life in the sea.
It might have been the loss of his ship, his pride, and possibly his livelihood that caused him to commit suicide. Certainly that was the opinion of many but I believe that devastation witnessed on such a scale can wound a man’s soul. It was not just the wreckage of the Kennecott that drove Captain Johnson to despair but the wreckage of Yokohama.