By Ernest B. Woodward: To write what one has actually experienced is often very difficult. In the following account of our experiences I have endeavored to portray as nearly as I can to the readers of the Era, just how we felt, how we were delivered from death and destruction when two thirds of the city of Tokyo was destroyed by fire following the earthquake of September 1, 1923. My desire is that what I write may be of help to those who shall read it, and that the testimony of my brethren here in Tokyo, myself included, may cause someone to think seriously of the wonders of God.
What a horrifying thing to most of us! If you have ever experienced such a thing, you will understand me when I say that they make one feel so small, so insignificant, that you wonder how you ever thought yourself so much! To me earthquakes are not novel, having experienced many since coming to Japan, but experience only seems to teach me fear. Is it a fear of death? In a sense, Yes! Yet in another, No! I don't fear death half so much as I fear being maimed for life. That is why I fear earthquakes so badly!
Usually, much the same as the hiss of a rattlesnake, there is some sort of warning before an earthquake, but this time there was no such thing. As from apparently nowhere it came. Into nowhere it went; but what a difference!
I was writing letters; had been, all morning. Suddenly without warning, the house gave a terrific lurch! Pictures crashed to the floor, smashing the glass, giving rise to more confusion! The plaster swayed, then breaking loose crashed to the floor! Books, chairs, in fact everything which could fall, tumbled to the floor, making it apparent that one should not be inside!
By this time the oscillations had increased, until it was next to impossible for one to stand or walk! To remain inside seemed folly. Might not the house collapse? Might not a thousand other unexpected things happen? Apparent safety awaited us outside, but was it safety? Suddenly a crash from outside, as a pile of roof-tile fell to the ground right where we might have been, had we followed our first impulse and rushed out! That was sufficient! We decided to take our chances inside! In readiness we stood by the open door and waited, what seemed an age, while the earth pitched and rolled! The house rattled and creaked! While the din from the earthquake itself was most deafening!
How long we waited none of us know, but it seemed ages! When at last the earth regained itself we went outside! What a sight greeted our eyes! In one corner of the lot, through a small aperture in the fence, the people of the neighborhood were filing in! Their faces blanched, their step uncertain, they came into the lot to look around at what had once been their home! The sight was almost more than one could stand, and yet one couldn't help but admire. Almost every-one carried a baby, leaning far over its squirming form to protect it from flying bits of houses, or falling roof tiles. It was a sight which will remain with me through life.
Another terrific jerk and we were in the midst of another one! Another kind of fear betook us! We had heard of the ground opening up and letting people in! This one, however, didn't last as long as the other, so our fears were stilled for a moment. Only for a moment, though! No sooner had this one ceased than another followed! This followed by another, and another until one lost the count! (The Meteorological Observatory reported 356 shocks on the 1st; 289 on the 2nd; and 173 on the 3rd.) Thus were our fears kept alive throughout the day and night, until one almost wished the first shock had been successful? But still we were worth three dead men yet, so we decided to live on!
"A fire! Tokyo is on fire! Entire down-town district in flames!" was the news that greeted us, as a dense cloud of smoke began to arise in that direction. But we had work at home! No! Our house was not on fire, but not far away the district was already in flames! The earthquake had caused a panic. People had left their homes, and being the noon-hour a fire burned in every house. The houses had collapsed with the first hard shake, and fire came as a natural result. Almost before it could be realized, fire had broken out in every part of the city!
At the first alarms, the firemen gallantly rushed to the scene! They fought bravely! They pitted their strength and wisdom against that of the onrushing adversary! It was a battle in which the fates of thousands were to be determined! Ah! It couldn't go to the foe! The lives of thousands of Tokyo's citizens hung in the balance, and it seemed the firemen were winning, when an unlooked for thing happened! The supply of water, the City water-works, was dry! The first severe shock had disabled the pumps, and fifteen minutes of fire-fighting in all parts of the city, had been sufficient to exhaust the supply!
Not to be beaten by this disastrous stroke of fate, the firemen moved to points of vantage and set their powerful pumps to work pumping water from the moats and rivers. This, however, had given the fire more chance, and fanned by the ever changing wind, it had raced on! When the fight was again resumed, it was apparent that the men had lost ground! They fought a gallant fight! They dynamited buildings in a last effort to cut off its onslaught, but to no avail! Pushed by the wind which had almost reached the velocity of a gale, the flames jumped these gaps, crossed over streets, streams and alleys where, joined by other fires, it had by nightfall united into one mighty conflagration!
As viewed from the hill at Hanzomon that night, it was one seething ocean of fire! It seemed to completely surround the Imperial Palace, which had proved a haven of retreat to thousands who had rushed to its spacious grounds for protection. It was a veritable hell on earth! Occasionally, through a rift in the smoke and flame, a familiar building could be seen, only to be enveloped instantly again in the surging sea of flame!
Its roar was like that of an angry sea beating against the rocks! Its light, low and mellow, was like a twilight afterglow! It was awful! Think of the lives of men and beasts being sacrificed in that angry flame! Think of the property, that which man had prided himself in, being reduced to ashes! Is it any wonder that the people of Tokyo, finding no solution for the thing, groped around for something upon which to lay the blame, and finding nothing else but the Koreans, mobbed and slew them? No! For the deafening roar, the blinding smoke, and terrible suspense that the people were in, was enough to drive people insane. They were insane, and the poor Koreans suffered! God alone knows how many of these people were put to death during the first three days of the fire! It was a false alarm, and even the Japanese themselves do not try to justify it now, but the innocent Koreans were dragged from their homes, to be beaten and kicked by a raving mob, until blessed unconsciousness rendered their suffering nil, and death in the end brought release from an existence among an unfriendly and unforgiving people. God alone must judge them and their offenders, for we in our weak mortal state, are prone to err in such cases. That the Japanese were in their own minds justified, we cannot say, but the facts in the case have proved the Koreans to be innocent of any offense, and the Japanese wholly the aggressors.
While this war on the Koreans raged heavily, the fire had not ceased! Indeed, if that be possible, it had increased its speed! Certainly it had grown broader! By day dense clouds of black smoke rolled forth to proclaim itself to the world, that Tokyo still burned! By night, a light almost to defy the powers of the sun, proclaimed the same sad story! Oh! That I might tell you of my feelings at this time, but I cannot! Words refuse to describe such things, and in fact, even now, I cannot understand what they were.
For three days and nights the onslaught continued! At the end, a blessed downpour of rain, when there was but little left to burn, succeeded in extinguishing the once mighty conflagration. It had done its work! It had won the battle and had raced on until there was nothing left but smouldering ruins of the once great Tokyo, the pride of all Japan. Even the godowns were burned! In fact there was nothing left of over two-thirds of the once fair city, but ashes and broken-down ruins. What it had taken men three hundred years to build, fire destroyed in three days! It seems impossible, and yet the facts are before our eyes! After all, what are the things of this life worth anyway? Were it not for our hope in Christ, is there anything in this life worth striving for? I fear, after seeing such wholesale destruction of life and property, we are forced to say there is not.
It is all over now! The former spirit of defiance has changed to one of weeping. Tokyo has changed from the once proud Metropolis of the Far East, to the city of Ruins and Dead! Her people no longer boast of her wealth and beauty. Those who are left walk the streets, searching for loved ones, searching for something which might give them the wherewith to buy their food, or searching in the midst of ruins for something, they know not what! The spirit of sorrow permeates the entire population, as they go about their sad task of locating and burying the dead.
We went out to see to what extent our field of labor had been destroyed, and in our walk, (there was no other means of traveling) we crossed the Sumida river into Monjo ward. It was in this vicinity, near the Ryogoku station, in a small open place called Shifukusho, that one of the saddest scenes that has ever been enacted in the history of the world, took place! Honjo-ku, unlike most of the other residence districts of Tokyo, has no parks. The population is, or rather was, extremely dense. At the outbreak of fire, the people fled in every direction, but escape was impossible! They were trapped like rats, and would eventually die in the flames, which by this time had surrounded them! Then a hope sprang in their hearts! The police were directing them to Shifukusho!
Into this small open place they crowded by the thousands! Surely this was a haven of retreat! But alas, they were to be sadly disappointed! Closer and closer closed the fire! It was coming, but they would be spared! Parents huddled around their offspring in an effort to protect them from the intense heat! It was terrible, but they would have stood it perhaps, if cruel fate had not played them another trick! They had carried with them their belongings! These caught fire and together with the extreme heat charred them in their very tracks! When we visited them a week later, their charred bodies huddled together in small groups, told this awful tale in words more powerful than man's. Think of it! Forty four thousand people charred beyond recognition in one little place! The awfulness of it cannot be fully comprehended even by those who have seen it, so I fear you will not be able to, but you might try.
The stench was unbearable, while the sight was one which, though I live to be a hundred, I will never fully erase from my memory! We moved on, only to find more dead! Dead everywhere! The Sumida river seemed full, as the tide came in carrying them back up where rescue workers fished them out and piled them in piles along the bank, where later soldiers cremated them with kerosene! The horrible expression of agonizing pain upon the face of every one told what a terrible death they suffered. We can never understand it, for none have ever been through it and told us of its pain. All we are able to do is to let our imagination run to the extreme, and then it cannot fathom the depth of suffering those thousands under-went.
Ruins and destruction faced us on every hand! Just as far as the eye could carry you, nothing but ruins! We climbed the hill at Ueno park, where thousands had sought refuge and had found it. From here we could see out across the river to the east. Nothing but ruins! Below us lay the Ueno station, now a heap of twisted iron and stone! To the south, just as far as one could see, lay the ghastly ruins of Manseibashi station and vicinity! To the north more ruins, and to the west still more! It is impossible to calculate the number of lives this one high tableland saved, but it must almost reach into the millions. The other large parks in the city which did similar duty were Kudan, Hibiya and Shiba. It is a conceded fact that had Tokyo had more of these spacious parks, the death list would not have reached the high mark it did. However that is a problem for the future when Tokyo once more becomes the pride of the entire nation.
Our duty now was to find the Saints and investigators. We had been joined by the missionaries from the other conferences. President Lloyd O. Ivie and Elder Vinal G. Mauss traveled from Sapporo to Tokyo riding part of the way in freight cars, in order to find out for sure just how we four who were in Tokyo at the time, had fared. They were joined at Sendai by Elders Hicken and Holley. We were joined later by Elders Robertson and Jensen of the Osaka conference. It was a meeting of joy and gladness, when we saw the brethren come in just one week to the day after the disaster. We had been unable to send them word of any kind, all telegraphic communications having been cut off at the quake.
President Ivie called a meeting on Sunday and it was decided to visit the Saints. We were paired off and sent out on our errands of mercy to those Saints from whom we had received no word nor had previously visited. Our search was rewarded in every case but one, by finding the Saints safe and well. In this case, the house had been burned and the sister had gone to the home of her father, which thing we learned later.
Of all the Saints in the city of Tokyo, only one lost her home. Not one was killed, in fact not one received even a scratch. So far as we have been able to learn only one of our investigators lost his home by fire, he and his little boy not being home. We have searched the city over, and as yet we have our first one of our Saints or investigators to find dead.
This has been a testimony to me, that God does look after his people. That where people are assembled together in his name there will his Spirit be also. That even in our weakness if we err, if we repent thoroughly, we are forgiven. It has proved to me more forcefully than any other thing ever did before, just how utterly futile man's efforts are against the elements! It has shown me that the things of this life are easily destroyed, and that if we have not hope in a life after death, we have very little to look forward to. But there is a life after death! If there is none, then how are we going to reconcile ourselves to the fact that over two hundred thousand people's lives have been thus taken away from them before they were ready to die? That 316,087 homes were destroyed, and 1,356,740 people were made homeless in the recent fire.
My brethren and sisters, the signs of the times predict that the advent of the Son of God is near at hand. Listen to the following:
"Abide ye in the liberty wherewith ye are made free; entangle not yourselves in sin, but let your hands be clean, until the Lord comes. For not many days hence and the earth shall tremble and reel to and fro as a drunken man; and the sun shall hide his face, and shall refuse to give light; and the moon shall be bathed in blood; and the stars shall become exceedingly angry, and shall cast themselves down as a fig that falleth from off a fig-tree. And after your testimony cometh wrath and indignation upon the people. For after your testimony cometh the testimony of earthquakes, that shall cause groanings in the midst of her, and men shall fall upon the ground and shall not be able to stand. And also cometh the testimony of the voice of thunderings, and the voice of lightnings, and the voice of tempests, and the voice of the waves of the sea heaving themselves beyond their bounds. And all things shall be in commotion; and surely, men's hearts shall fail them; for fear shall come upon all people." (D. & C. 88:86-91.)
This prophecy has, at least in part, been fulfilled before our very eyes! Can we stand and doubt more?
We must reap while the day lasts. We must keep our lamp trimmed, for "no man knoweth the hour." Let us be up and doing. God has spoken to us by the voice of earthquakes, thunderings, and by tidal waves! He has warned us and all people that greater calamities shall come if they do not turn from their ways of sin and wickedness. The time is short, and there is much to do to prepare the nations for the advent of our Lord.
In regard to the work here, I have great hope. I feel this has been the turning point. I feel the people of this nation can see wherein 'tis folly to trust in earthly things. I hope so, at least. I hope that through this it will be easier to reach the hearts of the people with the message of truth; for if not, all these lives have been sacrificed in vain! Such can never be! In the great economy of the Lord, it was necessary that all of these should die, in order that the others might find themselves. We must do the rest. Let us go forth rejoicing, and bear our message to them in plainness without fear and without shame. For we can all say as Paul of old, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth." (Rom. 1:16.)
The missionaries in Tokyo at the time of the earthquake were: Elders Ernest B. Woodward, Rulon C. Esplin, Milton B. Taylor, and Lewis H. Moore. (Improvement Era, December 1932)