On June 3, 1942, the Japanese bombed the military base at Dutch Harbor, marking the beginning of World War II in Alaska. The attack continued the next day, with more bombs on the military base and the BIA hospital in Unalaska. With the Japanese military subsequently invading the islands of Attu and Kiska during the weeks that followed, the 880 Aleut residents of Unalaska and other villages in the Aleutian Islands were removed from their homes and taken to Southeast Alaska, where they remained for the end of the war. Seventy-five years later, on June 2-4, 2017, a remarkable three-day event in Unalaska commemorated the intertwined but very different stories of the military campaign and Aleut evacuation. This notable gathering included eight WWII veterans and 31 evacuees returning to the Aleutians from all over the United States. Some of the evacuees had remained in the Aleutians, including nine who lived in Unalaska, and six from the Pribilof Islands. It was a wonderful and powerful time of learning, peace and healing.
Most of the veterans and evacuees arrived in Unalaska on Thursday, and were met at the airport with cheers and applause, as well as with many hugs. So many participants flew in that day, including Bishop David, speakers and agency representatives, that we had to charter extra flights.
Perhaps the biggest stars of the event were the historical aircraft, the Harvard Trainer and the Grumman Goose, along with their pilots. The Commemorative Air Force, Alaska Wing launched the warbirds from Anchorage, and they completed their long trip to Unalaska two days before the Commemoration began. To the excitement of local residents and visitors alike they spent the next day taking passengers for rides in the air in exchange for donations. During the Commemoration they conducted flyovers and had a static aircraft display. The U.S. Coast Guard’s helicopter from the Midgett also participated in the flyovers.
The opening welcome messages set the tone for the events to follow. Vincent Tutiakoff, Sr., president of the OC board, Thomas Robinson, head of the Qawalangin Tribe, and Dimitri Philemonoff, CEO and President of the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, all of them sons of Aleut evacuees, told of the painful wartime experiences that had lasted into the present generation. Mayor Frank Kelty gave some background on Unalaska’s history and current economy. On Friday afternoon, Stan Cohen gave a presentation about World War II in Alaska, Rufina Shaishnikoff read a paper by Ray Hudson entitled Speaking of the Unspeakable, and Rachel Mason presented Charles Mobley’s paper on Aleut relocation camps in Southeast Alaska.
At the storytelling night on Friday vets and evacuees had an opportunity to share their memories, recorded by reporters from radio station KUBC. Some of the Aleut elders wept as they recalled relatives who had died in Southeast Alaska, or the damage they found to their houses and churches when they returned to the Aleutians. Others remembered the sudden orders to leave their homes, or life in shabby camps with few sanitary facilities. The veterans, too, told of their memories from 75 years ago. Toward the end, one of the veterans said that when he was in the Aleutians, he never knew why there were no Native people there. Until now, he never knew about Aleut evacuation. Similarly, many of the evacuees had never learned the perspectives of the young soldiers, many far away from home for the first time.
The next day the Aleutian weather intervened with a downpour. This did not stop the scheduled flyovers of historic aircraft, and many found the World War II Visitor Center to be the best roofed place in town to watch the Harvard, the Grumman Goose, and the Coast Guard helicopter fly by. The veterans went on a tour of the military ruins, which are recognized for their significance as a WWII National Historic Landmark and National Historic Area.
The noon meal, at the Senior Center was billed as a “Mess Hall Meal,” although the food, donated by Unisea, was better fare than most military meals. After eating, some of the WWII vets and other veterans told stories of their own experiences with food in the military.
On Saturday afternoon, Moses Dirks gave a presentation about changes in the dialects of Unangam Tunuu, focusing on the impacts of World War II on the language. Jeff Dickrell’s “World War II Story” offered an impressive collection of photographs of the Aleutian campaign, along with a unique perspective on the war. National Park Ranger Joshua Bell showed a short film based on his interviews with veterans, with additions from historical sources. The Ounalashka Corporation invited the participants in the Commemoration to the OC Banquet on Saturday night.
The Airmen Memorial Service was held in the Burma Road Chapel on Sunday morning, officiated by the Rev. Alan Davis. The service honored all fallen airmen of the Aleutian Campaign, and paid particular homage to Ernest Hickox, who died in a plane crash in Makushin in 1945, and the members of the Royal Canadian Air Force who were killed when their plane went down in 1942 on Unalaska Island. Both of these tragic losses were due to Aleutian weather, rather than from enemy fire. Veteran pilot Bob Brockelhurst said a few words about the dangers of flying in the Aleutians. Kaye Hickox, Captain Hickox’s daughter, read a remembrance of her father and played the piano. Karen Abel read a remembrance of the Canadian airmen.
The noon meal Sunday was a traditional Unangax̂ meal at the Senior Center, contributed and prepared by the Qawalangin tribe. Midway through the meal, a plane arrived carrying Governor Bill Walker and his wife Donna, Senator Lisa Murkowski, and State Representative and Speaker of the House Senator Bryce Edgmon. They were able to eat and greet the assembled group, before it was time for a Remembrance Walk to the High School. Bishop David and Father Evan Bereskin, along with members of the Holy Ascension Cathedral choir, led the group while singing.
The final ceremony was especially moving. Wreaths were placed on behalf of the Aleuts, the U.S. Armed Forces, the Coast Guard, the Canadians, and the Japanese. Names were read of the Allied military personnel who died in the bombing of Dutch Harbor, and of the Aleuts who died in camps and canneries in Southeast Alaska during the war years.
Throughout the three-day event, there were many examples of mutual learning and increased understanding between those with different experiences of the war years, including the Canadian and Japanese perspective as well as that of the American military and the Native people of the Aleutians. By sharing their stories of evacuation and honoring those who have passed, the commemoration brought peace and healing not only to the surviving evacuees, but to the following generations who inherited their parents’ and grandparents’ often unspoken suffering. By sharing their memories of defending their country 75 years ago, and retelling them in a spirit of compassion and learning, the veterans were an inspiration to us all.
The tremendous success of the event is testimony to the close partnership of the National Park Service and the Ounalashka Corporation in managing the Aleutian World War II National Historic Area, and it speaks well for future collaboration in the program. The Commemoration’s major sponsors were the National Park Service, the Ounalashka Corporation, and the City of Unalaska, with strong participation from the Alaska Veterans Museum, the Aleutian-Pribilof Island Association, the Qawalangin Tribe, the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association, the Aleut Corporation, and the Aleutian Pribilof Restitution Trust. The community of Unalaska, and its businesses and institutions, stepped up to make the event run incredibly smoothly. It was especially important to provide transportation for the elderly participants, and volunteers from Matson made that happen in an incredibly efficient way. Volunteers from the U.S. Coast Guard also helped in many ways. Thank you to all for your help with this historic commemoration!
Schedule of Events
Last updated: July 19, 2017