Unalaska seeks funds for a hospital from U.S., Japanese governments

Jim Paulin | Dutch Harbor Fisherman

The history of World War II in the Aleutians is the driving force behind proposals to build a hospital in the state's only region without one.

Plans are moving forward to build a regional hospital in Unalaska, local residents were told at a meeting last week where a teleconference brought in some of the key officials who were stuck in Anchorage because of flight cancellations caused by Pavlof volcano's eruption.

The airborne volcanic ash caused a few problems but nothing like the war planes that flew out of the clouds 72 years ago, leading to a revisiting of the "Forgotten War" in the islands, with a request for American and Japanese help in finally getting another hospital.

Unalaska's last community hospital was destroyed by Japanese bombs in 1942, and now Aleut organizations are seeking federal funds as phase three of war reparations, according to representatives of the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska and the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association.

In 1988 and 1994, Congress provided restitution, first to Aleut individuals, and then six years later amended the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands Restitution Act with money for restoring churches damaged during the war.

The hospital site selection has been narrowed to two undisclosed properties, down from four, owned by the Ounalashka Corp. The properties are in the hills 50 feet above sea level, beyond the range of giant tsunami waves, corporation chairman Vincent Tutiakoff said at last Friday's meeting at the senior center, attended by about 60 residents. He said a new hospital has been under consideration for the past five years.

The two potential hospital grounds were not identified.

"We will disseminate that information at a later date," said Tom Robinson, Qawalangin Tribe president. He hopes to see the hospital opening in 2017.

The new hospital would "tremendously" increase local employment, with 250 to 300 jobs, said Vernon Rosamond, who attended telephonically from Anchorage and is helping coordinate the project with APIA. He estimated the hospital's cost at $88.7 million and said the commercial fishing industry is being asked for help.

Rosamond said he planned to meet with the executive director of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association and ask for a contribution of $500,000 for hospital planning efforts. PSPA represents seafood processing companies in Unalaska.

The hospital would have six to 10 beds and provide primary care, emergency care and other services, "what you'd expect to find in a small community hospital," said Rosamond.

Routine surgical procedures like appendectomies could be performed, he said, but "no heart surgery, no brain surgery."

Rosamond said finding construction money might prove easier than obtaining the annual funding for paying doctors and nurses and other expenses. Rukovishnikoff said the new facility would be appropriately sized for the rural region, not a "Taj Mahal."

Representatives of Unalaska's health clinic, Iliiuliuk Family Health Services, attended the recent meeting, including executive director Eileen Conlon Scott and board chair Michelle Cochran.

The clinic's board plans to discuss the matter in August, Cochran said.

Close cooperation between IFHS and APIA is a requirement, Rosamond said.

Robinson reported strong support for a hospital from U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski but said he's not sure about Sen. Mark Begich. "It's hard to get the gist of how Sen. Begich feels about this," he said.

Rosamond said the hospital would serve a total population of about 15,000 in the Aleutians and Pribilofs, including 8,700 year-round residents and an additional 6,000 to 8,000 seasonal workers primarily in the seafood industry.

Another APIA representative calling in from Anchorage, Jessica Rukovishnikoff, said financial assistance is also being sought from Japan. During a meeting with a Japanese diplomat, she said, the hospital delegation was "very well received," although the attache was a bit surprised at the request.

"We don't build hospitals in America, we build hospitals in the Third World," was his initial reaction, Rukovishnikoff said, although he seemed to warm up to their ideas and said he'd write a letter to the Japanese seafood plant owners.

Rukovishnikoff said the group took a positive approach, emphasizing Japanese ownership of the three big plants in Unalaska -- Unisea, Westward and Alyeska -- rather than saying too much about that country's responsibility for the destruction of the former Bureau of Indian Affairs hospital at the current site of Alyeska Seafoods.

After the bombing of one end of the hospital, the building was demolished by the U.S. Navy.

An apartment building for Alyeska workers now sits atop the concrete foundation that once supported the hospital, according to a photograph presented last month at a slide show by local historian Jeff Dickerell at Unalaska School.

"APIA seeks to amend the Restitution Act with specific language and funding aimed at addressing the reconstruction of the hospital in Unalaska and health clinic in Atka," association president Dimitri Philemonof said in a March 14 written statement.

"The World War II era, and its horrific impacts on this beautiful, geographically and physically remote area of Alaska, is one of the least-known chapters of American history. President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942. The order gave the secretary of war and the military commanders to whom he delegated authority the power to exclude 'any and all persons' from designated areas in order to provide security against sabotage and espionage. The Aleutian and Pribilof Islands were included in these designated areas," according to Philemonof.

Aleuts were involuntarily relocated to camps in Southeast Alaska, where 10 percent died, housed in "extremely crowded, unheated abandoned buildings ... sanitation conditions were horrible -- in one case there was one outhouse for over 200 people," Philemonof said.

The mortality rate was much higher for the Aleuts taken as Japanese prisoners of war from Attu, where over 50 percent, or 22 of the 42 Natives, died, he said.

"From this two-track approach -- federal legislation and engagement with the Japanese government -- APIA intends to right these historic wrongs in Unalaska and Atka. The time is now," Philemonof said.

"The residents of Atka were forcibly evacuated from the island, and the United States Navy burned the island to the ground, including the health clinic, to prevent its use by the Japanese government," Philemonof said.

The village of Atka, 350 miles west of Unalaska, was rebuilt after the war. APIA wants to replace the existing crowded clinic with a larger facility.

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.

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