Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
Anchorage has been visited by a surprising number of foreign royalty, even if most of their stays were brief. Some of the notables include the newlywed Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko of Japan, who paid $50 for some ivory carvings at a gift shop during an hour-and-a-half layover in 1960. Four years later, King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola of Belgium spent the night at Elmendorf Air Force Base, a respite from their lengthy travels from Europe to Tokyo. They also had enough time for a downtown helicopter tour.
In 1975, King Olav V of Norway visited Anchorage. Forty years later, his son, King Harald V, visited Anchorage and Homer, thus becoming the first reigning monarch to see the latter.
After the 1970 world’s fair in Osaka, Japan, Prince Charles, son of Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain, devoted an over-scheduled hour to Anchorage while on his way home. Despite the limited time, he fit in a downtown tour and a stroll in Elderberry Park with Anchorage Mayor George Sullivan. Prince Charles was then the heir to the British throne. More than 50 years later, he still is, thanks to his mother’s legendary longevity. The queen herself stopped here in 1975, also on her way home from Japan. However, she did not leave the aircraft’s royal bedchamber.
The most historic royal visit to Anchorage came on Sept. 26, 1971. Emperor Hirohito of Japan met President Richard Nixon in an Elmendorf hangar. For Hirohito, the relatively short stop was the first stage of a global tour. Yet, the occasion was also momentous, the first time a Japanese monarch had ever set foot outside Japan.
And then there was the King of Nepal, Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev. Nepal is a comparatively small Asian nation nestled between China and India. It is best known for Mount Everest, which lies on the border between Nepal and China. In 1967, King Mahendra and his wife, Queen Ratna, visited the United States. There were some work aspects to the trip, including a meeting with President Lyndon Johnson. But the real goal was hunting.
Mahendra ascended to the throne in 1956 after the death of his father, King Tribhuvan. The most significant point of his reign came in 1960 when he orchestrated a coup that eliminated political parties only a year after the first democratic elections in the nation’s history. The new politicians had immediately set about reforming the country in ways that threatened the social and economic standing of the pre-existing elite, of which the king was naturally a member. So, the new politicians had to go. In other words, Mahendra was not known for his character even before his Alaska adventure.
From Washington, D.C., Mahendra flew to Alaska aboard Air Force One at an estimated cost of $50,000 ($406,000 in 2021 dollars), a burden borne entirely by American taxpayers. This uncompensated and unrequited largesse set the tone for the king’s time in Alaska.
Mahendra and his retinue arrived in Anchorage on Nov. 9, 1967. Nepali flags, donated by the State Department, flew alongside American flags around the city hall block for the duration of his stay. A procession of black limousines ferried the king and queen around town, including to the Hotel Captain Cook, which operated as their home base. The Anchorage Daily Times opined, “There could hardly be a better promotional effort by the state than to have the king here.”
Though the royals spent about three weeks in Alaska, they only planned for four days in Anchorage. Shortly after arriving, they were off hunting, accompanied by Al Burnett, their primary guide. Chosen from a list carefully crafted by a team of federal agencies, Burnett, a tall and lean Navy veteran, towered over the slightly pudgy monarch. The State Department spent days training the guide on the necessary protocol, including Hindu taboos, dietary restrictions and a “thousand other things.”
Apart from etiquette, Burnett was faced with a mountain of more basic, logistical problems. The timing of the visit, so late in the year, increased the risk of nasty weather. In addition, the king provided a lengthy list of desired trophies, including two each of Kodiak bears, sea lions, moose, wolves, walruses, Dall sheep, goats, black bears, grizzlies, elk and musk oxen. That wish list contained several apparent conflicts in seasonal availability and legality. The State Department, eager to impress a head of state with the majesty of the United States, overrode every complaint.
While the federal and state agencies bent over backward to accommodate Mahendra — a complimentary hunting license was issued — Burnett negotiated with the Nepali Embassy on payment. They agreed that Burnett, as the primary architect of the itinerary, would cover all direct and indirect costs of the expedition. In return, he would receive costs plus 15% and a $5,000 bonus ($40,600 in 2021) if the experience was “reasonably successful.”
While the press described the king and queen as accomplished hunters, the reality was quite a bit more complicated. The frustrated Burnett explained to the Los Angeles Times in 1969, “They’re used to hunting in a different way, used to waiting in a comfortable machan or on the backs of elephants for their shikaris to drive game to them. The elephants and drivers go in months in advance and drive game into a tight circle. Then Their Majesties fly in by ‘copter and take the best of them.” Alaska-style hunting, this was not.
The king was also physically limited. Per Burnett, “His eyesight is poor ... so he doesn’t spot game easily. He’s the kind of hunter you take out there and get him real close and say, ‘OK — shoot.’”
The royals had indeed killed tigers in Nepal, tigers that were paraded in front of them. In that way, Queen Ratna indeed killed a bear in Alaska, but from a Department of the Interior plane that landed on top of the corpse. Said Burnett, “It isn’t legal to spot (bears) from a plane or make any use of planes in the hunt. Well, that’s all we done.”
Burnett was in a jam. On one side, there were the royals who expected their trophies regardless of laws. And on the other side were the American officials who insisted that the royals be kept happy. And so, Burnett largely gave up on rules. Planes were used extensively. Game was killed in closed areas, including an illegal if unsuccessful wolf hunt near Talkeetna.
They also hunted on Kodiak, in the Alaska Peninsula and near Lake George. As Burnett feared, storms prevented them from completing Mahendra’s trophy checklist. Still, the royals did take home trophies from moose, caribou, mountain goat and two bears.
However, there is no such thing as a quiet Nepali royal hunting expedition in Alaska. Complaints gathered and finally began to awaken politicians to both the broken laws and the money spent on a foreign national.
Meanwhile, the costs continued to rise, most of which were signed for by Burnett. The more extravagant purchases included $80 dinner table flower arrangements and $96 purple bananas from Hawaii. The royals had money. An attendant followed them on their shopping excursions with a bag filled with traveler’s checks. Yet, the far majority of the spending went on the mounting tab.
Finally, on Nov. 30, 1967, the king, queen and entourage left Alaska to begin their long trip home. By then, the pomp had declined. Instead of limos, they rode to the airport in Air Force sedans. Instead of Air Force One, they took a commercial Western Airlines flight to Seattle.
Burnett soon presented an itemized bill for more than $60,000 (about $485,500 in 2021) to the Nepali Embassy. It was rejected. Burnett cut his profits and returned with a new $45,000 invoice. Despite public promises from embassy officials, no payment came. The delay turned into silence. Burnett did not get his money, which meant hundreds of other Alaskans also were not paid.
Kodiak Mayor Pete Deveau said, “Everybody here knocked themselves out for (King Mahendra), and then he doesn’t pay his bills.” Hans Beckerwerth, general manager of Hickel Hotels, which included the Hotel Captain Cook, was blunter. “We’ve been had,” he declared.
The impact upon Burnett is best described by the man himself, again from the lengthy 1969 Los Angeles Times coverage. “I couldn’t pay an attorney, couldn’t buy a plane ticket or even pay my long-distance phone bill,” said Burnett in the dismal aftermath. “Nine years of work and about a $60,000 investment in my guide territory were swept away. I’d lost my plane — couldn’t keep up the payments — lost my boats and engines, even a collection of (Alaska Native) artifacts I had. My bank account, what there was of it, was grabbed and guide fees put in escrow as fast as I earned them. My credit got so bad I couldn’t lay in groceries to feed my hunters.”
He continued, “I’ve still got more than $20,000 I’m personally responsible for, and I’ll pay it if it takes me the rest of my life. Lots of creditors were willing to take half and forget it, but others are still suing me.”
With the Nepali royals back in Nepal, the State Department informed Burnett that the bill was his problem. By 1968, various congressmen asked for action on the debacle, and Burnett was the only one available to be punished. In January 1969, his guide license was revoked. It was clear that the king would have left Alaska without any trophies if they had followed all laws and regulations.
Despite everything, Burnett claimed he had no lingering animosity toward the monarchs. As far as he was concerned, Mahendra was “a real nice little guy.” “They’re cushioned from everything that goes on around them,” explained Burnett, “spending their evenings playing some sort of card game and poring over wish books — mail order catalogs. As far as they were concerned, it was a real good hunt.”
Burnett spent some time as a carpenter in the Lower 48 before returning to Alaska as a bush pilot. King Mahendra suffered a fatal heart attack in 1972, coincidentally while hunting. He died still owing his roughly 100 Alaskan creditors. His 1967 visit to Alaska left a trail of wreckage in its wake and was certainly the worst royal visit to this state. His last communication with Burnett was a note in the mail. All it said was “Happy New Year.”
Armstrong, Michael. “Norwegian King Scheduled to Visit Homer Next Week.” Homer News, May 22, 2015, homernews.com/news/norwegian-king-scheduled-to-visit-homer-next-week.
Brennan, Tom. “King and Queen Leave After Alaska Hunt.” Anchorage Daily Times, November 30, 1967, 1.
Brennan, Tom. “King of Nepal Chose Burnett from List of 16 Alaska Guides.” Anchorage Daily Times, November 8, 1967, 1, 2.
Connelly, Dolly. “The Animal Now is a Trophy of the King of Nepal. The Guide Now is a Trophy of Government Bureaucracy.” West [Los Angeles Times insert], April 6, 1969, 8-13.
Gross, Dan. “Death of King of Nepal Leaves Bite in Pockets.” Anchorage Daily News, February 2, 1972, 2.
Hutt, Michael. “King Gyanendra’s Coup and its Implications for Nepal’s Future.” Brown Journal of World Affairs 12, no. 1 (2005): 111-123.
“King Olav’s Visit Will Top Those of Yesteryear.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 25, 1975, 11.
“A Royal Welcome.” Anchorage Daily Times, November 9, 1967, 4.