For decades, Gertrude Svarny has spent every Memorial Day placing small flags around the Unalaska cemetery by the graves of family members who served in the military. Even now, in her 90s, the annual rounds include hiking up a hill to an unmarked gravesite where, buried below the overgrown grass, lies her childhood acquaintance George, the only Unangan killed fighting during World War II.
“George was about eight years older than I, so our interaction took place mostly because he was best buds with my oldest brother Herbert,” said Svarny, a renowned artist whose works interpreting Unangax̂ culture and history are shown around the world.
Pvt. George Fox was born on Unga Island, near the community of Sand Point in the eastern Aleutians, and as a boy he moved with his mother to Unalaska. He joined the U.S. Army in 1941 and soldiered with the 179th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division, a combat unit that was instrumental in the campaign to punch through dense Axis fortifications in the invasion of southern Europe. He died June 1, 1944, in Italy just days before the Allies won a brutal, protracted campaign to oust fascist and Nazi forces to retake Rome.
For a long time, Svarny was the only one recognizing that service in any kind of visible way.
“It was just something that the family always did when I was growing up. George certainly deserved to be recognized and memorialized for his service to his country and his people,” Svarny said.
In spite of losing his life during the war, Fox’s grave lacks any of the military honors typically bestowed on soldiers killed in action. The transfer of his remains back to his home in the Aleutians was delayed and unceremonious. He, his family and community, according to people who have watched the story of his life and death unfold in recent years, have still not been given what they are owed.
A piece of that debt is set to be repaid this Memorial Day. After a yearslong campaign by researchers that ultimately reached the office of a U.S. senator, on Monday, Fox is set to be recognized with military honors, including a procession from Unalaska’s Russian Orthodox Church to the cemetery attended by military brass, federal and tribal officials, an Army band and Svarny.
“Some of us have been working on this since the year 2000,” said Dr. Michael Livingston, a cultural heritage specialist who works with the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association.
After learning about Fox’s service, Livingston was frustrated that the Unangax̂ war hero’s story bore no formal recognition. Fox’s name was not on memorial lists of soldiers killed in action in the war. Livingston tried over and over to convince the dense federal bureaucracy handling veterans benefits and records to acknowledge Fox, in the process compiling pages of decades-old evidence attesting to his service.
“Basically myself and other family-tree people were spinning our wheels, year after year,” Livingston said. “We were getting nothing.”
Eventually he connected with Rachel Bylsma, who at the time directed constituent services in U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan’s office. She and others on Sullivan’s staff had worked similar cases getting veterans in Western Alaska the grave markers their military service entitled them to. As a result, Bylsma took a keen interest in Fox’s case, in part because she knew what a difficult, arduous process it was to navigate.
“Some of these problems people come across with federal agencies, it’s an absolute knot of red tape that sometimes makes no sense,” said Bylsma, who no longer works in Sullivan’s office but is planning to attend Monday’s ceremony on her own.
The effort, stymied further by pandemic-related delays, took another year until, in 2021, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs ordered the gravestone that will permanently mark Fox’s burial site just to the right of his mother’s. The gray granite block bears the cross of the Russian Orthodox Church, marks his birth in 1920, the Purple Heart he was awarded, death during battle in Ardea, Italy, and status as an Unangax̂ warrior.
“In the Unangax̂ culture, when a warrior dies protecting our villages, we’re supposed to make a big deal out of it,” Livingston said, noting the person would traditionally be commemorated in songs and dances. “We’re supposed to do things to make sure the warrior is remembered for many generations.”
According to Livingston’s extensive research on the subject, Fox is the only Unangax̂ known to have died in World War II or any American war since.
Fox’s body was buried in Italy. His father wasn’t informed of his son’s death by the Army until 1945. It was another four years before Fox’s cremated remains arrived back in Unalaska per a family request, and they were buried beside his mother after a short procession from the church to the cemetery, according to military records.
There’s a particular insult to Fox’s treatment given the injuries to the Unangax̂ by the American and Japanese militaries in WWII. After the Japanese bombed and invaded islands in the western Aleutians, the U.S. military evacuated 881 Unangax̂ under dubious pretenses, transporting them to Southeast Alaska nominally for protection while non-Natives living in the region stayed in their homes.
“If it had been a ‘military necessity,’ they would have moved the white people out, too,” Livingston said. “The real military necessity was housing.”
As their homes were occupied, looted and even burned, the Unangax̂ were interred in abysmal conditions at former cannery and mining sites.
“The Unangax̂ were transported to Southeast Alaska and there crowded into ‘duration villages’: abandoned canneries, a herring saltery, and gold mine camp-rotting facilities with no plumbing, electricity or toilets. The Unangax̂ lacked warm winter clothes, and camp food was poor, the water tainted,” according to an account from the National Park Service. “For two years they would remain in these dark places, struggling to survive. Illness of one form or another struck all the evacuees, but medical care was often nonexistent, and the authorities were dismissive of the their complaints. Pneumonia and tuberculosis took the very young and the old.”
Seventy-four Unangax̂ died before the American government finally let them return home in 1945, years after Japanese soldiers had been extirpated from the Aleutians.
Of the 42 Unangax̂ residents of Attu taken to Japan and imprisoned for the duration of the war, nearly half died of starvation and disease.
It’s in that context of discriminatory mistreatment of Alaska Natives under the territorial government that Fox was returned home and laid to rest in an unmarked grave.
“I don’t think it was by accident that Pvt. George Fox was ignored, I think it was by design,” Livingston said. “There’s lots of excuses, but in my opinion they are lame excuses.”
Even for some with deep roots in the Aleutians, Fox’s story is a recent revelation.
For many people, “it’s new, it’s new history for the Unangax̂,” said Vincent Tutiakoff Sr., mayor of Unalaska and a Navy veteran from the Vietnam era.
“For me, I was really touched by what’s going on,” said Tutiakoff, who will be on hand for Monday’s ceremony. “I was very surprised that the military didn’t do more to recognize George Fox and what he’s done for (the) service. I’m glad they are coming forward.”
Svarny didn’t learn that her brother’s friend George had died until her family returned home to Unalaska from the camp at Burnett Island in 1945.
“I remember that the people were so loyal, even as they stepped onto the evacuation ship. They were being forced to leave, not knowing where they were going, but they were doing it for their country, just as their children were enlisting to fight in the war,” Svarny said.
“It was with that patriotic spirit that our people engaged in WWII and how they survived the camps. I feel that this ceremony symbolizes a recognition of the many Unangan people who served their country well,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Rachel Bylsma.