For nearly 80 years, a small American flag placed by an old friend was the only thing that stood above the tundra marking Pvt. George Fox’s plot in Unalaska’s cemetery.
That changed last week when the decorated fallen veteran’s resting place was finally recognized.
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Fox is the only known Unangax̂ soldier killed fighting in World War II, or in any war since. For decades, he was buried in an unmarked grave. This Memorial Day, he was finally honored with a gravestone in a long-awaited burial ceremony that drew crowds from across the state and Lower 48 to the remote Aleutian community.
Officials unveiled an honorary gravestone during the ceremony, which included an Army color guard, a 21-gun salute and a speech from Fox’s former neighbor following a procession down Unalaska’s Front Beach.
Had it not been for the heavy Aleutian fog, members of Fox’s family and Sens Dan. Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski also would have flown in to speak in his honor. Representatives from the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, the Aleut Corporation and members of the VA Alaska Health Care System were in attendance.
Fox was born in 1920 on Unga Island, the largest of the Shumagin islands, about 250 miles northeast of Unalaska. Census data shows that he and his mother moved to Unalaska by 1929, and he joined the military when he was about 21 years old, according to Michael Livingston, who played an integral role in getting Fox’s gravestone ordered. Livingston works for the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association and spent years uncovering lost details about Fox’s past.
Fox was killed fighting in Ardea, Italy, in 1944. About five years later, his remains were returned to Unalaska. Following a small ceremony, Livingston said he was buried in an unmarked grave next to his mother at the island’s cemetery. It took a lot of work and perseverance to confirm that his body was in Unalaska, he said.
While Sen. Sullivan tried but failed to make it to the special ceremony, Livingston said he played a key role in finally moving the process forward and ordering the grave marker last May.
Livingston and a few others have been researching and battling for years to get Fox his deserved recognition.
“It really is a decade in the making,” Livingston said. “A lot of people have been working on this to try to find out the information we needed to honor Pvt. George Fox. And a lot of people have been working to get the gravestone ordered. We’re just grateful for all the support.”
He said two locals recently discovered that in 1941, Fox signed a petition to incorporate Unalaska, also making him a founder of the Aleutian town.
Unangax̂ Elder Gertrude Svarny was Fox’s neighbor growing up. She said he was a friend to her older brother.
After Fox died in the war, Svarny would walk to his grave every Memorial Day and place a small American flag on the overgrown plot. This year, thanks to Livingston’s planning and outreach, her small flag was just one of several dozen that were brought by supporters from across the state who made the trek up the hill to his grave.
Following a prayer and hymn from Unalaska’s Father Evon Bereskin, Svarny and Livingston pulled an American flag shroud from the stone, revealing the new marker to the locals and visitors gathered at the base of Mount Newhall.
In a speech following the unveiling, Svarny said that to fully understand what this recognition means, people need to know the region’s history.
“When I was 12 years old, my village survived the bombing of Unalaska Island by the Japanese,” Svarny said. “Shortly thereafter, we were forced to leave home.”
The U.S. government forcibly removed over 800 Unangax̂ people from their homes in the Aleutian and Pribilof region following the WWII bombing.
“We were dropped off in abandoned canneries, gold mines and logging camps in Southeast Alaska, stripped of our civil liberties,” she told the crowd. “And it changed our lives forever. Even as this was happening to us, our sons and daughters, our brothers, sisters were signing up to fight for the United States in the war.”
She said that spirit is in part why she and others survived the camps.
“This ceremony today symbolizes the recognition of the many Unangax̂ people who served in their country,” Svarny said. “If I could wish anything, I would wish that we would all teach our children to care deeply about the welfare of their friends and neighbors. We are nothing without the community around us.”
Fox’s marker is engraved with his own words: “Wish all love.” They come from a letter he wrote to his father just weeks before he died.
Livingston read that letter in Monday’s ceremony.
“‘I would sure like to be fishing,’” Livingston read. “‘This makes three seasons that I have missed fishing. We have transferred into infantry and are seeing some action. I’m getting along fine. Don’t worry about me. Write often, and I wish you all the love. Will write more later. Your son, George.’”
The gravestone also includes Fox’s name, his date of birth, his honors, including a Purple Heart, and his recognition as an “Unangax̂ warrior.”