Empire Of The Winds


Melinda McPeek, the curator, has lived in Unalaska about a year and a half, a refugee from Washington, D.C., where she was working for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian when she was offered her new position. McPeek told me she had been looking for fewer traffic jams. She got that and more. “My first impression of Unalaska was one of raw beauty and the strange juxtaposition of the rusted and dirty buildings, cars and crab pots that are completely overshadowed by the most incredible landscape of vibrant green mountains and blue sea. I think I had prepared myself for the worst and was pleasantly surprised to find that it does not always rain and the wind doesn’t always howl, and there are in fact many sunny, beautiful days here.”

In recent history, two events have defined the Aleuts’ lives and determined the fate of Unalaska: the Russian occupation and the Second World War. Throughout the town and in the surrounding country, evidence of them is everywhere.

Russians first came to the Aleutians looking for a land bridge to northwestern America, where they hoped to annex territory and gain control of the lucrative fur market before European rivals could. During Vitus Bering’s second voyage, in 1741, crewmen spotted the sea otters that would shape the pattern of Russian settlement and trade in North America for the next 120 years. The Russian American Company founded the first permanent trading station on Unalaska Island in 1772. It quickly enslaved many Aleut hunters and their families and sent them to the Pribilof Islands to help with the fur-seal harvest. Others were forced to hunt sea otters. Some Aleuts rebelled and died for it.

I found a surprising remnant of the Russian presence: trees, which are scarce enough in Unalaska. Two centuries ago Nikolai Rezanov, the imperial chamberlain of Russian America, ordered the planting of a grove of Sitka spruce to make the colony more self-sufficient. It was the first government-sponsored afforestation project in North America, and in 1978 the trees were designated a national historic landmark, and later a National Park. Today only three of Rezanov’s trees remain; they stand some 50 feet high, their trunks bare all the way up but topped by a head of branches that make them look like old-fashioned bottle brushes scrubbing the sky.

Two events have defined the Aleuts’ lives: the Russian occupation and the Second World War.

Central to the lives of contemporary Aleuts, and an important reflection of the Russian influence, is the Orthodox Church. The Church of the Holy Ascension, the oldest Russian Orthodox cruciform church in North America, plays a major role in the spiritual and social lives of some 4,000 residents. Father Ivan Veniaminov arrived in 1824, built a church 10 years later, and sought parishioners by developing an Aleut alphabet and translating Scripture into the native language. The Church later canonized him St. Innocent.

World War II put its harsh signature on the island at every turn. The first glimpse appears even before your plane completes its final approach to the airport. Across the bay, on Hog Island, the landscape is scattered with what look like crushed soda cans. They are rusted Quonset huts. Upslope from the airport, ammunition dumps pock the side of Mount Ballyhoo.

Compared with the scale of the war, the Aleutian fighting might seem a minor sideshow. Nevertheless, half a million men took part; it was the war’s only campaign fought on American soil; and it claimed 10,000 lives.

In the 1930s, with Japan moving aggressively in Asia, American military strategists saw that the proximity of the Aleutians to Japan’s Kurile Islands gave them considerable strategic importance. In May 1940 Congress appropriated money for Army bases in Anchorage and coastal defenses at Kodiak and Dutch Harbor. Col. Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., was sent to command the Alaska Defense Force, and a civilian contractor began building the naval facilities at Dutch Harbor and, soon after, the Army base. The first troops arrived in Dutch Harbor on May 8, 1941. They were not prepared for what they found. Capt. Robert E. Israel, 37th Infantry, also on hand for the ceremonies, recalled: “We were scheduled to go to Guam. Suddenly in early May 1941 all this tropical gear was withdrawn, and we were issued all types of winter uniforms. We did not get rid of the tropical huts, which were sent to Dutch Harbor with screen doors, no insulation, and doors that opened out. This caused us a lot of trouble when snow blocked the doors.”

The barracks and warehouses went up where the Grand Aleutian Hotel stands today, while at the same time coastal and antiaircraft batteries were built across the island. Despite Buckner’s efforts, Alaska was far from ready when war came. “We’re not even the second team up here,” he said. “We’re a sandlot club.”