Today, a years-long effort to preserve access to a cemetery at the site of a World War Two internment camp where Unangax people were held reached its culmination as the governor signed House Bill 10 into law.
The measure ensures Alaskans will be able to access the site at Funter Bay in Southeast Alaska in perpetuity by transferring a parcel of land from the Department of Natural Resources Land and Mining Water Division to the Division of Parks and Recreation.
Rep. Sara Hannan (D-Juneau), the bill's sponsor, said, "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The tireless work of Unangax advocates, and the support from a diverse group of lawmakers and the governor, is proof that Alaskans are ready to acknowledge this dark chapter in our state's history so that future generations will never forget what happened at Funter Bay and similar internment sites."
When the Japanese invaded the Aleutian Islands during WWII, Unangax people were forcibly removed from the Pribilof Islands to Southeast Alaska. Some were sent to Killisnoo near Angoon, others were sent to Burnett Inlet, Ward Cove in Ketchikan, Wrangell, and the rest were sent to Funter Bay near Juneau.
They were given little notice, and the villagers could take only what they could carry. The people were abandoned in old cannery bunk houses not meant to house so many people and not built for protection from winter’s harshness. Entire families were sheltered in small cubicles that were separated sometimes only by blankets. The living conditions were unsanitary, and there was inadequate food supply, no medical care, and no facilities for bathing, cooking or using the bathroom.
Fewer than 30 miles away in Excursion Inlet, 700 Nazi Afrika Korps officers were imprisoned at a prisoner-of-war camp. The Nazis, sworn enemies of the United States and allies, were treated far better than the Unangax because their conditions were guaranteed by international law. The 700 German prisoners all returned home after the war without a single death during their imprisonment.
In Funter Bay, thirty-two people died, and the survivors were left in the camp almost two years after it was considered safe to return home. The deadly conditions of the camp left the Unangax people to suffer needlessly. The descendants of those who were lost have maintained the gravesites for 79 years.