BM1 William A. Bleyer, United States Coast Guard
Occasion sometimes arise . . . in which the officers and crews are called upon to face situations of desperate human need which put their resourcefulness and energy, and even their courage, to the severest test.
“The Influenza at Unalaska and Dutch Harbor,” U.S. Coast Guard Annual Report, 1920
As the testament above indicates, The Coast Guard’s response to the Spanish Flu Pandemic in Alaska would prove the ultimate test of bravery and endurance.
Pandemic, quarantines, social distancing and facemasks–too familiar today. These terms resonated with equal disquiet for Americans 100 years ago as the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919 affected nearly every corner of the globe. It caused the deaths of between 25 and 50 million people, more than all who died in World War I. Even in regions with the most advanced medical care, Spanish Influenza killed approximately three percent of all victims.
Medical care in the remote territory of Alaska was far from advanced. When the pandemic arrived in the spring of 1919, it wiped out entire villages. At the time, Alaska was “an American colony [which] occupied a political status somewhere between a government protectorate and an industrial resource”1 and the presence of Federal Government assets in this immense territory was minimal.
In late May 1919, USS Unalga was patrolling in Seredka Bay off Akun Island, in Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain. World War I had ended just six months prior, so – like all Coast Guard-manned cutters – Unalga and its crew still served as part of the U.S. Navy. At 190 feet, the Unalga’s white hull was only somewhat longer than modern Fast Response Cutters patrolling Alaska’s waters today. And while Unalga’s daily operations were fundamentally similar to today’s FRCs, they were much broader. An Alaskan patrol in 1919 could consist of law enforcement boardings of fishing and sealing vessels; inspecting canneries; transporting mail, supplies, passengers, and prisoners; rescuing shipwrecked or stranded victims; rendering medical care; acting as a floating court; and resolving labor disputes.
On May 26th, Unalga was resting at anchor following a routine day of seamanship and signals training. At around 4 p.m., an urgent radio message arrived. The settlement of Unalaska on nearby Unalaska Island was suffering from a severe outbreak of Spanish Influenza. The cutter’s commanding officer, Capt. Frederick Dodge, prepared to get the Unalga underway at dawn.
That night, Unalga received another radiogram–the region around Bristol Bay, on Alaska’s southwestern mainland, needed urgent help to cope with its own outbreak. Dodge faced a dilemma: the Unalga could not be in two places at once. He radioed his command that he was setting a course for the closer Unalaska to assess the situation.
Remote even today, in 1919 Unalaska and adjacent Dutch Harbor were tiny villages with a combined population of about 360 people, mostly of Aleut or mixed Russian-native ancestry. There was only one doctor on the entire island.
After arriving, Unalga’s crew disembarked to a horrific scene. Nearly the entire settlement was infected, including the only doctor and all but one operator at Dutch Harbor’s Navy radio station. The situation was critical as historian Alfred Crosby noted in America’s Forgotten Pandemic:
. . . very large proportions of isolated populations tended to contract Spanish Influenza all at once. The sick outnumbered those doing the nursing. The sick, therefore, lacked fluids, food, and proper care, which caused very high death rates… effective leadership was vital to keeping death rates down. If complacency, incompetence, sickness, or bad luck crippled the ability of the leaders to react efficiently to the pandemic, then Spanish Influenza could be as deadly as the Black Death.
It now fell to the men of the Unalga to provide lifesaving leadership and medical care.
Out of the Unalga’s crew of approximately 80 men, only three had medical training: Ship’s Surgeon Lt. j.g. Dr. F.H. Johnson (U.S. Public Health Service), Lt. E.W. Scott (U.S. Navy Dental Corps), and Pharmacist’s Mate 1/class E.S. Chase. These men began coordinating the town’s medical care. Together, they assembled a group of volunteers from the crew that kept growing until it included personnel drawn from every department on board the cutter.
From May 26th to June 4th, Unalga proved the difference between life and death for the inhabitants of Unalaska. Captain Dodge initiated feeding the town using Unalga’s food stores. Crewmembers delivered 350 prepared meals on the first day and, by the height of the pandemic, they were delivering more than 1,000 meals per day. Villagers ranked the ship’s emergency rations somewhere between awful and lousy, but they ate them.
Every crewmember engaged in some aspect of relief work. Nicknamed “gobs,” those not caring for the sick provided logistical support, such as keeping fires for incapacitated villagers or helping prepare or deliver food. Other crewmen took over operation of the Navy radio station in Dutch Harbor. The men even built a temporary hospital outfitted with plumbing and electrified by the cutter’s generator.
Caring for the sick and burying the dead was an exhausting and emotionally challenging job. Death by “The Spanish Lady” (the disease’s elegantly macabre nickname) was often horrific. Victims frequently suffered from double pneumonia and drowned when their lungs filled with fluid, some of it oozing out of their noses and mouths when they died. The crewmembers nursed the sick with no protective equipment except cloth facemasks, exposing themselves to infection. Several men became ill, including Dodge. He determined he was well enough to remain in command and later recovered. While Unalga’s crew did their best to save lives, they ultimately had to inter 45 victims beneath white Russian Orthodox crosses in Unalaska’s cemetery.
Unalga’s crew also cared for the children of the deceased or incapacitated. Unlike seasonal flu, Spanish Influenza acutely affected young adults, probably because it provoked an overreaction in the victims’ immune system. This had the tragic effect of creating a number of orphans. Even if not infected, these children were vulnerable to starvation, freezing, or attack by feral dogs, described by Unalga’s men as similar to ravenous wolves. Unalaska had its own orphanage, the Jesse Lee Home, but when that filled up, a vacant house was requisitioned and named the “USS UNALGA Orphan Home.” When that also filled, Dodge started housing children in the town jail under the care of the town marshal. Among these orphans was Benny Benson, who later designed the state flag of Alaska.
Unalga’s Master-at-Arms, Peter “Big Pete” Bugaras volunteered to care for the orphans. An enlisted man responsible for enforcing ship’s discipline and handling prisoners, Bugaras had a reputation as “the strongest man in the Coast Guard Service,” and was described as “Greek by birth, a born fighter of men, and protector of all things helpless and small.” Burly and big-hearted, Bugaras took responsibility for running the UNALGA Orphan Home. He had his men fashion clothes for the children by tracing outlines of their bodies on bolts of cloth and cutting them out. Several women in the village were appalled to see Bugaras enthusiastically scrubbing children clean with the same vigor he used on dogs, but by all accounts the little ones loved him.
Outside help finally arrived on June 3rd, when Coast Guard Cutter Bear dropped anchor. Under the combined effort of the two cutter crews, many of the surviving victims began to recover and the pandemic subsided. Navy vessels also arrived. In the words of Unalga officer Eugene Coffin: “Navy ships and nurses were sent to Unalaska after we yelled for them.” With the arrival of warships USS Vicksburg and USS Marblehead in mid-June, Dodge resupplied the Unalga to set sail for Bristol Bay. Unalaska’s last death occurred June 13th and with its departure on June 17th, the Unalga’s relief of Unalaska officially ended.
The Unalga’s care of Unalaska’s inhabitants had been somewhat rough-hewn but effective. During the cutter’s relief effort, the local mortality rate had hovered around 12 percent, while other areas in Alaska experienced up to 90 percent.
The Coast Guardsmen of the Unalga were far from saints, but for years later the inhabitants of Unalaska remembered them as saviors. In July 1919, Unalaska’s Russian Orthodox priest, Dimitri Hotovitzky, and Aleut Chief, Alexei Yatchmeneff, co-wrote a letter to Dodge stating “We feel had it not been for the prompt and efficient work of the Unalga, when everyone willingly and readily exposed himself to succor the sick, Unalaska’s population might have been reduced to a very small number if not entirely wiped out.”
While Unalga’s performance at Unalaska drew universal acclaim, the cutter and USS Marblehead were criticized for arriving in the Bristol Bay region too late to make a difference. As the disease had largely run its course, Unalga’s crew worked with the Marblehead’s Navy personnel to provide for the remaining medical care and relief work in the community. When the pandemic finally released Alaska from its grip, nearly 3,000 inhabitants had died. Nearly all of the dead were Native Alaskans, an irreparable loss to the indigenous community and its culture.
Every pandemic and its tragedies are unique, but in the Coast Guard’s response today we can hear echoes of 1919, when the crew of Coast Guard Cutter Unalga quarantined and rendered pandemic relief to the remote Alaskan settlement of Unalaska. Cutter Unalga and the men who sailed aboard it made history as part of the lore of Alaska and the long blue line.
1Maria Gilson deValpine, “Influenza in Bristol Bay, 1919: ‘The Saddest Repudiation of a Benevolent Intention,’” SAGE Open: 7.