[By 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
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.
Crew members of Unalga burying the dead at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. (NOAA)
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” 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 26, Unalga was resting at anchor following a routine day of seamanship and signals training. At around 1600 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.
Members of Unalga’s crew shepherding orphan children to safety. (NOAA)
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.
Unalga’s crew wearing “Flu” masks. All the cutter’s crew members involved in the humanitarian effort volunteered to help. (NOAA)
From May 26 to June 4, 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.
Orphans and a caretaker at the Unalga Orphan Home. (NOAA)
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.
Orphans and a caretaker at the Unalga Orphan Home. (NOAA)
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 3, 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 13 and with its departure on June 17, the Unalga’s relief of Unalaska officially ended.
Unalga men burying the dead at the Russian Orthodox Cemetery in Unalaska. (NOAA)
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.
Unalga’s officers, including: Standing: Lieutenant Junior Grade Willie B. Huebner USNRF; Captain Eugene Auguste Coffin USCG; Captain Warner Keith Thompson USCG; Captain Theodore Graham Lewton USCG; Lieutenant E. W. Scott USNRF (Dental Corps); Lieutenant Junior Grade Dr. F. H. Johnson USPHS. Sitting: Lieutenant Carl E. Anderson USNRF; Senior Captain Frederick Gilbert Dodge USCG; Lieutenant Gordon Whiting MacLane USCG.
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.
This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here.
Go to Source
A massive fire broke out at the Port of Beirut on Thursday, incinerating a warehouse full of tires and oil within the port’s free zone. The same area was heavily damaged in the ammonium nitrate explosion that leveled the central port area and the adjacent waterfront on August 4. According to Lebanon’s civil defense agency, […]
Over the course of the past five days, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority arranged a medical intervention for an injured aboard a freighter in the Indian Ocean. On Saturday evening, the Spliethoff tweendecker Dolfijngracht called for assistance while under way about 1,000 nauical miles off the coast of Western Australia. A crewmember had sustained serious […]
The naval forces of the US and Bahrain recently staged a joint force training exercise which showcased the interoperability between coalition warships operating I the Arabian Gulf. Coalition Task Force Sentinel executed combined exercise Sentinel Shield supporting Sentry and Sentinel patrols in the coalition’s area of operations. The guided-missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones and […]
With close to 100 daily cargo flights operated to a destination network spanning more than 65 cities across six continents, Emirates SkyCargo is delivering essential supplies and commodities to people around the world. The air cargo carrier is currently operating 11 Boeing 777 freighter aircraft, each with a capacity to transport about 100 tonnes of […]
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released a Marine Accident Brief about an accident that occurred on April 15, 2019, involving the towing vessel DeJeanne Maria which struck the end of a submerged dredge pipeline while pushing two spud barges to the Gulf of Mexico. The incident occurred on the Mississippi River in Pass […]
DSV Belgium has solid experience in the transport of pharmaceutical products for different customers. With a pharma hub based at Brussels Airport a lot of experience and know-how has been built up over the years. Last weekend, the forwarder handled one hundred million mouth masks, an important milestone for its Belgian organisation that has put […]
Best known as a leading passenger airport serving Germany’s most populated federal state North Rhine-Westphalia, Düsseldorf has become transformed into a vital distribution point, during the COVID 19 pandemic, for medical equipment and other life-saving goods, mostly from China. Gerton Hulsman, managing director of cargo operations, reports that the handling teams are working hard to […]
Astral Aviation has increased its intra-African network with cargo freighters during the pandemic. While there has been a reduction in capacity to, from, and within Africa, which has been caused by a stoppage of passenger flights and limited frequencies on freighter aircraft, Astral Aviation continues to operate cargo freighters from its Nairobi hub to 13 destinations […]
The UK government’s new post-Brexit tariff regime will result in both winners and losers. The new regime is set to replace the European Union’s Common External Tariff from the end of the Brexit Transition Period on December 31, 2020. The UK’s commitment to the ongoing Brexit process and ending the UK’s transition from EU membership […]
Global commercial aviation charter company Albion Aviation Group is reporting that it is seeing a considerable uptake in its professional cargo broker training courses from the current global pandemic crisis and surge in charter demand. “We have completed a number webinar courses for a whole of host of companies, looking to manage their own cargo […]
The U-Freight Group (UFL), with its considerable involvement in eCommerce logistics, says that the latest statistics showing that global e-commerce sales hit $25.6 trillion in 2018 are a further vindication of its decision to enter this sector of the international freight market several years ago. The latest available estimates, up 8% from 2017, were recently […]
Operators can continue to use pilots and other crew members who have unable to comply with certain training, recent experience, testing, and checking requirements due to the COVID-19 outbreak in support of essential operations. Additionally, this Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR) provides regulatory relief to certain persons and pilot schools unable to meet duration and […]
Emirates SkyCargo has expanded its weekly scheduled cargo flight operations to cover 75 destinations across six continents. Through its wider reach, Emirates SkyCargo is able to transport essential commodities and other urgently needed cargo more rapidly across the world, allowing exporters and importers across markets to benefit from direct access to widebody cargo capacity. Some […]
Callan Marine is serving as the prime contractor to the Texas Department of Transportation for a maintenance dredging project located at the Bolivar Ferry Terminal, in Galveston, Texas. Work began in May and is estimated to be complete in late July 2020. The project consists of the removal of 600,000 cubic yards of material and […]
Network Airline Management and TAAG Angola Airlines are pleased to announce the renewal of their long-term freighter aircraft contract by an additional 12 months, sealing an ongoing partnership for the foreseeable future. Operating a regular weekly scheduled service from Liege, Belgium, to the capital of Angola, Luanda, Network Airline Management provides a Boeing 747-400F aircraft […]
Qatar Airways Cargo transported 56 SkyCell containers with vaccines from one of the largest vaccine manufacturers worldwide on its scheduled freighter and belly-hold cargo flights for its customer, CEVA Logistics. The 54-tonne shipment consisting of pneumococcal and varicella vaccines were flown from Brussels to Mumbai via the carrier’s hub in Doha on two separate flights. […]