Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Life and Death on Aiaktalik Island

The Marion a, 1978. Photo: Corky McCorkle,
Kodiak Harbormaster in the 1970s.
On October 1, 1978, two weeks into the Kodiak King Crab season, the Marion A., a 42 foot steel boat, headed for the south end of Kodiak Island with sixteen crab pots. Onboard were skipper Delno Oldham, 25, and deckhands Jerry Allain, 28, and Gerald Bourgeois, 29.

Delno Oldham, from Washington State, had fished for about five years. Allain, from Kodiak, had worked as the Kodiak Daily Mirror pressman before going fishing, and  Bourgeois, from Covington, Louisiana, had gotten to know Allain while salmon fishing. It was Bourgeois’s first crab season.
 The next morning, 100 miles south of Kodiak city, the boat turned into the mile-and-a-half wide channel between Aiaktalik Island and Kodiak Island.  A 20 knot wind drove a five foot chop, with “waves breaking in all directions,” according to later testimony by Bourgeois.
Jerry Allain. Photo: Kadiak Times
Around 10:30 the boat suddenly listed heavily to port. Allain and Bourgeois ran out on deck while Oldham tried to maneuver the boat upright again. He turned into the seas and the boat rolled back to starboard until it was upright again, but it kept going over onto its starboard side and then upside down. Allain and Bourgeois went into the water and Delno Oldham swam out the galley door just before the wheelhouse went under. From the initial list to being upside down took a minute and half.
The men clung to the keel for a few minutes until it sank under them, bow first. They found themselves in 45 degree water, halfway between Aiaktalik Island and Kodiak Island, three quarters of a mile from either shore.
Delno Oldham. Photo: Kadiak Times
“I saw Jerry but I didn’t see Delno anymore,” Bourgeois would tell a reporter later. His survival suit in its stowage bag bumped the back of his head and with Jerry Allain’s help, he got it on. He had tried the suit on only once before. They began swimming for Aiktalik with Allain clinging to Bourgeois’s waist, but within fifteen minutes Allain “started talking really slow,” according to Bourgeois. “He knew it and I knew it. It was going to take too long to reach land.” Bourgeois held his friend for awhile but then, “I was sure he was dead. I finally let go.”
Bourgeois told himself “I want to live, I want to live,” over and over, until he washed up in the surf on Aiktalik Island three hours later.  He had lost his glasses. He had two waterlogged matches. He built a driftwood lean-to to get out of the wind.
Over the next eleven days Bourgeois took the survival suit off only three times, when the sky cleared enough to dry out in the sun. The suit’s feet tore off as he scrounged for mussels on a reef, but the suit kept him warm enough to stay alive.
He watched for passing boats from a high point above the beach and walked to a stream for water. Temperatures were in the 50s, unseasonably warm, but he worried about the inevitable coming of winter.  
Bourgeois found some wild celery and beach greens and ate mussels. On the seventh day he found a half gallon of fresh milk in the surf, and a Hershey bar. He drank half the milk, ate the Hershey bar, and saved the rest of the milk for later. He caught a baby vole, but the animal blinked at him, a fellow creature in a harsh world, and he could not bring himself to eat it.
On the second day two planes passed overhead and eventually more than 50 boats passed through the channel, including a Coast Guard cutter, but Delno Oldham had not had time to make a distress call and no one was looking for the Marion A or its crewmen. Bourgeois waved and blew a whistle, but the planes and boats kept going.
On Friday the 13th, Bourgeois prayed every half hour that the 13th would be his lucky day. Around 10 a.m., as Oly Harder’s 38 foot Moonsong, passed by, a crewman saw a man on the beach. They turned around to get a better look.
The Moonsong came closer and Bourgeois swam out to it.  They pulled him aboard and a Coast Guard helicopter came out for him. He spent two nights in the Kodiak hospital, but except for some minor immersion damage to his fingertips, he was basically okay.  
Gerard Bourgeios. Photo: Jerry Martini, Kodiak Daily Mirror
Bourgeois would later allow that he had prayed himself off the island. “It was a solemn experience…It got me closer to God, no doubt about it…” a few days Later he flew home to Louisiana. The bodies of Jerry Allain and Delno Oldham were never found, and why the boat rolled over and sank remains a mystery.

In a tragic post script to the story, according to friends in Kodiak, Gerry Bourgeois was reportedly killed in a car wreck in Louisiana a few weeks after his ordeal in Alaska. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Whaling for NASA on the Tom and Al

In last month’s column, I wrote about a 1914 expedition to the high arctic whose people were rescued by the King and Winge, a historic fishing vessel known to many in Kodiak as a crab fishing boat, from the 1970s until it sank in the Bering Sea in 1994.
Not quite as famous, but still well known in Kodiak, and similar in looks to the King and Winge, was the Tom and Al., which had its own colorful life. Launched as the Ragnhild in 1900, the vessel was renamed after themselves by Thomas J. King and Albert L. Winge when they purchased it some time after 1910.  The two men also owned the King and Winge Shipbuilding Company in West Seattle which built the King and Winge in 1914, making the two vessels shirt tail relatives, if not exactly sister ships.
The Tom and Al in Kodiak, about 1980.
Photo: Kodiak Maritime Museum, Roger Page Collection
Of note regarding the shipyard is that Albert Winge, originally from Boston and arriving in Puget Sound around 1880, learned the art of shipbuilding from Donald McKay, who in the 1850s, designed clipper ships, some of which, including the Lightning and the Flying Cloud, remain the among the fastest sailing ships the world has ever seen.
The Tom and Al however, sailed, if not particularly fast, at least gracefully, as a halibut schooner off the Northwest coast and in Alaska for decades, manned by dory men who rowed away each morning in their small flat bottomed craft to set and retrieve their longline skates before returning the ship at the end of the day.
Around 1960 the Tom and Al was acquired by Tom and Eben Parker,  a pair of colorful and imaginative siblings from the Oregon coast. Looking for a way to make the boat pay for itself, they contracted to deliver a very special kind of sea creature to the Bio Products processing plant on the Columbia River in Astoria. To get the venture going, Bio Products purchased a 90 mm harpoon gun from a Norwegian outfit, and gave it to Frank and Eben to mount on the Tom and Al’s foredeck. They set to sea looking for sperm whales.
Alva Elliot, ex-Navy Chief Gunner's Mate, and
Richard Carruthers, Jr., Bio Products Sales Manager, with harpoon gun. 
Photo: Oregonian April 23, 1961

In their later years the brothers would regale young fishermen in Kodiak’s watering holes with whaling stories, not all of them suitable for a family newspaper. Their listeners, products of the 1970s anti-whaling enlightenment, were aghast at the killing of these sentient creatures, but as fishermen themselves, were also fascinated at the thought of hunting the Leviathan, the ultimate fishery.
The thing to remember from where we sit now is that in 1961, when the Parkers went after whales, it was perfectly legal and socially acceptable to do so in the United States. In fact, Frank Parker’s son, Frank Jr., recalls seeing school groups touring the rendering plant after the boat had delivered, gawking at the dead whales laid out on the dock.
According to Frank Parker Jr., Bio Products sold the whale meat to Oregon mink farmers to feed their fur bearing livestock, and the whale oil to NASA, which had just sent the first American into space. While the notion of NASA buying whale oil seems bizarre now, in the context of the times, and given the exotic nature of the oil, it made sense.
Workmen cutting into a whale at Bio Products, Hammond, Oregon
 Photo: Oregonian, July 13, 1962

Once rendered down, whale oil burns with a clear white light, an extremely valuable property before electricity, and which made the fortunes of several New England seafaring towns until cheaper kerosene became widely available after the Civil War. But whale oil also maintains its viscosity in an extremely wide range of temperatures and pressures, a characteristic which made it useful for all kinds of earthbound mechanical applications well into the 20th century. In 1961 that special viscosity also made it invaluable for machinery headed into near earth orbit, where things get very hot in direct sunlight and very cold in shadow, and where the near vacuum of space causes most petroleum and vegetable based lubricants to boil into vapor.
These days, NASA denies using whale oil in its spacecraft, and certainly using any part of a whale was illegal in the United States after the 1971 Marine Mammal Protection Act became law. However, equally suitable synthetic lubricants didn’t come into use until the mid-1960s, and like other high technology items of the post war years, including watches and transmissions, it seems probable that whale oil lubricated some of the hardware NASA sent up in those early space flight years. It is likely that the oil was used by subcontractors rather than NASA directly, and probably without much discussion, given the general lack of empathy for whales at the time. Still, a lively online debate endures on this topic, easily accessible to the curious Google searcher.
For the Parker brothers however, it was economics rather than regard for cetaceans which ended the Tom and Al’s whaling days. NASA, or their suppliers, began using synthetic lubricants and stopped buying whale oil, which made Bio Products drop its ex-vessel price for whales, which made whaling un-profitable on the Tom and Al. Frank Jr. says the Parkers were forced to give back the 90 mm harpoon gun and replace it with a 60 mm weapon. The smaller harpoon bounced off the whales however, which made the whole venture even more pointless.
Frank and Eben went on to other fisheries, including Alaskan pink shrimp, which was blessed with an insatiable consumer market and a huge biomass, at least until the shrimp disappeared in the early 1980s. The shrimp fishery, like the Kodiak king crab fishery, was, depending on your viewpoint, the victim of overfishing, an oceanic regime change, or too many cod fish.  The Tom and Al missed all of that discussion by a couple of years. It sank off the Barren Islands on February 2, 1980, hauling a load of Kodiak shrimp to Homer.
 Sources: Off Beat Oregon, August 8, 2011, Alaska Historical Society Blog, January 13, 2014, Oregonian, various dates, 1961 and 1962

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Disaster in the Arctic: The Final Voyage of the Karluk.

In June of 1913 the 129 foot former Aleutian whaling ship Karluk steamed north from British Columbia, part of an ambitious Canadian expedition to survey Canada’s northern coast. The Karluk planned to sail across the top of Alaska before rendezvousing with another ship, the Alaska, at Herschel Island, just west of the Alaska-Canada border. The Karluk was then to survey the Beaufort Sea as far east as the ice would permit while the Alaska documented the flora and fauna on the Arctic coast. 
The expedition was led by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a 33 year Canadian born anthropologist who had made a name for himself by living with and documenting the culture and lives of the Inuit, a legendary but still mysterious people in the early 20th century.
The Karluk stopped in Nome to pick up dogs, and at Point Hope, to hire two Inupiaq hunters. At the Cape Smythe whaling station near Barrow, two more Alaska Native  hunters, Kataktovik and Keraluk, came aboard, along with Keraluk’s wife Keruk and their two young daughters, Helen and Mugpi.
The ship wiggled eastward through increasing ice but became permanently trapped on August 13, 235 miles east of Barrow and the same distance west of Herschel Island. Over the next few weeks the ocean currents pushed the ice and the ship west, back along the Alaskan coast. On September 19, considering the prospect of a long meatless winter stranded in the ice, Stefansson decided to walk to the Colville River to hunt for caribou. He was accompanied by the two Point Hope hunters and several men from the expedition.
Stefansson planned to be gone about 10 days, and instructed the ship’s captain, Robert Bartlett, to place a beacon on the ice with instructions on the direction the ship was headed, in case the ice-bound ship begin drifting faster than usual. On September 23 the speed of the drift increased dramatically and soon the ship was drifting west at 30 to 60 miles a day. Stefansson was unable to find the Karluk when he returned, and spent the next year exploring the Arctic with his Native companions.
Meanwhile, as winter set in and the ship drifted steadily west, Captain Bartlett ordered supplies unloaded and a camp to be made alongside the Karluk, in case the ice threatened the ship.
By early 1914 the ship was 50 miles north of Wrangel Island off the Siberian coast. On January 10 the ice began crushing the hull and the next afternoon Bartlett played Chopin’s Funeral March on a Victrola record player, stepping off the sinking ship moments before it disappeared below the ice. Twenty two men, one woman, two children, 16 dogs and the ship’s cat were now stranded in the Arctic darkness, 50 miles from land.
With sufficient food and shelter the group was in no immediate danger, but ultimately, survival meant getting to Wrangel Island. Pressure ridges twenty to a hundred feet high blocked the way, so on January 21, a four man party left to scout a way through. Ten years later another expedition found their bones on Herald Island, a few miles from Wrangel Island. What killed them was never determined, though carbon monoxide poisoning has been suggested, since intact cases of food and seemed to rule out starvation.
On February 4 another four man party set out, but also disappeared. The party persevered however, and after much tribulation hacking their way over and through the pressure ridges, the remaining 17 people arrived at Wrangel Island on March 12. 
With several injured men and food now running low, Bartlett decided to go for help by dogsled, accompanied by Kataktovik, one of the hunters who had joined the expedition at Cape Smythe. The pair left on March 18, traveled over the ice to mainland Siberia and overland to the Bering Sea Coast, where they caught a whaling ship to St. Michael, near Nome, arriving on May 24. From there Bartlett radioed news of the disaster to the Canadian government.
On Wrangel Island the survivors were hungry and riven by dissension over lack of food. In May two men died of a strange malady later diagnosed as nephritis brought on by poorly prepared dried meat. On June 25 another man was found in his tent, dead of a gunshot wound. Whether the shooting was suicide, accident, or murder was never determined. The survivors continued to argue over their meager rations of birds and bird eggs, their only food.
In June the American revenue cutter Bear arrived in Nome and Bartlett persuaded the captain to head for Wrangell Island to perform a rescue. On August 25 however, after numerous stops along the Alaskan coast, the ship ran into impassable ice twenty miles from Wrangel Island and then had to return to Nome for more coal.
The King and Winge in the Arctic
In the meantime, Stefansson’s secretary Burt McConnell, who had accompanied Stefansson on their caribou hunting trip the previous September, encountered the 97 foot King and Winge in Barrow. The ship, recently constructed in Seattle to fish halibut, had been chartered for the summer to hunt walruses and trade for ivory in the Alaskan Arctic, but the ship’s master agreed to steam for Wrangel Island. On September 7, 1914 the ship picked up the fourteen survivors and after transferring to the Bear a day or two later, they arrived in Nome on September 13, 1914, to general happiness.  
Of interest to Kodiak readers is the rescue vessel King and Winge, which fished halibut in the Bering Sea for decades and was well known in Kodiak as a crab fishing boat from the 1970s until she sank in the Bering Sea in 1994.
The Inuit family, Kuraluk, Kuruk and their daughters, Helen and Mugpi, took up their previous lives in Barrow. Surviving members of the expedition later credited the girls as "important sources of cheer at the darkest moments.” Mugpi, or Ruth Makpii Ipalook as she was later known, lived to age 97 and died in 2008. She was the last survivor of the Karluk expedition.

The ships cat, Nigeraurak, ("Little Black One"), who had joined the ships company at the beginning of the voyage at Esquimault BC, survived the sinking of the Karluk, the journey across the ice and the deprivations on Wrangell Island, and was rescued in September 1914. According to Jennifer Niven in “Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk,” she lived long and had many kittens.

For more information on the Karluk disaster, see The Ice Master: The Doomed Voyage of the Karluk (2001) by Jennifer Niven. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

7,500 Years of Karluk Sockeye Salmon

It is July, the peak of summer on Kodiak Island, and salmon are returning in their millions to the island’s rivers, and to the prince of Kodiak’s rivers, the Karluk, on the southwest coast of the island. Like many Kodiak rivers, the Karluk River system supports all five species of salmon native to Alaska- pinks, chums, silvers, kings and sockeyes, but it is the sockeye, the red salmon, which have made the Karluk arguably the greatest salmon river in the world.
Sockeye, or red, salmon

The word “Karluk,” is itself derived from the Alutiiq word for salmon, “Iqaluk,” and these noble fish have been spawning in the Karluk since the retreat of the last ice age glaciers about 8,000 years ago. Archeological evidence indicates the first humans on Kodiak arrived not long after the ice went away, in skin boats from Asia by way of the Aleutians and the western Alaska coast. As evidenced by their hunting tools found near the mouth of the Karluk, these immigrants focused their food gathering efforts on the hunting of marine mammals, but as subsequent cultures evolved on Kodiak, the focus of their diet changed from seals, sea lions, and the occasional whale, to salmon.
Sockeye swim into the Karluk for six months, beginning in May, peaking in late summer, and still coming in decreasing numbers well into the fall, with stragglers as late as December. This easily obtained protein source, available fresh for half the year and handily converted to dried salmon for the fishless winter and spring months, allowed the Alutiiq people and their ancestors to divert a substantial portion of their time and energy from food gathering to the pursuit of high culture. All summer they caught salmon with nets in the lagoon at the mouth of the river and in v-shaped stone weirs they built in the river itself, which forced the salmon to pass through narrow apertures where they could be speared or driven into woven basket weirs. By the time the Russians arrived in the late 18th century, the Alutiiq at Karluk had developed a society rich in politics, art, and religion, all made possible by the easy availability of the king of fish.
The Russians of course were single-mindedly obsessed with the gathering of sea otter skins, not salmon, and despite their need for cash, viewed the fish almost exclusively as a food source for themselves and their coerced Alutiiq hunters, not as a source of capitalist wealth. While there is evidence the Russians sold some dried and salted salmon from Karluk to markets in California, they never exploited the incredible resource of the river’s sockeye run to its full potential.
Historians have long conjectured on what might have been if the technology of the hermetically sealed tin can had become available to the Russian American Company in those last years of their Alaskan venture, when the sea otters had run out and the colony was bleeding money. Instead, in 1867, ten years after the Hume Brothers began canning salmon on the Sacramento River, the Czar sold Alaska to the Americans. By the early 1870s, having already fished out the rivers in California, Yankees began canning salmon in Southeast Alaska, and in 1882 built the first cannery on Karluk Spit, where the river emptied into Shelikof Strait. 
Salmon canneries at the Karluk River, 1880s.

For five years it was the only cannery at Karluk, but within a few years the spit was covered with other wooden cannery buildings, net warehouses, workshops and housing for the seasonal workers. The money to build the canneries came from San Francisco and New York, the fishermen were mainly working class Americans and recent European immigrants, and the cannery workers were Chinese. The local Alutiiq found their livelihoods where they could in this newly arrived industrial scene, as cannery workers or as fishermen working for the canneries.
In these first years of the canning industry at Karluk the extravagant wealth which might be taken from the river became apparent to the American capitalists. In 1882, 58,000 salmon were canned at Karluk, in 1887 a million, and for several years in the 1890s, more than three million fish a year were commercially harvested and canned at Karluk. The largest Karluk harvest ever was in 1901, when 4 million sockeye were caught and canned, and the largest escapement was in 1926, when 2.5 million fish made it past fishermen’s nets into the lake. (This number must be qualified by the fact that escapement was not measured at Karluk before 1920) The run declined from there, unsteadily, with good years and bad, but trending always downwards, until the nadir of the Karluk fishery in 1955, when fewer than 30,000 sockeye were caught.
Beach seining at Karluk, 1960s
Until the 1940s the fish were mainly caught with beach seines, some as long as 300 fathoms- 1,800 feet. One end of the net was anchored to the beach on the spit and the other end was towed out into the water with a steam launch, around the schools of salmon, and back to the beach, at which point the fish were loaded into carts and rolled directly into the canneries. It was a very efficient system. After the Second World War beach seines were gradually replaced with seines deployed from boats- the same kind of net, except a boat held both ends of it, which allowed fish further from shore to be captured. Fishing went on six days a week, and each year’s management of the fishery was decided in a smoky room in Seattle by cannery owners and Federal fisheries managers. Concern for the future of the run was trumped by the desire for profit. 
And then in 1959 Alaska became a state, and as our local narrative has it, with the end of 80 years of cannery influenced management, the hiring a young cohort of Alaska Department of Fish and Game fish managers, and decisions based on the best available science,  the salmon runs were saved.  The Karluk sockeye run has been rebuilt, though not to historic levels. After a few bad years around 2010, the run this year is healthy again, with about 200,000 sockeye having escaped up river past fishermen’s nets so far this season, and 150,000 sockeye harvested.
Kodiak salmon, and especially the Karluk sockeye, have been lucky in their choice of spawning habitat. In recent years it has become apparent to fisheries scientists that rearing habitat is the single most important factor in the health of a salmon run. This would explain why hatcheries, fishing reduction, and even the elimination of fishing altogether, cannot always save a salmon run which has no clean place to mate and lay its eggs.  The placing of thousands of small streams around Puget Sound into culverts since the 1960s has been blamed for the decline of a once massive silver salmon resource there, and the threat of mines in the watershed of Bristol Bay looms as an existential threat to that fishery. But with neither an encroaching population nor mineral wealth, managers and fishermen on Kodiak are cautiously hopeful that, barring unforeseen effects from climate change, salmon will live here forever.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Commercial Fishing Safety Regulations and the 1985 Sinking of the Western Sea

For thousands of years mariners set off on their voyages trusting in their knowledge of the sea, the seaworthiness of their vessels, the gods and luck, to come home safely. And for thousands of years, when their luck ran out, mariners usually died. For sailors and their families this was part of their bargain with the sea for providing them a living.
Until the 1700s, even as shipbuilding technology made huge advances through the centuries, not much effort was put into figuring out how to survive once the ship had sunk. But by the 1780s, lifeboats were being designed, and in 1882, a Philadelphia inventor named Maria Beasley patented the first “Lifesaving Raft for Use in Case of Shipwreck.”
Beasely life raft, 1882
But these inventions only helped when they were installed on vessels, and ship owners resisted the added expense and the regulations which would require them.  When the Titanic sank in 1912, with the loss of 1,513 people, the ship was sailing legally with 20 lifeboats- enough for about 40% of the 2,224 passengers. The shock of the disaster got the public’s attention however, and spurred the adoption of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea in 1914, which required lifeboats for all steamship passengers, signaling devices, and improved hull design protocols to make ships better able to survive flooding.
Neither the 1914 Convention nor subsequent safety regulations in the decades following applied to American fishing vessels however. Despite horrendous losses, fishermen and their congressmen maintained the abiding principle that fishermen could weigh the risks themselves and make their own decisions about safety equipment, vessel construction, and training. In vessels under 200 tons they were free to do as they liked- no vessel standards or inspections, no life rafts, no licensed ship’s officers.
No one knows how many Alaskan fishermen died before records began being kept in 1990, but 387 fishermen have died since then. Historians estimate that 10,000 fishermen from Gloucester Massachusetts, have died since 1620, but again, no one knows for sure, since records before1900 are incomplete. But despite the loss of life unparalleled in any other industry, fishermen were off the regulatory map until 1985.  
In that year, on August 20, a seine boat crossing Marmot Bay north of Kodiak found the body of Peter Barry, a 20 year old Yale University student, floating in the water. Barry was a crewman on the Western Sea, a 58 foot wooden seine boat built in 1915. He was wearing a life jacket, but no survival suit. The Coast Guard later found two more bodies- twenty five year old Stewart Darling, and Jerard Bouchard, 58, of Coupeville, Washington, the skipper. The two other deckhands were never found- Chris Hofer, 27, of Fort Collins Colorado, and Bill Posey, 24, of Anchorage. The cause of the sinking has never been determined.
Peter Barry had come to Alaska that summer, worked in a cannery for a few weeks, and  boarded the Western Sea in July. At first he wrote home to his parents about the romance of working as a commercial fisherman, and about the chance to make far more money on a boat than in a cannery. The work was hard and he was treated as the greenhorn, but he accepted these things. But as the season progressed he wrote that things on the Western Sea were not idyllic. He wanted to get off the boat, but was dissuaded when the captain told him he wouldn’t be paid if he did.
In the investigation which followed the sinking it became apparent that the Western Sea had carried no life raft, no survival suits, no EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) and no emergency pump. The crewman Peter Barry replaced told Barry’s father he had been afraid of Bouchard and of the boat and had quit because he feared for his safety. An autopsy later revealed the presence of cocaine in Bouchard’s body.
Barry’s father was dumbfounded and incensed to learn that while doing cocaine at sea was against the law, it was perfectly legal for a 70 year old fishing boat to sail with no safety equipment. There were no vessel standards or inspections for most commercial fishing boats and fishermen were not required to pass any tests or master any skills. A twelve year old boy could set to sea as master of a fishing boat; with the fate of an inexperienced crew, ignorant of the risks involved, in his hands.
But unlike most survivors of dead fishermen who had found themselves dismayed but powerless to change the regulatory structure governing the lives of their loved ones, Robert Barry and his wife Peggy knew their way through the thicket of Federal bureaucracy. Barry had been in the U.S. Foreign Service for twenty five years and had recently been ambassador to Bulgaria. He was on his way to a European Security conference in Stockholm when his son was killed.
He and his wife began meeting with congressmen and working to pass legislation to make safety equipment mandatory on fishing boats. They also hoped to help prevent sinkings in the first place by making fishing vessels subject to technical standards and inspections, and to institute standards and licensing for fishing boat captains and engineers.
The story of their, and others, efforts to get such legislation passed is long, complicated, and in many ways incomplete, but on September 9, 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed the “Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act of 1988.” It was the first legislation in the United States to specifically mandate safety equipment on commercial fishing vessels.

The CFIVS mandates that life rafts, signaling devices, and immersion suits be carried on fishing vessels; and requires fishermen to conduct drills  using that equipment, and to keep logs documenting the drills. The result has been that commercial fishing fatalities in Alaska have dropped from 37 in 1992 to eight in 2014, and 0 in 2015, the first time year there have been no commercial fishing fatalities in Alaska. But still, no law yet requires fishing vessels under 200 gross tons to be built to any standards or be subject to  inspection, or for fishing personnel on such boats to be trained and licensed. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer’s Story

On February 9th, 2007, the Coast Guard Cutter Mellon was tied to the dock in Dutch Harbor with its helicopter, an H-65 Dolphin, parked in a PenAir hanger near the airport. During a school group tour of the helicopter that morning, a student asked about the strobe light on the rescue swimmer’s dry suit.
Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Willard Milam
The rescue swimmer giving the tour, Petty Officer Willard Milam, 41, told the kids the light was for the rescue swimmer himself, in case he ever had to let the helicopter crew know he needed help. The kids asked him if he’d ever used it, and he said no, in the 14 years he’d been jumping out of helicopters into the water, he’d never had to light that strobe.
Eighteen hours later, just before midnight, Milam and some of the other helo crew were uptown shooting pool when the aircraft commander on the Mellon called to tell him that a 406 EPIRB signal from the 42 foot fishing vessel Illusion was going off in Makushin Bay, 50 miles away on the other side of Unalaska Island.
H-65 Dolphin helicopter
After some discussion about the frequency of accidental EPIRB alerts, the helo took off into 40 to 50 mph winds with gusts over 60 and quarter mile visibility. They flew in heavy turbulence at 150 feet to keep below the ceiling, expecting to tell the captain of a seaworthy boat in Makushin Bay to turn his EPIRB off.
But there were no deck lights in Makushin Bay, and nothing on the radar screen. Instead the pilots saw two strobes faintly blinking, and flying closer, a tiny steady white light- the kind that sits on the top of a life raft. And then off the right side of the helo a red aerial flare glowed in the mist. Milam put his fins on and got ready to be lowered into the night and a15 foot sea.
The summer before, Milam had been set to retire, but when the Coast Guard offered him another Alaska tour he re-enlisted. He loved Alaska, and was easily talked into re-upping. But as he looked down at the black water he thought, “I pulled my retirement letter for this?”
Once in the water, he swam where the helo’s searchlight pointed and saw the raft’s light blinking between the waves. When he climbed in he found four men in street clothes huddled inside- “two Russians and two Spanish speaking gentlemen.” Somehow they had lost their survival suits, and one of the men was hypothermic and not fully conscious. Milam knew he had a problem- the men would have to get into the water to swim to the basket, and the water was 40 degrees. Getting them into the water would be issue number one, but in a few minutes they might not be responsive enough to swim or climb into a basket anyway, regardless of their opinion of getting wet.

Milam told the helo crew about the situation, and advised they bring they basket right up to the door of the raft. But after a conversation in the helo, the crew chief radioed that they’d lower their own survival suits down, giving up any chance of survival for themselves if anything happened to the helicopter.  
The tether line came down, but as Milam slid off the door sill of the raft to retrieve it, he felt water flooding into his suit. Somehow the suit had been compromised between the time he’d swum to the raft and now. He grabbed the tether line, but with the weight of the water around his legs he needed the fishermen to help him back in.
And already his thinking was becoming muddled from the cold. Straddling the doorway as the survival suit bags came down on the tether, he unhooked them all at once, thinking they were tied together, but they fell off the hook separately.  Two immediately blew away from the raft. Milam told the men to get their hypothermic friend into a suit first while he retrieved the two floating suits. When he returned with the suits he was shivering.
Milam pulled the hypothermic man, now in a survival suit, into the water and headed for the basket. Milam would tell an interviewer later that “The last place a guy that was on a boat that just sank wants to be is back in the water after he’s been in a raft,”  and the man panicked  and fought Milam until he pushed him into the basket, signaled to the crew chief, and up he went.
But when Milam turned back to the raft it was now some distance away and only the dome light was visible between the waves. He realized that with his suit full of water and the cold working on him there was no way he could catch it as it drifted away in the wind.
For the first time in his career, he hit his emergency strobe. They hoisted him up and tipped him into the helicopter, his suit so full of water he could barely move. They considered lowering the basket and letting the fishermen get themselves in unassisted, but they were down to 15 minutes of fuel before they had to leave. Milam told them there was no way they’d get all three of them in 15 minutes without his help.  And they all knew that if they didn’t have enough fuel to get all three men now, and had to leave someone in the raft while they flew back to Dutch Harbor to refuel, the raft would be God knows where by the time they got back.
Milam told them he had fifteen minutes of mojo left- he’d go down and get the men into the basket. At the door of the helicopter he puked into the rotor wash, and then they lowered him into the sea.
The three remaining men were in their survival suits, but the next man to be hoisted tried to climb on the outside of the basket. Milam fought to make to sit down, and finally simply threw him in. He told the two remaining men to calm down, they were good, just go with it. The third man went up with no problems.
But the last fisherman, the skipper, jumped feet first into the basket when it arrived for him. He went through the webbing, the basket tipped upside down, and he came up on his belly with the basket on his back, struggling to keep his face out of the water.  The cable was wrapped around the basket and at one point it became wrapped around the fisherman’s neck too, but the crew chief paid out enough slack to keep it from going taut. “Had that cable gone tight we wouldn’t have had to worry about rescuing that guy,” said Milam later.
He struggled to get the skipper untangled but the man tried repeatedly to climb on top of him, until Milam executed a “front head hold release,” a full palm in the face, which got the man into the basket. Milam watched it go up. All the fishermen were now in the helicopter.
Then the cold really set in. When the basket went down again the crew chief could see that Milam’s arms weren’t coming out of the water as he tried to swim for it. He was done, but the pilot somehow maneuvered the basket around and dragged it under Milam, pulling him out of the water like scooping a piece of cheese with a Triscuit.
When they landed in Dutch Harbor Milam remembers walking two of the fishermen to the ambulance, but he learned afterwards he didn’t walk any survivors to the ambulance, it was the aircraft commander and a paramedic who walked him to the ambulance. He was pretty out of it for awhile, but they warmed him up and he walked out the clinic four hours later.
"They flat out told me for the rest of my life that I would get colder easier. And I do notice -- I spend a lot of times outdoors-- that I do wear one extra layer here, you know. I can see now, (the doctor) was  right…I do feel a little colder, but it's not like life or death.”
For their actions that night, Milam and the rest of the crew- Lieutenant Commander Joseph Carroll, Lieutenant Devin Townsend, AST1 Willard Milam and AET2 John Maghupoy- received numerous awards, among them the Captain Frank A. Erickson Rotary Wing Rescue Award, “for extraordinary skill and courage in carrying out a rescue on February 9, 2007.”
A lot of fishermen have been pulled out of the water by the Coast Guard, and a lot of fishermen have not survived to see a helicopter or a C-130. Knowing that, it’s sometimes easy to see the dangers of a fisherman’s life in high contrast to the imagined comforts and safety of a 378 foot cutter, or the supposed ease of flying around in a helicopter or a big airplane and being home for dinner every night. But it’s worth remembering, and this story is proof of that, that the Coast Guard too has its own stories of risk and heroism and survival, often accomplished at the far edge of human abilities and technology for small glory and modest pay.  

Sources for this article include a 2008 Coast Guard Oral History interview of Willard Milam, and a Coast Guard News article from January 16, 2008. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Uganik Bay Cannery Workers and the Supreme Court

In 1981 two young cannery worker union organizers, Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo, were gunned down in Seattle by hitmen hired by a corrupt union president in league with Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos. Viernes and Domingo were part of a uniquely American story involving racism, violence, jobs, and a fight for what’s right. Centered on the salmon canning industry, it is part of Alaska’s story too, and with its origins in Uganik Bay, an intrinsic part of the history of Kodiak Island.  

Gene Viernes, early 1970s. Photo: Ron Chew, 
"Remembering Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes," 
WSU Press, 2012
Gene Viernes was originally from eastern Washington, and went to work at the Red Salmon Cannery in Naknek in 1969. Silme Domingo was from Seattle and also in 1969, began working at the New England Fish Company’s cannery in Uganik Bay, where his father, one of the old cannery “manongs,” had worked thirty years before. Like many other young Filipinos in those years, both men found the century old system of separate bunkhouses, mess halls and jobs for Filipinos and Alaska Natives a degrading anachronism in a society that had outlawed “separate but equal,” facilities for African Americans twenty years
Silme Domingo

Photo: Ron Chew, "Remembering 
Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes," 
WSU Press, 2012
Their experiences led eventually to reform of the cannery worker union hiring system, and an end to racial segregation of jobs and living facilities in Alaska’s canneries. The fight to end union corruption cost them their lives. The larger struggle to desegregate the canneries ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Alaskan canned salmon industry began in the 1870s in Southeast Alaska and was immediately lucrative for everyone involved. Like all extraction industries, it required three things: raw material, capital, and people to do the work. Alaska had the salmon, San Francisco businessmen had the money to build the canneries, and at least at first, Chinese immigrants did the work.
The Chinese had come to California in the 1840s to work in the gold placer mines, but as the gold played out, began working in salmon canneries on the Sacramento River, and then the Columbia, and eventually Alaska, including at Karluk, Uyak, and Uganik, on Kodiak Island. In 1882 however, driven by raw racism and fear of a “yellow horde,” of Chinese workers taking white American jobs, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Act mostly let the Chinese who were already here remain in the U.S., but it choked off further immigration.
Fortuitously for the salmon industry however, just as the resident Chinese began aging out of the work force in the early 20th century, thousands of young Filipino men, many of them college students, began arriving on the West Coast looking for work. Happy beneficiaries of the U.S. annexation of the Philippines following the 1898 Spanish-American War, these men and their sons and grandsons took the places of the Chinese on the cannery slime lines, eventually becoming known as the “Alaskeros,” sailing north each summer from San Francisco and Portland and Seattle to put salmon into cans. The Alaskeros would dominate the fish processing industry for the next hundred years and their descendants, having moved north to live, are a large part of the social fabric of Alaska today.
San Juan Salmon Packers Packaging Crew, Uganik Bay Cannery, 
Kodiak Island, 1940s. University of Washington Archives.

In 1970, when Silme Domingo, his brother Nemesio, and a group of other young Filipinos tried to enter the white mess hall in Uganik for food not available at the Filipino mess hall, they were told to leave. That winter, apparently based on their challenge of the segregation system, the Domingo brothers received letters from New England Fish Company, which owned the Uganik cannery, informing them they would not be hired for the upcoming season, or indeed, ever again. In 1972, Viernes, by then working at Wards Cove Cannery in Ketchikan, and similarly chafing at the old segregation rules, led a boycott of the Filipino mess hall after being denied entrance to the white mess hall. He too was blacklisted.
Salmon cannery worker, Grimes Cannery,
Kodiak Island, Alaska, 1960s
KMM Salmon Cannery History Collection

With these experiences driving them, Viernes, the Domingo brothers and other cannery workers, including Alaska Natives, formed the Alaska Cannery Workers Association, (ACWA). In 1973 and 1974 ACWA filed lawsuits against three Alaskan salmon packers, alleging discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The first case, Domingo versus New England Fish Company (NEFCO) ended in 1980 when NEFCO filed for bankruptcy. The second case, Carpenter vs NEFCO-Fidalgo Packing Co. was settled out of court in 1985, providing cash settlements for ten plaintiffs. The third case, Atonio vs Wards Cove Packing Co., went to the Supreme Court, which, in a series of decisions, ended the suit and limited the rights of workers to sue their employers for discrimination.
In response to the Supreme Court’s backpedaling on labor and civil rights, Congress wrote the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which explicitly strengthened worker’s rights.
Before it passed however, bowing to pressure from the salmon industry, Alaska’s Senators Frank Murkowski and Ted Stevens inserted a clause which exempted Alaskan cannery workers from the protections of the new law. The irony of the cannery workers being exempted from a law explicitly designed to remedy their experience of racist labor practices was not lost on anyone, but the votes of the two Alaskan Senators being necessary for passage, and compromise being the grease of politics, it was voted into law.
Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo did not live to see any of this. In their efforts to enlist the help of Seattle Local 37 of the International Longshore Workers Union in the lawsuits, they had challenged the local union president, Tony Baruso, for control of the union. Baruso ran the union as a corrupt minor fiefdom, charging bribes for cannery job placement, and sending gambling shills north to rake off cannery worker’s pay in their off hours. He was not interested in suing the salmon canneries over segregated mess halls. Baruso was also an ally of Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos, no friend of unions, at least fair practice unions, and whom Viernes and Domingo had angered while on a labor organizing trip to the Philippines in the spring of 1981.
On June 1, 1981, a few weeks after returning from the Philippines, Viernes and Domingo were shot in the Local 37 union hall near Pioneer Square by two gunmen hired by Tony Dictado, a local gang leader who worked as an enforcer for Tony Baruso. Viernes died at the scene and Domingo died the next day at Harborview Hospital.
Within days of the murders, the union rank and file seized control of the union and eliminated the bribes for jobs system. Dictado, Baruso, and the two shooters were all eventually found guilty of various degrees of murder. Baruso died in prison in 2008.

After evidence was produced that Philippines President Marcos had supplied $15,000 to pay the gunmen, the families of Gene Vierne and Silme Domingo filed a wrongful death civil suit against Marcos’s estate, and in 1990 a Federal jury awarded $15.1 million in damages. Marcos himself died in September, 1989. Later reduced to $2 million, the case stands as the only successful lawsuit against a foreign government for the death of a U.S. citizen.
Seattle Local 37 Union Hall, April 2015
KMM Salmon Cannery History Collection

For more information on the story of Filipino cannery workers and their fight for labor rights, see: “Remembering Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes: The Legacy of Filipino Labor Activism,” by Ron Chew,” University of Washington Press, 2012.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Here There Be Dragons: Sea Monsters of Kodiak Island

A little after four in the morning on a summer day in 2002, three setnetters pushed their 22 foot skiff off a beach in Uganik Bay on the west side of Kodiak and headed for their gillnet a quarter of a mile away. It was daylight, but barely; the difference between sea and sky and mountains still questionable, the shoreline and the greasy water and the buoys on the net visible only in shades of gray. Dave Little, Tollef Monsen and a third crewman had climbed into the skiff a few moments before with four hours sleep. This sliver of rest was not unusual for them during salmon openings, but they’d made the run out to the net hundreds of times that summer and knew the routine at a level beyond consciousness.  Dave Little, the fishing permit holder, was driving the skiff, just enough awake to keep the boat headed in the right direction and from hitting any floating logs. The two crewmembers focused on not falling in the water.   
And then suddenly, a couple skiff lengths off the port side bow, something stuck its head out of the water.
Nine years later Monsen would tell an interviewer, “There’s this neck and head, and it wasn’t like your hands around the neck big, it was like your arms around the neck big.”  
In the same interview, Little would say “I saw it do its movements, but I couldn’t tell you if the neck was a foot in diameter or three feet in diameter. It was all darkish but I was paying attention to driving the skiff.”
However big it was, it didn’t pay them any mind.
Monsen remembers that, “It didn’t really focus on us. It didn’t look at us, it didn’t make eye contact, no. And whatever it was didn’t stick around. In a few seconds it was gone, back under the water. I mean we were so tired that it was like, did I just see that? Did we just see that?”
So what does he think it was?
“Who knows?”

The next summer Monson stayed behind in the holding skiff one evening to clean it out while Little and the other crewmember went to pull a net. It was calm and sunny. He was crawling around scrubbing the fish totes when something hit the bottom of the skiff.
“All of a sudden it was like DONG! And the skiff kind of lurches, and I’m like what the hell was that?”
 There was no motor on the skiff, it was at anchor, and there were no whales nearby.
“It was big, like a log (hitting the skiff). But nothing goes DONG! and lurches this big old skiff like that. I don’t know what that was either.”

The sea creature observed in Uyak Bay in 1971
Thirty years before that, on a sunny day in the summer of 1971, another group of setnet fishermen in a skiff had also seen a large sea animal they did not recognize. In 1977 Eddie Pakkanin, who was in that skiff that day,  told  the Kodiak High School oral history magazine, Elwani, that the animal was about 30 feet long and “had a head on it like a horse and would blow through its nose.”  
Pakkanin said that another man in the skiff, DeWitt Fields, fired at the animal with a rifle as they approached it. The animal went below the surface then and turned and swam under the skiff before surfacing on the other side.
“We don’t know what it was, but it had a grayish color and we couldn’t see any fins or any tail and it never made any noise. It would just come up and you could see the head and part of the body.”
Another person in the skiff that sunny day, also quoted in the Elwani article, remembered recently that the animal was “hanging out,” when they first saw it, and like Eddie Pakkanin, he remembered that as the skiff crowded the animal against the shoreline it turned and came toward them on the surface, and then, about 25 yards out, dove and swam under the boat. They all had a good look at the animal as it swam two feet beneath the surface of the clear water.
In the Elwani interview this second witness says the animal was more like 40 feet long, “with a dull brown color, and it did have hair, sort of like sea lions, but not as thick. It had a real narrow and long head, kind of horse shaped with two nostrils. When it came up, the head and the neck and part of the back came up, with water covering the middle part and then the tail would come up.”
In a photo taken that day from the skiff by DeWitt Fields’ wife Wanda, reprinted here courtesy of Elwani and interpreted recently by that second witness, a long snout skims the water ahead of the eye, the nape of the neck behind the eye slopes down into the back beneath the surface, and the tail just behind it just breaks the surface. Big eye. Long nose. Nostrils way out in front. It looks like Alf, the late ‘80s Alien Life Form sitcom character.
Eddie Pakkanin told his interviewer that the animal appeared around two every afternoon for a few more days before disappearing forever. That other person in the skiff remembers seeing the animal one more time two or three years later. His family had closed up camp for the summer and were loading their skiffs for the 100 mile run back to town. They looked up and saw the animal right off their beach.
“If we hadn’t been trying to beat the tide we would have gone out for a better look, but we were pressed for time.” He never saw the animal again either.

Unknown object, perhaps a sea creature,  just above
 the bottom line on an echo sounder paper recording made
on the F/V Mylark in Raspberry Straits, April 15th, 1969
And finally, this. On April 15th, 1969, the Mylark, a 65 foot wooden shrimp boat working in Raspberry Straits recorded something on its echo sounder at 55 fathoms (330 feet) that the Kodiak Daily Mirror put on their front page five days later with the headline “A Sea Monster?” The tone of the accompanying article treats the paper recording with droll skepticism, and the incident comes up on a number of websites devoted to sea monsters, UFO’s and other not quite measurable things. But the skipper of the Mylark, Chet Petersen, did some calculations and judged in apparent good faith, that given the echo sounder’s field of view of the ocean floor at that depth, the strange dinosaur-like object just above the curving bottom line was over 200 feet long.
       But again, who knows?

This story, by Toby Sullivan, Executive Director of the Kodiak Maritime Museum, first appeared in the Kodiak Daily Mirror, March 3, 2015

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Day FDR Caught a Dolly in Buskin Lake

In the late afternoon of August 7, 1944, in the middle of World War II, if you had been standing on Brooklyn Avenue in Kodiak, Alaska, which ran about where the back of Sutliifs Hardware is now, you could have waved to President Franklin Roosevelt as he drove by in a station wagon. It was Roosevelt’s first visit to an Alaskan town, and the only visit by a sitting president to Kodiak.
A few weeks earlier, Roosevelt had boarded the heavy cruiser USS Baltimore in San Diego and sailed with several escorting destroyers to Hawaii to talk strategy with Admiral Chester Nimitz and General Douglas MacArthur, his commanders in the Pacific war against the Japanese. A few days later, the flotilla headed north to the Aleutians, and then to Kodiak.
The Japanese had invaded the Aleutian islands of Kiska and Attu in June 1942, and been driven out in the summer of 1943. By 1944, the Aleutians had become a lonely backwater of the war. For the troops on Adak, hunkered down in Quonset huts in an unforgiving climate, with little to do and thousands of miles between them and female companionship, spirits were low.
Roosevelt’s aides figured a presidential visit would help the troops’ morale, but there were other reasons to visit Alaska. By 1944, eleven years into his presidency and three years into the war, Roosevelt was physically exhausted, and though few knew it, suffering from heart disease. After seeing him in Hawaii, General Macarthur told an aide that he thought Roosevelt would be dead in six months. But Roosevelt loved the sea and his aides thought the trip might be good for him. And too, Roosevelt was running for re-election that fall, and Roosevelt and his team thought a visit to a war zone, even a now-quiet one like Alaska, would look good to the electorate. Roosevelt left First Lady Eleanor at home, but brought his Scottish Terrier, Fala.
FDR dines with the troops at Adak
At Adak, Roosevelt dined with the troops and made a speech. “I like your food. I like your climate. (Laughter) You don't realize the thousands upon thousands of people who would give anything in the world to swap places with you. I have seen some of them. Of course, I haven't been down to the Southwest Pacific, but last year I saw two battalions of our engineers down in Liberia, and I would much rather be here than in Liberia.” The soldiers loved it.
After bypassing Dutch Harbor because of stormy weather, the Baltimore and its destroyers arrived off Kodiak early on the morning of August 7, but stood offshore for several hours waiting for a fogbank to burn off. Around noon the coast was clear and Roosevelt and his party transferred to the destroyer Cummins, which landed them in Women’s Bay where an honor guard met them on the dock, including an all-black Navy band, reportedly the only such military band the President had seen in his travels.  
The President on Buskin Lake
After meeting with the Kodiak Army and Navy commanders and reviewing the sailors in front of the hangers, and the Seabees on the baseball diamond at Fort Greely, Roosevelt’s entourage headed into the village of Kodiak, population 500. With the sun shining, the town was at its best and the brief tour was a great success. According to Roosevelt’s official appointment diary, “This was the first Alaskan town he had ever visited and most of the delighted populace was out to welcome him to their midst.”
On the way back to the ship, Roosevelt was taken fishing on Buskin Lake. Two Dolly Varden were landed- the President caught one and the fishing guide, a Lt. Branham, USNR,
caught the other one. The record is unclear as to whether Fala, the Scottish Terrier, accompanied the President on the Buskin expedition.   
Before heading back to the Baltimore, the President was informed that “Mr. Chas. Madsen, Pres. of the Alaskan Guides Assn. had presented him with an Alaskan bearskin rug. It was delivered in Seattle a few days later.”
The President crossed the Gulf of Alaska to Auke Bay, near Juneau, before disembarking in Bremerton, Washington. Almost immediately, Republicans began railing against Roosevelt for allegedly having sent a warship to retrieve Fala after he’d been left behind on an island. Roosevelt, a master politician, responded at a Teamsters campaign dinner-
FDR and Fala
 “These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don't resent attacks, and my family don't resent attacks, but Fala does resent them…as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I'd left him behind on an Aleutian island and had sent a destroyer back to find him—at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars—his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself ... But I think I have a right to resent, to object, to libelous statements about my dog.”
The Republicans stopped talking about Fala and Roosevelt easily won election to a fourth term a few weeks later.

In Kodiak seventy years later, Deedie Pearson still clearly remembers standing as a little girl on the side of the street while the President drove by, a few feet away.
And as Clarence Selig told an oral historian in 1993,
“I can still remember everybody lining up the street down at Brooklyn Avenue and he drove by waving at everybody. That was a highlight in my life watching the President drive by our yard.”
But the sea trip to Alaska did not revive Roosevelt’s health. He died eight months later, in April 1945, in Warm Springs Georgia.
As the train carrying the President’s body back to Washington went through Spartanburg, South Carolina, Myrtle Olsen watched it pass. The previous September, a month after Roosevelt’s Alaskan visit, she had made a twenty-one day journey from Kodiak to South Carolina to join her fiancĂ©, a man she had met while he was stationed in Kodiak.
“It’s funny,” she says now, “I worked at the Island Fountain, right down there by where the Subway building is now, serving Coney Island hot dogs and ice cream and chocolates they made right in Kodiak to all those servicemen, and surely I would have seen the President that day, but I just can’t recall him in Kodiak that day. But I do remember watching the train carrying him going by after he died.”

Sources: KMM Archives: Clarence Selig Oral History, UAF Library and FDR Library