Sullivan Recognizes Mike Livingston and Gertrude Svarny as “Alaskans of the Week”

WASHINGTON—On the floor of the U.S. Senate yesterday, and as we head into Memorial Day weekend, Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) recognized Mike Livingston and Gertrude Svarny, both from Unalaska. Senator Sullivan spoke about their respective roles in ensuring that a young man from Unalaska, Private George Fox, will after decades receive recognition for being killed in action during World War II. A ceremony, which Senator Sullivan is scheduled to attend, will be held for Private Fox on Monday in Unalaska. Livingston and Svarny were recognized as part of Sen. Sullivan’s series, “Alaskan of the Week.” Please find the full video and transcript below.


DAN SULLIVAN: Madam President, it is Thursday, and it is the time of the week that I like to celebrate an amazing person or people in my State who are doing something great for Alaska, great for America, great for the world. It is someone I like to refer to as our Alaskan of the Week--or Alaskans of the Week, plural. So we are doubling up this week because we have two Alaskans that we are going to be commemorating. And I want to acknowledge it has been a couple of rough weeks for America--we all know that--for reasons that are quite obvious. Some tempers here in the Senate have been flaring a little bit. So I wanted to end the week on what is really an incredible, uplifting story, an epic story. It is a bit complicated, so you have to pay attention if you are wanting to hear about just a remarkable course of events in Alaska. And it is a particularly poignant story as we head into Memorial Day weekend, a time when we honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. And I am going to tell, as I mentioned, a very special

Memorial Day story—a complicated one, but one for the history books. This story has twists and turns, dark spots, highlights, and literally a Hollywood ending, one that involves a hero who gave his life for America, what we are celebrating on Monday, but whose heroism and service was only recently acknowledged and even only recently remembered.

So, first, I am going to begin the story about a young man who made the ultimate sacrifice for our Nation, an Alaskan native, an indigenous man from Unalaska--Private George Fox.

Now, Private George Fox is not our Alaskan of the Week, but the whole story that I am going to tell revolves around Private George Fox, who was killed in action fighting Nazis in World War II in Italy in 1944 and, since 1949, was buried on the island of Unalaska--that is out on the Aleutian island chain in Alaska, the islands way out that go out towards Japan. But he was buried in an unmarked grave and essentially forgotten--no record of military service, no awards for heroism, nothing, forgotten by literally almost everybody but one person, for nearly 80 years.

I am also going to talk about two very special people who are our Alaskans of the Week; that is Mike Livingston and Gertrude Svarny, who worked over the years to make sure that Private George Fox's exceptional service is finally going to be officially recognized. And that will happen Monday, on Memorial Day on the island of Unalaska in the Aleutian Island chains back home in Alaska in a ceremony that will take place on Monday.

So, as you can tell, this is actually a story of three people: one of them a young soldier killed in action for our country in World War II; one of them a still-living 90-year-old woman, a childhood friend of the young soldier, one of our Alaskans of the Week, Gertrude; another, a man on a mission, a detective with a public servant's heart.

It is a story of the invasion of the United States by the Japanese. Many Americans don't know that Japan invaded parts of Alaska. It is a story of racism, discrimination, service, honor, heroism. It is the story of how two people worked to keep history alive and to honor another who was forgotten for his heroism fighting and dying for our country.

It is an epic of Alaska--an epic of Alaska--fitting to be memorialized here on the U.S. Senate floor, and, more importantly, memorialized Monday when we honor our veterans and those who died in the service of our country.

So, it is a little complicated, but bear with me. Let me start this remarkable story in a remarkable place.

This is Unalaska on the Aleutian Island chain. So if you are looking at a map of Alaska, the Aleutian Islands go way out west, actually the Aleutian Islands cross the international date line, way further west than Hawaii. The Aleutian Island chain of Unalaska is a beautiful island about 800 miles southwest of Anchorage in the Bering Sea. It is home to walruses and sea lions; tens of millions of birds migrate through the area.

Right now, it is the largest fishing port in the country, and it is home to an incredible group of patriotic people, the Unangan native people, living in an area steeped in fascinating and sometimes very tragic history.

So here is a short version of that history. First, when Alaska was a colonial possession of Russia, Russian fur seekers decimated the Aleuts, the native populations on these islands, through warfare, disease, even slavery.

Then, 75 years after the United States purchased Alaska from Russia, during World War II, Japan actually bombed Unalaska, June 3 and 4, almost 80 years ago today.

Then the Japanese invaded and occupied nearby islands on Alaska's Aleutian Island chain. Many Americans don't know that history.

The United States--Alaska--was actually occupied by our enemy, Imperial Japan. Eventually, American forces had to drive out the Japanese in a brutal campaign on the Aleutian Islands area. About 1,500 American servicemembers were killed in those battles, 600 missing, and almost 3,500 wounded in action.

So that is some of the history of Unalaska and the Aleutian Islands chain during World War II.

So, George Fox--at about the same time the Japanese were literally bombing his hometown of Unalaska in 1942, George Fox had volunteered as a patriotic young American Alaska Native to fight for his country and was sent to the other side of the world--Europe, North Africa.

Now, we don't know a lot about Private Fox's service, but because of the work of Mike Livingston, our other Alaskan of the Week, who is alive and doing great, we do have some basic information.

Here is some of what we know about Private George Fox. He was born January 20, 1920, in Unalaska--again, the Aleutian island that we are talking about on the Aleutian Islands chain. When he was 22 years old, like so many patriotic Alaska Natives, he signed up to serve his country in World War II.

By the way, it should be noted and cannot be overstated that throughout history, even though so many Alaska Natives were discriminated against--and still are in some ways--Alaska Natives, certainly in Unalaska but all throughout the whole State, have served at higher rates in the military than any other ethnic group in the country--incredible patriotic service.

So Private George Fox from Unalaska goes to war for his country in World War II. At the same time, his hometown is being bombed by the Japanese. He was assigned to Company G in the 179th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division. His unit was first sent to fight the Axis Powers in North Africa, then to Italy, where he landed in Italy on Anzio Beach--a very famous battle--to fight the Germans in the famous Battle of Anzio, where roughly 7,000 Allied servicemembers were killed in action.

He survived that and fought his way heroically toward Rome, fighting the Nazis the whole way. Unfortunately, on June 1, 1944, a Nazi bomb exploded near him, and he was killed in action as a young American serving his country--killed in Italy.

He is the only known Alaska Unangan from his region to be killed in action during World War II.

So about 5 years later, after the war, his remains were removed from Italy and returned to Unalaska in 1949. We now know there was a small funeral at the Russian Orthodox church, where his ashes were buried next to his mom, but his grave was unmarked--unmarked--and it stayed unmarked for decades.

Now, that is what we know about Private Fox's military service, not much else. Why? Because there was a fire where all his military records were in the lower 48, and his service records were destroyed. So, frankly, his record in the military was essentially forgotten--forgotten.

Now, I think--you can't prove this, but the fact that he was Alaska Native--that there was probably some discrimination here, like, ``Hey, whatever, he is Alaska Native. We are not that worried.'' And so nobody in authority kept his memory alive, his service alive. It was all forgotten, that he was even a soldier.

So his memory and his service and his heroism--because these are serious battles in World War II--all faded almost completely to nothing, if it wasn't for our heroic Alaskans of the Week that we are recognizing today.

So enter our first Alaskan of the Week, Mike Livingston, also a Native Alaskan, Unangan, and he was determined to remember this vague memory of this guy he had heard about, Private George Fox. 

Here is a little bit of Mike's story, which is another great story.

He was born in Cold Bay, AK, which is another island in the Aleutian Islands chain. He moved to Unalaska, the town we are talking about, in 1978, as a college student to learn the art of building traditional kayaks from the Native elders in the community, and he began to work as a public safety officer.

From then until 2003, when he retired, he was an emergency medical technician, a firefighter, a dive rescue specialist, a police officer, a detective in various places throughout Alaska, much of it in Anchorage at the Anchorage Police Department, and he is currently a captain with the Alaska State Defense Force.

Along the way--now, this guy is really impressive, what Mike did. He received a master's degree in anthropology and a doctorate in education, all of which he uses as a specialist in his job, also at the Aleutian Pribilof Island Association, and he uses his education and skills also as a detective and fuels his passion for helping people help solve mysteries, particularly in his interest of genealogy and family trees that involve stories that are untold mysteries. A tree nut--a family tree nut--he calls himself, as do his group of friends who dig deep to solve puzzles, the kind of which involve people, historic places, lapses in historic knowledge that have faded into history, which is exactly what happened to Private George Fox.

Around 2005, Mike Livingston, our Alaskan of the Week, and his friends started to take on that mission. What happened to Private George Fox? They had heard about him--a fellow Alaska Native who they knew from stories was killed in action fighting somewhere in World War II--but they needed more information. Where was he buried? Nobody seemed to know. Why was he not listed as killed in action in service in World War II?

In the U.S. military, when a servicemember is killed in action, the survivors get benefits, and they are entitled to receive full military honors at funerals.

And in Mike's culture and in Private Fox's culture--the Unangan culture--when a warrior died protecting their village, statues were carved, songs were written and sung. It has always been a huge honor in the Native culture to be a fallen warrior, but Private George Fox got none of this from America, from his Federal Government, and even from the amazing Alaska Native people.

Mike Livingston, the detective with a servant's heart, wanted to right this wrong. He wanted to do it for Private Fox, for his community, for his people, for his State, for his country. So he got to work on this mystery. He began to dig deeper.

He called every Federal Agency he could think of to try to get more information about this mysterious Alaska Native whose memory had faded, whose heroism wasn't recognized. But Mike ran into brick wall after brick wall calling Federal Agencies. He was able to get a few tidbits, like the basic information mentioned above, and he also discovered that George Fox's remains were returned to Unalaska in 1949, but nothing else--little else.

The mystery of where those remains were--in a grave, an unmarked grave; where Private George Fox was buried--it haunted Mike Livingston.

As he said, ``When you compare some of what occurred during World War II, or shortly after World War II, people who were white were highly honored,'' he recently told a reporter, particularly if they were killed in action during the war--but not so for so many Alaska Natives.

Eventually, Mike heard that another resident on the island--now we are back on Unalaska--had a piece of the puzzle, a woman who happened to be related to Mike through marriage.

Enter our second Alaskan of the Week, 91-year-old artist Gertrude Svarny. Let me spend a few minutes talking about her incredible patriotic story.

Gertrude was born in 1930 on Unalaska, the island out in the Aleutian Islands chain, the island bombed by the Japanese. She was also Alaska Native.

Her family lived next to the Fox family. George Fox was about 8 years older than she was. George and Gertrude's older brother were good friends. So Gertrude remembers George. She said the whole island loved him. He was kind, funny, full of life, and obviously brave.

As I mentioned, in 1942, George Fox left to go fight World War II for our great Nation, right at the time George and Gertrude's village, Unalaska, was bombed by the Japanese.

And here is another story most Americans don't know about. After that happened, the U.S. Government took the Alaska Native people on the Aleutian Islands chain and put them into internment camps--not White people, only Alaska Native people.

The treatment of these great patriotic American citizens in these camps is a dark spot in American history that, as I mentioned, not many Americans are aware of. Camps were basically abandoned buildings. The conditions were awful--crowded, unheated, unsanitary. Many died in the camps as a result of these horrendous conditions.

Three years later, when the war was finally over, the people of Unalaska--the Native people of Unalaska--were allowed to go home to their community after being in these internment camps, but their homes were ransacked and burned. Many of their villages on the island were destroyed, another dark spot in our country's history.

Remember, these were our citizens, our country, and the Native people, if they weren't at home, many of them were fighting overseas in the Pacific and in Europe, like Private George Fox.

So Gertrude comes home from the internment camp. She is at Unalaska now, and she marries another patriot named Sam Svarny, her husband, who was in the Army, originally from Chicago, and he was stationed in Unalaska. Another patriot in this story, Sam served in World War II and later served in Vietnam.

Gertrude became an artist--a renowned artist in Alaska. She is actually very famous for her work that she makes out of traditional materials, and she is in collections all over the world.

And even though her childhood was marked by the wrongs inflicted on her family and her by her own country, she and her husband have remained fiercely patriotic. Even interment hasn't dissuaded the patriotism of the Alaska Native people. And one of the ways Gertrude displayed this patriotism, which still burns in her to this day--remember, she is 91 years old--was that every Memorial Day, they put flags on the grave sites on the island of Unalaska to those who served in the military.

Gertrude and her husband Sam always remembered when she was a young girl the small service that she had attended, a funeral service in 1949, of the young, spritely teenager George Fox, a friend of Gertrude's who died fighting the Nazis more than 5,000 miles away from Alaska in Italy.

The service was in the winter, she remembers. It was very cold. After the service, the small procession walked in the frigid winds to the cemetery where George Fox's mother was buried.

So, every year, this patriotic Alaska Native woman, for decades, has quietly visited the unmarked grave of Private George Fox to place a flag on this unmarked grave to remember his service, and that is the only living memory of what this young patriotic Alaska Native soldier did for his country.

When her husband Sam passed away in 2014, Gertrude continued this tradition even to this day, as I mentioned, at 91 years old. What a patriot.

So here is how it all comes together. When our detective, another Alaskan of the Week, Mike Livingston, finally learned that his own relative through marriage, Gertrude, actually knew where Private Fox was buried, he got to work. The mystery was coming together. He felt like he had enough information to make the official case to the U.S. Government to finally get Private George Fox, this American hero, recognized.

He wrote up an affidavit. Gertrude signed it, stating how she had been putting a flag on the unmarked grave site for decades. But still, request after request was ignored by the U.S. Government.

So what did they do, Mike and Gertrude? Well, to all Americans and Alaskans watching this, here is what they did. They called their U.S. Senator.

This was now in 2020, at the height of COVID. When my office heard about this, my former head of casework, Rachel Bylsma, got immediately onto the case. We all said that this is so important to make sure Private George Fox got the honor and recognition he deserved. So we worked together. And I am proud to say, he is going to be getting that recognition. Here is what is going to happen on Unalaska in the Aleutian Island chain this Monday, 2022 Memorial Day for America: The top military officials in my State, so many members of Private George Fox's family, so many members of the community, myself, and my team are going to gather in Unalaska, and we are going to gather to honor a warrior, a hero, an Unangan Alaskan, an American, on Memorial Day.

Gertrude will be there, and Mike will be there, our two Alaskans of the Week. Hundreds of people will be there. There will be a procession from the Russian Orthodox church to the cemetery, and we have now a beautiful 4-foot-high gravestone to be unveiled.

Taps will float from a bugle. There will be a 21-gun salute from the 4th Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division. And on Memorial Day in Unalaska, in the Bering Sea, the man who fought and died in World War II as a hero for his country in North Africa, in Italy on Anzio Beach, this American hero who has been forgotten will be recognized because of the work of so many but, in particular, the relentless work of our Alaskans of the Week Mike Livingston and Gertrude Svarny.

Private George Fox's service and sacrifice and heroism will finally be recognized on Memorial Day by our Government, and we will have a gravestone befitting of his incredible patriotic service.

On that gravestone, which I have seen--it is beautiful--at the bottom there will be engraved three words. These words came from George Fox to his family in his last letter that he wrote from Anzio Beach in a heroic battle a world away from Alaska when he was fighting to save the soul of the world from tyranny. There are three words in that letter--that are now on a gravestone--that meant so much then and, I would argue, mean so much now for our country to this very day. The three words on that headstone are ``Wish all love.'' ``Wish all love.'' The last words of a patriotic Alaska Native, sent home from Italy to his family, who on Memorial Day will finally be recognized due to the heroic, relentless hard work of our two Alaskans of the Week, Mike and Gertrude. Thank you for all you are doing, all you have done for your community, for your State, and for your country.

Thank you to George Fox's family and to Private George Fox for his incredible service.

I look forward to seeing you all in Unalaska in a few days. It is going to be a great ceremony. Congratulations on being our Alaskans of the Week as we head into Memorial Day weekend

# # #