75 Years After WWII Internment, St. George Island Receives Apology From USFWS

Aug 14, 2017

Survivor Anthony Merculief of St. George Island (right) speaks with Wes Kuhns and Billy Pepper of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after the apology ceremony at the St. George community center.
Credit Laura Kraegel/KUCB

Seventy-five years after supervising the Unangax̂ internment during World War II, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has apologized to the people of St. George Island.

Federal officials visited the island last month to make amends in person.

Before a small crowd at the St. George community center, Wes Kuhns said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)  is ready to take responsibility for its actions.

"I'm here to deliver a long overdue apology for the tragedies that befell the Aleut people on our watch," said Kuhns, acting captain of a USFWS research vessel.

In 1942, the agency removed St. George Islanders from their homes and sent them to internment camps, following the Japanese attack on Dutch Harbor. Almost 50 of them died from sickness and starvation.

"To the Aleut people interned at Funter Bay and their descendants, who continue to carry this burden, I am sorry," said Kuhns.

There to receive the apology was Anthony Merculief, a 78-year-old survivor.

Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service presented St. George residents with a plaque apologizing for the agency's role in the Unangax̂ evacuation and internment during World War II.
Credit Laura Kraegel/KUCB

Merculief was sent to Funter Bay as a toddler, so he doesn't remember details from the three-year internment. But the experience has stayed with him.

"It has an effect on you when you're treated the way we were treated," he said. "It never wears off."

Still, Merculief said he accepts the apology. To him, the most important thing is to continue healing and keep this history alive.

"The suffering we went through, how many people died because of the poor conditions — hopefully, it'll never be repeated," he said.

That's why Merculief was glad his grandniece was at the apology ceremony.

Leah Lekanof, 15, said the commemoration has motivated her to learn more about what her people endured.

"When I get home, I'm going to ask my grandma about it more," she said. "And my uncle."

For now, though, Lekanof said she was happy to watch her Great Uncle Anthony as he received an official letter of apology.

"I saw him smile so hard, in a way I haven't seen in a long time," she said. "I was just so happy to him smile."

Anthony Merculief takes a look at the commemorative plaque, while his grandniece Leah Lekanof (left) sits behind him.
Credit Laura Kraegel/KUCB