The Memorial Day remembrance service in Unalaska this year wasn't quite what it had been in the past. While the early spring weather was characteristically unpredictable, attendees stood apart from one another, donned masks, or watched from their vehicles as Mayor Vince Tutiakoff Sr. addressed the community and recognized the sacrifices made by military veterans, current service members, interned Unangax̂, and fishermen lost at sea.
The event was held at Memorial Park and was shortened due to concerns regarding the coronavirus and the health and safety of Unalaskans. Apart from recognizing the men and women who served, Tutiakoff also took the time to thank the community for following local and statewide measures designed to protect the public during the coronavirus pandemic.
''Because of the pandemic, we are celebrating a shortened version of the Memorial Day remembrance,'' remarked Tutiakoff in his welcoming statement. ''We are not through this [public health emergency] yet. Social distancing, wearing a mask, and washing your hands regularly has been proven to help lower the curve. Thank you very much, Unalaska, for your cooperation.''
Local attendees also recognized the difficulties of holding a gathering during such a strange and potentially dangerous time. And while appreciative of the service, for some the changed event evoked frustration.
''It's a shame that this virus has affected us like this and shortened such a wonderful, blessed event to honor these great individuals who've given everything, their lives for this country so we could have these assemblies and our rights,'' said local Bob Marquardt.
Marquardt arrived on the island in 1979 and has attended the Memorial Day services in Unalaska each year they've been held. As he is retiring this year, he said this will be his final year attending.
Men from the U.S. Coast Guard's Marine Safety Detachment Dutch Harbor attended to present the United States flag. And in the posting of the service colors—in which service members or veterans raise their service flags—Rhonda Anderson represented the Air Force, Diego Castillo represented the Army, Nick Lekanoff Sr. represented the Navy, Lucio Howard represented the U.S. Marine Corps, and Nathaniel Seman represented Prisoners of War and Missing in Action.
While Memorial Day remembrance events were altered across the nation to meet coronavirus safety measures, Unalaska's celebration remains unique in its inclusion of remembrance of the Unangax̂ communities who were evacuated from the islands during World War II.
''We also remember the Aleut evacuees from Atka, Nikolski, St. Paul, St. George, Chernofski, Kashega, Makushin, Biorka, and Unalaska,'' said Tutiakoff. ''Many of our Aleut people did not return. Those that did return to their homes found an empty village. Their homes, their personal property were destroyed. Today we honor their strength and leadership through that terrible time.''
As a community built around the largest fishing port in terms of volume in the nation, Unalaska has similarly weathered the loss of many community members and fishermen. In honor of their memory, Dustin Dickerson and his granddaughter recited the Fisherman's Prayer.
It was a solemn service that rang heavy for many who attended. In such a small community, the loss of service members, fishermen, and family members affects the entire community. Local Blake LaPlant reflected on the way the island absorbs these losses.
''Every year it’s a tough deal,'' said LaPlant. ''One of my best friends, just this last week passed. My brothers passed here several years ago. All of our friends are fishermen and locals. So this is a pretty big deal. When someone goes [passes away] here, it takes a piece of everybody’s heart.''
While the memorial service was certainly shorter and perhaps more solemn than previous years, many still came to pay their respects. Cars lined Summer Bay Road and community members gathered at responsible distances as the island united to commemorate the sacrifices of loved ones.