Unfinished business from WW II: Recognizing PFC George Fox, An Alaska Native who died in combat
The story of George Fox is both a history lesson and the story of a forgotten soldier. Recognition for this Alaska Native soldier comes almost 80 years after he died in action in World War II.
His name was recently added to the World War II fallen soldier monument on the downtown Anchorage park strip on 9th Avenue, just in time for Memorial Day.
Fox was born in 1920 and grew up Unga, in what today is a ghost village in the Shumagin Islands in the Aleutian chain. When Fox signed up for the US Army, fewer than 200 people lived there. The year was 1941, just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
The last his family heard from him was in a letter to his father, dated May 17, 1944, sent from Italy. The soldier did say he was finally seeing a little action but downplayed the dangers and told his family not to worry. Instead, he asked about salmon prices and wrote, “I sure would like to be fishing again. This makes three seasons that I’ve missed.”
Two weeks later, Fox died near Anzio Beach. Michael Livingston says he was part of a bloody campaign in which Allied Forces lost 800 soldiers a day.
“He was literally fighting the Nazis,” Livingston said. “A bomb exploded near him.”
Livingston has spent a decade navigating government bureaucracies to win recognition for PFC George Fox’s service. While working on a genealogical research project, Livingston discovered that Fox was the only Unangax̂, or Aleut, to die in that war.
Livingston doesn’t know why the military overlooked Fox’s service.
“It was fairly common for Alaska Native soldiers to be overlooked in their service and in their sacrifices,” he said.
But as a fellow Unangan, Livingston says Fox’s death has cultural significance. Throughout history, he says, the Unangax̂ have elevated warriors killed while defending their villages by composing songs and dances in their honor.
Livingston’s research eventually led him to discover that Fox had initially been buried in Italy, but his remains were later sent to Unalaska, where he was buried in an unmarked grave on a rocky hillside next to his mother.
Livingston later located the spot, after hearing that a childhood friend of Fox’s, Gertrude Svarny, had placed an American flag there every Memorial Day. By then, the grave was barely recognizable, covered in bushes.
“Eighty years is really a long time for unfinished business. Private George Fox should have been recognized in 1944 after he was killed in action,” Livingston said.
Last year, a military headstone went up on Fox’s grave in Unalaska, followed by a ceremony with full military honors.
Livingston credits Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan for his help in getting the military bureaucracy to correct its oversight of Fox, an effort that he says has taken years and years of work.
Fox’s surviving family members say they are grateful for the efforts to secure his place in history. Robert Kuntz says after his great uncle, George Fox, went off to war in 1941, Japanese fighters bombed Dutch Harbor and attacked other islands in the Aleutian chain. He says much in the way George Fox was the forgotten soldier, the battles fought in the Aleutians were the forgotten war.
“I don’t think the nation thought it was as important,” said Kuntz. “We weren’t a state then, but it was American soil. It’s history.”
Kuntz says it is also history that directly affected his family, who were scattered from Wrangell to Seattle to California, after the US military forcibly evacuated nine Aleutian villages, due to the threat of Japanese invasion. He says a few family members wound up in orphanages.
Kuntz says Fox’s last letter to his father in 1941 had little sign of the coming upheaval. There’s a mention of Kuntz’s mother and an aunt, who planned to leave the island to go to school in the fall – and a reference to a letter from Fox’s Aunt Mae, who wrote “things are very quiet up here” but also noted there were also “a lot of changes.”
Documenting how these changes unfolded and the impact of World War II on the Unangax̂ has become almost a calling to Michael Livingston. He is now working to have a Purple Heart awarded to Fox, posthumously.
But for now, he takes satisfaction in this year’s effort to have PFC George Fox’s name added to the fallen soldier’s memorial in Anchorage
“This is the first time that, since this wall was erected, that a new name has been added,” Livingston said.
It’s now at the bottom of a list of about 120 Alaskans. When Livingston went to check out the work, he took some impressions of the engraving on the monument.
As he rubbed a black crayon against a white paper, he said, “It’s neat to see George Fox’s name come through the rubbing.”
Livingston calls it a metaphor for how Fox’s sacrifice, once forgotten, is now finally coming into focus.
Livingston spoke at the Memorial Day service at the Anchorage Park Strip. Here's a copy of his speech.