Bodies identified from Sitka bunkers

Posted: Wednesday, January 26, 2000

SITKA - The last of the 114 bodies from abandoned World War II bunkers near Sitka's airport were identified this month. Now the bodies must be moved to new burial sites, either in Sitka or the village homes of those who died.

The bodies are of people who died in the 1940s and 1950s while at the Indian Health Service's Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital. Most had tuberculosis, a leading cause of death among Alaska Natives.

After they died, their bodies were placed in poorly marked concrete caskets and stacked in the bunkers. In many cases, families of the dead never were told what happened.

The bodies were nearly forgotten until Sitka resident Bob Sam discovered them two years ago. The find came at the same time as a runway expansion project at the Sitka Airport.

Plans initially called for simply taking the remains to another location. Sam started going through records and trying to find families of the deceased.

The federal government eventually stepped in with money for the reinterment project. Since then, Sam and the state Department of Transportation have been working to identify the remains - linking names with the concrete boxes.

Sam, coordinator of the Native Graves Protection and Repatriation program at Sitka Tribe of Alaska, has contacted some of the families about their lost relatives. That has been the most difficult yet the most rewarding part of the last two years' work, Sam said.

``It's made a better person out of me,'' he told the Daily (Sitka) Sentinel. ``I had to work with the families over issues of grief and loss. It was rewarding to get to know them and help them put closure on this.''

About 25 bodies will be buried in Sitka at the request of families, Sam said.

State officials believe this is the largest single Native graves repatriation project ever undertaken in the United States. The cost is estimated to run from $1 million to $1.5 million.

The state hopes to start relocating the bodies in May, said Frank Mielke, the lead state official on the job and regional chief of the DOT right-of-way division.

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