What's up with that?

The Empire ponders Juneau's puzzles, unravels its mysteries and contemplates its conundrums.

Posted: Wednesday, July 03, 2002

Q: Why does the Mendenhall Valley post office fly the POW/Missing in Action flag?

A: The U. S. Postal Service is required to fly the flag on Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, Veterans Day and most importantly on the third Friday of September, which is National POW/MIA Recognition Day.

The supervisor at the Valley post office said that even though it is required to fly it only on the six mandatory days, officials have chosen to fly it each and every day.

According to the Department of Defense, 142,257 Americans have been prisoners of war since World War I, with 125,202 being returned to the United States and 17,034 dying in captivity. The agency says that since World War I, 92,444 American servicemen and women are missing in action or unaccounted for, including 2,005 from the Vietnam War.

The POW/MIA flag, usually printed with a black background and white image, was designed in 1971 and has precedence over state flags when flown together. It serves as a visual reminder that somewhere there are soldiers who have not been accounted for and may, in fact, still be held against their will.

Q: What's up with the big barge docked out by the state ferry terminal? It seems to be there permanently. Who owns it and why is it there?

A: Some years ago, Johnny Gitkov was on the waiting list for a public slip in the city harbor. Five years went by and he decided to forgo the wait and buy the dock next to the Alaska Marine Highway dock north of Auke Bay. His new dock was a perfect place to moor his World War II-era double-hull barge.

A World War II barge? Yes, the 250-foot barge, painted traditional battleship gray, is used by Johnny's company SEAL (Southeast Alaska Lighterage) as a work vessel. The term "lighterage" is derived from the word "lighter," which is defined as a boat used for transferring goods from a ship.

While in military service, the ship served as a work barge assisting the nuclear-powered USS Nimitz aircraft carrier. Then, as now, lacking its own source of propulsion, the barge must be towed to each job site.

Wanting to see the vessel firsthand, I met Johnny at his dock for a tour. With a firm handshake and a George Kennedy smile, he proudly led me through all decks, from bow to stern.

Working from the barge, Johnny and his crew offer a variety of services including insurance salvage/repair, environmental cleanup and off-loading commercially caught fish for shipping. One of their most important jobs was helping with the Exxon Valdez oil-spill cleanup for three years.

In spite of its size and age, the barge appears well-maintained. Machines, tools and supplies are neatly stored for ready use.

Interesting features include a work boat stored on deck, two helicopter pads and a two-man submarine that has been tested to a depth of 600 feet.

"Two people could survive for three days in that submarine, but it wouldn't be too comfortable," Johnny added.

Mel Cheek can be reached at mcheek@juneauempire.com. Send What's Up With That comments and questions to whatsup@juneauempire.com.

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