The Alaska National Guard and the Alaska Office of Veterans Affairs plan to award the Alaska Heroism Medal to the families of 16 members of the Alaska National Guard in Gambell. The awards are being presented for the rescue of a downed Navy air crew almost 70 years after the event.
On June 22, 1955, a U.S. Navy patrol plane took off from Kodiak with a crew of 11.
The crew’s mission was to patrol U.S. airspace, check navigational aids and document sea ice, according to Verdie Bowen, director of the Alaska Office of Veterans Affairs.
About 200 miles west of Nome, the crew encountered two Soviet MiG-15 fighter jets, which fired on them. They attempted to hide in the cloud cover, but the MiGs managed to disable one of the patrol plane’s engines, and the crew crash-landed on St. Lawrence Island about 9 miles south of Gambell.
David Assard, the navigator, described the landing in an interview with Alaska Dispatch News in 2015.
“The landing was as beautiful as you could imagine, with the notable exception that, because we had no wheels and there were a lot of boulders and rocks on shore, they ruptured the center tank,” Assad said.
He said the fuel ignited, causing a fire inside the plane.
“As the plane decelerated, the fireball didn’t, and it rolled forward and burned everybody,” Assard said.
June Walunga, daughter of one of the National Guard members who responded to the crash, remembers being in Gambell and watching the plane come down.
“I was seven years old, and I remember the sound and the plane going over Gambell,” she said. “It was thundering to us. You know, we never heard that kind of sound back then. And it’s right there very close to your head. And shortly after that, I saw smoke.”
None of the crew died in the crash, but all of them sustained injuries, including burns, shrapnel and bullet wounds.
Staff Sgt. Clifford Iknokinok and three other members of the Gambell First Scout Battalion were seal hunting nearby and made their way to the crash site despite the Soviet fighters continuing to circle overhead. Upon realizing that they didn’t have the necessary equipment to help the air crew, Iknokinok set off for Gambell to gather additional assistance. Before he made it to Gambell, though, he ran into several of his fellow National Guard members, who were already on their way to help.
The National Guard members used umiaks to transport the injured air crew back to Gambell. June Walunga remembers them arriving in town.
“I remember I was holding my mother’s hand, and we were walking towards the beach where the boats were coming in, and they were carrying these people on stretchers going up the beach. Some had bandages wrapped on them and their arms; some of them were halfway up on their shoulders,” Walunga said.
After arriving in Gambell, the crew’s injuries were treated. A team from Elmendorf Air Force Base retrieved them two days later. Bowen says it was only due to the quick action of the Gambell First Scouts that all 11 members of the air crew survived.
But if this all happened in 1955, why is the National Guard awarding medals in 2022? There’s a simple reason, according to Bowen.
“In 1955, there (were) no peacetime medals in the active military or in the National Guard,” he explained.
Brigadier General John Noyes presented the members of the Gambell First Scout Battalion with letters of commendation for their actions.
“For that time, that was appropriate for 1955 and, in reality, that was the only thing that he really had in his awards branch to provide,” Bowen said.
In November of that year, the U.S. Navy also recognized the Gambell First Scouts by awarding Honorary Naval Aviator Designations to Master Sergeant Willis Walunga and Staff Sergeant Clifford Iknokinok, the senior members of the unit. The other members received letters of appreciation from the Navy.
After a review by Major General Torrence Saxe, the current adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard, the awards were upgraded to the Alaska Heroism Medal, currently the highest award for heroism in the Alaska National Guard. The medals will be presented to the families of the members of the Gambell First Scout Battalion and Cpl. Bruce Boolowon, the only surviving member.
The full list of recipients is as follows:
- Master Sgt. Willis Walunga
- Staff Sgt. Clifford Iknokinok
- Sgt. Herbert Apassingok
- Sgt. Ralph Apatiki Sr.
- Cpl. Bruce Boolowon
- Cpl. Victor Campbell
- Cpl. Ned Koozaata
- Cpl. Joseph Slwooko
- Pfc. Holden Apatiki
- Pfc. Lane Iyakitan
- Pfc. Leroy Kulukhon
- Pfc. Woodrow Malewotkuk
- Pfc. Roger Slwooko
- Pfc. Vernon Slwooko
- Pfc. Donald Ungott
- Pvt. Luke Kulukhon
The award ceremony was originally scheduled for July 9, but due to inclement weather, personnel from the Office of Veterans Affairs and the Alaska National Guard were unable to land in Gambell that day. The National Guard and the Office of Veterans Affairs say they will work with the community and family representatives to reschedule the event.
Click here to watch the full Strait Science presentation focusing on the Gambell National Guardsmen and their heroic rescue mission from 1955.