In 1943, an 18-year-old Ben Gregg was drafted into the United States Army; before his enlistment, Ben’s life centered on family and the traditional Iñupiat cycle of seasonal activities. But World War II was raging around the globe and able-bodied young men were needed for the war effort. Ben, like other young men of his time, answered the call and served his country at a time of great peril.
He attended boot camp near Anchorage and then embarked on an eight hour train ride to Seward before being shipped out to the Aleutians where he would fight in what is sometimes called “the forgotten war”- the Aleutian Islands Campaign pitting U.S. and Canadian forces against an occupying Japanese force on Attu and Kiska islands.
He was part of the recapture of Attu and was also stationed at Shemya and Dutch Harbor. One story Ben shared with his family described a time when the last Japanese soldiers were left behind. He said the American soldiers would sometimes find them on the cold mornings, digging around in the trash by the mess hall. They were looking for food and clothing.
He met his wife when he was in Santa Fe, New Mexico for medical treatment after serving in the Aleutians. He managed to get some street clothes from someone at the hospital and headed out on the town. He stopped in at a diner and saw a woman he described as “the prettiest girl he’d ever seen.”
Norma was Hopi, and the couple went on to raise their 10 children in Flagstaff, Arizona, and on the Hopi Reservation. One daughter, Bobbie Valandra, described feeling out of place on the reservation at first because she and her siblings looked different from the other Hopi children. But over time the community came to love Ben Gregg for his generosity, and he and his children were accepted
In 1976, after raising their family in Arizona, Ben and Norma moved to Kotzebue. There, Norma learned about the Iñupiat culture her husband was part of, and had lived away from for so long. She came to love Iñupiaq food and settled into life in the Arctic. Ben resumed practicing subsistence and had a shed behind the house with frozen sheefish stacked like wood. He always shared with the community and Elders, often chipping a fish off and putting it in a bag for someone to take home with them.
Over the years, Ben has told his family little about his experiences at war, choosing instead to focus on his wife, children and more than 80 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Today he continues a life of service, giving back to the community by spending time at the Alaska Native Medical Center (ANMC) to visit and catch up on news. Ben has a strong faith in God and is a faithful member of the Anchorage Friends Church.
He is a proud veteran often seen wearing one of several Alaska Native WWII Veteran caps. His service inspired that of his son and two grandsons. Ben Gregg Jr. is a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War. Ben’s grandson, Ernie Francisco, followed Ben’s example and joined the Army. Another grandson, Kinuwan Sharpe, entered the Marines and served in a reconnaissance unit through two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
Ben’s parents are the late Maggie (Wood) and John Gregg of Kotzebue. His siblings are the late Ada Ward, Pauline George, Laura Davis and brother Fletcher Gregg, and also the 2013 NANA Elder of the Year, Janet Barr.
Quyanaq Ben Gregg Sr. and to all NANA shareholder veterans for your service to our country.