By: Linda Wuebben
“Anyone who has any adventure in them would surely enjoy the Aleutian Islands,” said Millie Wooten with a sparkle of that adventure in her 90-plus-year-old eyes.
It was that spirit of adventure which led her to live in Unalaska, Alaska, in 1941 with her husband Charlie and have her first child born — the first white child born and registered in the U.S. territory of Alaska.
Wooten, a native of Crofton, Neb., lived in Unalaska with husband Charlie just before the start of World War II. Her mother died of the flu in the Crofton area when Wooten was 2 1/2 years old; brother Eugene Sprakel was only six months old. Her grandparents helped raise the two youngsters until her dad remarried.
“After my sophomore year of high school at Beaver Creek, my grandmother from West Point said to my dad, ‘Let me take Millie back with me,'” said Wooten. So with 10 years of country school in northern Knox County under her belt, she headed off to West Point to start her adventure and cooking career.
Wooten waitressed and cooked her way to Omaha and then Seattle, where she met Charlie in a restaurant where she was a waitress. They married but Charlie had the spirit, too, and the couple decided to head to the Aleutian Islands, a chain of volcanic islands extending west of the Alaska peninsula.
Charlie, being a carpenter by trade, decided it might be an interesting place to see and work, and he headed to the new territory first. They were building military barracks and buildings. Mr. Wooten was part of the crew who built the hospital at Dutch Harbor and also several sets of duplexes — a dwelling with two, one-room, one-family homes with a small bathroom and fold-down bed in Unalaska.
Mrs. Wooten arrived in March 1941 and stayed until the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. While working as a cook in Unalaska, she had their first of six children, Dick ‘Dutchy’ Wooten.
The Wooten baby boy was born at Dutch Harbor on Aug. 8, 1941. Of course, all the Navy guys stationed at the base insisted they had to name him Dutchy and the name stuck. The priest who baptized the baby boy told Mrs. Wooten he would register him when he made it back to Juneau, Alaska.
The registration of Richard “Dutchy” Wooten was the first of its kind for white people up north. Dutch became known as the first white child to be registered. Mrs. Wooten allows there may have been other white children born but no one registered them.
It has been a distinction which remains important to Dutch to this day. His Aunt Gladys Wooten from Salt Lake City documented his unusual birth by collecting newspaper articles about the event. Dutch has saved these remembrances in a scrapbook with the original registration application papers and other mementos of the Alaska history he shares with his parents.
Dutchy has an original newspaper account which ran in the Salt Lake City Telegraph in January 1942 with a picture of him at five months old being held by his mom. It tells of his birth and unique nickname given to him by the 800 defense workers and family employed at the naval base. The account had been reported first in the Dutch Harbor Chronicle, a mimeographed newspaper published sporadically, and the account ran next to the opening of a new library in town.
But trouble was brewing in that part of the world. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Dutchy and Mom were evacuated from the area along with the other women and children in a harrowing boat trip.
Immediately after the attack, Mrs. Wooten said, all the evacuees were packed on a boat which was eventually the beginning of the trip back to Seattle. So fearful of an attack in the northwest area, they loaded the ship by the dark of night and sat all night long waiting. It took them 10 days to get back to Juneau, a trip which normally took 2-3 days. The native Aleuts were also evacuated back to the main island.
“They actually were having a hard time feeding us,” Mrs. Wooten said. “They ran out of milk and were low on supplies.”
Eventually, the island was bombed by the Japanese and the hospital Mr. Wooten worked on no longer stands. The duplexes do; Mrs. Wooten went back in 1991, 50 years later, to reminisce about her special memories of Unalaska.fffffff
Charlie worked at a shipyard in California for a few years until he was drafted towards the end of the war. He entered basic training and as he was preparing to head overseas, the war ended. Millie spent some time with Charlie’s family in Utah and eventually moved back to Nebraska to be with her family. She settled in Yankton.
A house on Douglas Avenue became their first South Dakota home and was acquired by swapping their DeSoto car for the $1,260 house. Mr. Wooten continued in the carpentry and lumber business by tearing down old military barracks in Kansas and hauling the lumber back up to Yankton. He stationed himself on main-street Yankton where the old JC Penney store stood on the corner of Third and Cedar, selling used lumber.
The demand grew for Wooten’s product. In 1950, he opened Contractors and Building Supply on Broadway. Dutchy started working with Dad in 1964 after high school and a stint in the Marine Corps. The business remained open after Charlie’s death in 1985 at which time Dutchy picked up the reins until he retired in 1998. The business property was sold.
Although Mr. Wooten did not actually spend time overseas fighting the war, the patriotic spirit and adventure he shared with his wife has become a source of great pride for the family. The three Wooten brothers all served in a different branch of the service.
The northwest islands were still wet and windy when Mrs. Wooten made that return trip about 15 years ago. It is so wet the men used to carry their rain gear to work every day because it was sure to rain at least once during the day. The wind is so strong that no trees grow because they are broken off. But Dutch Harbor and Unalaska still hold a special spot in her heart. Dutchy’s Aleutian babysitter is still there and alive today.
One day Dutchy wants to travel to Unalaska and visit Dutch Harbor where he was born and named. He hopes to meet the woman who was his 14-year-old babysitter and Mom may go along. It will be an adventure they both don’t want to miss.