Aleutian Islanders: the other interns of World War II

"It was bad -- it was brutal. Why talk about it now?" Sara Merculief Flory grimaces as the recalls, the dark days of World War II, when she was 12 years old and World War II came to the Aleutians.

For nearly four decades, the story of what happened to nearly 1,000 Aleuts (almost one-third of the Aleut race) in the war has been hidden from the public -- first by military censorship and media indifference, then by the aleuts' own traditional shyness and diffidence. Even today, elders refuse to talk about their wartime experience. Says Leo Merculief of St. George Island, who was two years old when war broke out, "The parents have tried to shield us children from the experience."

Now, however, Aleut leaders have demanded a public hearing for that experience. They have convinced the federal Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, established by Congress last year to investigate the complaints of Japanese-Americans interned during the war and recommend possible redress, to give equal attention to the Aleuts. The commission's earlier hearings -- in Washington, Los Angeles, and San Francisco -- have focused entirely on the Japanese-American internees. But as the hearings moved to Seattle, and from there up to Achorage, St. Paul Island, and Unulaska, Aleut natives and emigres are unlocking their memories. For the first time, they are telling their story, a catalog of injustices caused by their own government's "protection"

The windswept, treeless Aleutians and tiny Pribilof Islands -- St. George and St. Paul -- stretch like a georgraphic afterthought on the western edge of Alaska. Their native people, the Aleuts, related to the Eskimos, were isolated from the outside world by distance, culture, and deliberate US policy. They were little prepared for the turmoil and exile brought on by World War II.

The United States was likewise unprepared for the Japanese attack on the Aleutians. In early June 1942 the Japanese bombed the Army and Navy Stations at Dutch harbor on Unalaska Island, also hitting the hospital at the nearby Aleut village where Sara Merculief lived, and overran the westernmost islands, of Attu , Kiska, and Agattu. American authorities feared a further invasion would sweep down the underprotected "overbelly" of the Alskan coast.

"The US military just panicked," says Alexander, then a teen-ager on the Pribilofs.(Alexander is not his real name; he asked not to be identified for fear of jeopardizing his military pension.) In its haste to brace for the invasion that never came, the War Department decided to evacuate the Aleutians west of Unimak and the Pribilofs. In June and July 881 Aleuts were crowded into military transports and private steamers and carried to improvised relocation camps on the southeast Alaskan coast. Other Aleuts, fearing the military buildup and the rumor of war, had already fled inland where, says august Heitman , a Kodiak Aleut, "They drifted all over, to Anchorage and down to Seattle. A lot of them never came back."

"They must have been wise somehow, to leave like that," Alexander says. "They never had to go through the ordeals we went through".

For the next two to three years, the Aeuts were confined to isolated, ramshackle camps in squalor deprivation.

The largest camps were an abandoned fish cannery and gold mine at Funter Bay on Admiralty Island, where the Pribilof Aleuts were kept, and another abandoned cannery at Burnett inlet near Ketchikan, where Unalaska, Biroka, and Makuskin villagers were lodged. According to government agents' own reports, the buildings in these camps were just empty single-walled shells, in poor condition with floors crumbling from dry rot, windows smashed, and no supplies. "There was nothing at funter Bay when we arrived," recalls Daniel Benson, Fish and Wildlife Service agent and virtual governor of St. George Island. "It was a terrible scene -- over 600 of us, all bedded down on the floor."

Throughout their two-to-three-year stay, the Aleuts and the government agents (who the military had originally tried to evacuate to Seattle) struggle to make the camps livable. Families hung wool blankets around their tiny spaces to gain some semblance of privary. The Aleuts cooked communal meals in primitive kitchens from meager government supplies. Efforts to dig sewer lines at Funder Bay were frustrated by the shallow sil, and waste was dumped into the bay from a "slop chute" and a single beach outhouse.

The refugees turned to that polluted by for food. "I lived on clams for months," recalls Archpriest Michael Lestenkof of St. Paul. Poor sanitation, meager diet, and crowded conditions resulted in deteriorating health in the camps. "We lost more people at Funter Bay than 10 years at St. George," Benson recalls.

This strangeness o the new environment exacted another toll. "They were terrified of the trees, which they'd never seen before," recalls Benson's wife Kitty. "They said they couldn't breathe."

"The islands were all they knew," says Michael Stepetin of Unalaska. "I think for many of the old folks, the experience was just more than they could take." Many younger aleuts chafed at the confinement and left to seek jobs in the coastal towns, despite the prohibitions of the government agents.

Inspecting doctors protested the way Aleuts were kept "virtually prisoners of the government," in "quarters unfit for pigs."

From the start, the Interior Department, which administered the Aleut villages, looked forward to a speedy return. But War Secretary Harold Ickes refused the Interior Department's requests, declaring "occupation of the Pribilof Islands was made possible by using the housing of the former occupants, and insufficient housing exists for both troops and the native population." Unalaska saw familiar occupation; plans were made, but never completed, to turn its cathedral into an officers' club. After the war, the government refused to let the Attuans return to their village, which it replaced with a Coast Guard station.

Ickes finally consented to let the Pribilof men return for the summer of 1943 to harvest their islands' fur seals, which each year brought the Fish and wildlife Serivice a million-dollar profit. While their wives and children languished at Funter Bay, the hunters took a record harvest.

Finally, in 1944 and 1945, the survivors were returned to their villages. They found their homes devastated by the occupying troops: doors and windows broken in, fixtures ruined, boats sunk, and all personal property -- including treasured religious icons -- removed. "People lost everything, and just had to start all over again," says Paul Swetzol of St. Paul.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved a total of $10,000 for all Aeut claims damages by the military -- about $12 per person. Many never even saw that; some received as much as $300, still only a fraction of their losses.

Nevertheless, monetary compensation doesn't seem a main priority for many, perhaps most Aleuts. Some, in Alexandra gromoff Tu's words, "just don't ever expect to get anything from the government." v.m hy do it now, when we needed it them?" Sara Flory asks bitterly. What all demand are answers to questions which bear on basic constitutional principles. "Was it fair to do what they did to us?" Stepetin asks. "Am I allowed to go into your home and tell you to leave, even for military security? If it was fiar, let's find the true story. Show us it was in our interest."

The current inquiry into the wartime relocation comes at a time of dramatic, often traumatic change for the Aleuts. After over 100 years as "wards of the government," the Pribilof Aleuts are striking out on their own -- with nervous apprehension. The federal government is not only withdrawing its management of their islands, but also the subsidies which have supported them since the seal harvest stopped paying its expenses a decade ago. In the Aleutians, native management corporations established under the Native Claims Settlement Act have likewise brought new independence and burdens.

Even now, Dr. John Campbell of Seattle, who was stationed on St. Paul before the war, expresses the view which underlay a century of government paternalism: "The Aleuts are fine people, but they're just like children." The current investigation is a key step in these "children's" collective maturation; for the first time, they have begun to question the actions of their government "parents" -- four decades after the fact.

"We never asked questions before," Alexandra Tu says sadly. "We were always so beaten. The governments never explained anything to the Aleuts."

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