DUTCH HARBOR, Alaska — There is one last story from World War II that remains to be told. It is the story of a forgotten U.S. campaign on American soil and of a people known as the Aleuts, who sailed off from their island homes to a life of misfortune.
Many would never return, giving a ring of prophesy to the words John Muir had spoken about the Aleuts half a century earlier: "It is only a matter of time before they vanish from the earth."
Some died in the squalid internment camps the U.S. government set up for them in abandoned canneries. Others drifted away to a life far from the Aleutians, taking the secrets of their wartime nightmares with them.
Perhaps it is because the Aleuts, hardy fishermen and hunters related to the Eskimos, were so few in numbers that they, unlike the Japanese-Americans, have remained among the unremembered civilian victims of the war. Perhaps it is because the whole Aleutian military campaign in Alaska against Japan has been so overlooked that some histories of the war don't even mention it. Or perhaps it's simply because this island chain, where the Wind Devil is fierce and the Creator manifests power through the sun and the water, is so remote, so distant from the rest of the United States, that no one much cared.
"For 45 years we've been trying to tell our story," said Agafon Krukoff, an Aleut businessman in Anchorage, whose parents were interned in a Funter Bay cannery the government rented for $60 a month. "And no one's wanted to listen. At least until recently."
The story they have tried to tell--and the one Congress is now listening to--begins in 1942 in the Aleutians, 70 treeless islands of rugged, volcanic beauty and intolerable weather that curl out from the Alaska peninsula for 1,100 miles, separating the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
Their isolation is so uncompromising that some U.S. servicemen here in World War II were quite literally driven mad by boredom, their climate so nasty that Bob Hope once joked that the Aleutians were the only place a man could "walk in mud up to his knees bucking a snowstorm that blew sand in his face, while being pelted (by hail) in the rear on a sunny day."
Japan had coveted the Aleutians as a bridge to the U.S. mainland, and, hoping to divert the U.S. Navy's attention away from Midway, its bombers attacked Dutch Harbor June 3 and 4, 1942, killing 77 American servicemen. On June 6, its soldiers invaded the island of Kiska, capturing 11 Americans manning a weather station. Attu, the westernmost island, just 650 miles from Japan, fell the next day, and the 42 Aleuts living there were taken prisoner and sent to Japan. For the next 11 months the outer reaches of Alaska would remain under Japanese occupation.
"The bloody Aleutian campaign was dogged by serious blunders (by the U.S. military)," notes the Alaska Geographic Society in its history of the Aleutians. "The Japanese invasion was initially kept secret for morale and security reasons, and despite subsequent public information, heavy censorship served handily to cover embarrassment of military leaders, so that the Aleutian campaign is often entirely omitted from accounts of World War II."
Here's how one Aleut, John Tcheripanoff, 65, remembers those early days of the war and the fate that befell him. Tcheripanoff lives in a tidy little house across the inlet from Dutch Harbor, a wind-swept town of 200 inhabitants that, with its unpaved main street and cluster of store fronts, seems reminiscent of Montana or Wyoming, circa 1880. Past the inn, whose bar is packed with hard-drinking fishermen just off the high seas, stands an oil storage tank, its skin still wrinkled and warped from the Japanese attack 45 years ago.
"After the attack, the government sent a boat and said we were being evacuated," Tcheripanoff recalled. " 'Course, you could stay behind if you wanted. Henry Swanson stayed behind. But most of us wanted to get away from the war. They didn't seem to know where to take us, though, and the place we ended up, in Ward Cove, was pretty terrible, with everybody being sick all the time and a lot of people dying.
"Outside of meeting my wife here, Eva, not much good happened at Ward Cove, and when I finally did get back home, I had lost everything. The outboard motor was gone, the house had been wrecked. I said, 'What kind of people been living here?' I couldn't believe it when they said it was American soldiers."
Unlike the 120,000 Japanese-Americans who were interned during the war as a perceived threat to U.S. security ("A Jap is a Jap; it makes no difference if the Jap is a citizen or not," said the West Coast military commander, Lt. Gen. John DeWitt.), the 881 Alaskan natives were evacuated from the Aleutians and the tiny Pribilof Islands to the north for their own protection.