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Alaska's Aleuts--Forgotten Internees of WWII : Captivity: Residents of strategic islands were rounded up by U.S. government in 1942 and left to languish in old fish canneries.

March 01, 1992|JULIA RUBIN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Fifty years after they were evacuated from their homes and left to languish in internment camps, Alaska's Aleuts fear history may neglect them just as the U.S. government did.

The Aleuts' tragedy, played out on the periphery of the continent during a world war, is not as well known as that of Japanese-American internees.

There were far fewer Aleuts--880 interned, contrasted with 120,000 Japanese-Americans. And the Aleuts were interned not because of their heritage, not for fear that they might be subversives, but because their homes on the Aleutian and Pribilof islands were in a war zone.

Yet these residents of nine villages were held for years in drafty, old southeast Alaska fish canneries, in primitive conditions that killed about 10% of them and scarred the survivors.

Those who returned home after the war found their houses and churches destroyed or ransacked, often by the U.S. troops who had lived in them. Some had been exposed for the first time to life off the islands, and found their lifestyle forever changed.

"A lot of people think we're making this up--it's not in the history books," said Alice Snigaroff Petrivelli, interned as a child and now president of Aleut Corp., a native regional corporation in Anchorage.

"Everybody knows what happened to the Japanese, but nobody seems to know what happened to the Aleuts. Remember--we were citizens of the U.S. then, too."

Little about the internment camps was known to anyone but survivors until Japanese-Americans began resurrecting the memory of their own camps and asking the government for compensation.

In 1982, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians investigated the five Aleut camps in southeast Alaska and condemned government "indifference" to "deplorable conditions" there.

The report cited crowding, rotting buildings, and a lack of furniture, clean or running water, electricity, medical care or government supervision.

Although the war in Alaska essentially had ended by late summer of 1943, the Aleuts were kept in camps as late as 1945.

"The standard of care which the government owes to those within its care was clearly violated by this treatment, which brought great suffering and loss of life to the Aleuts," the report said.

In 1988, Congress authorized reparations to the Aleuts as well as to Japanese-Americans, and issued a formal apology.

Each Aleut survivor received $12,000, and a $5-million trust fund was set up under the Interior Department to help them and their descendants. Another $1.4 million was earmarked for restoring churches in six villages.

Aleut Corp. was given $15 million as compensation for Attu Island, which was occupied by the military after the war and remains closed to its former inhabitants. Attuans, seized by Japanese troops in June, 1942, and taken to POW camps in Japan, were resettled after the war at Atka, more than 500 miles from their home island.

Reparations helped ease the pain, but were too little too late, according to Harriet Hope of Unalaska. She was 5 when her family was evacuated.

"The people who really deserved any kind of recognition for the hell they were put through are gone now, like my parents," Hope said between tears as she recalled her childhood at the Burnett Inlet camp near Wrangell.

But she said her parents never complained.

"It never occurred to anybody to tell the government that they were treated wrongly. They just stuffed their feelings I guess," said Hope. "It was something--patriotism, I guess--shining through. It was something they had to do, to give up for their country."

Hope said she didn't recognize her own anger until years later. Her father, a non-native, stayed behind in Unalaska to help the troops. Hope says she came to feel robbed "of the best days of my life with him because when I came back he was old and became ill. And we were never able to recapture it."

Some villages are planning ceremonies to mark the 50th anniversary of the evacuation in June, said Dimitri Philemonof, director of the Aleutian-Pribilof Island Assn. The association is trying to raise money for a documentary on "The Untold War Story," and hopes to get the evacuation included in Alaska schools' history curriculum.

"It's not to make people feel sorry for us, but we want people to be aware that such a thing took place, so maybe it will never happen again," he said.

Emil Berikoff, who was born during the internment and is supervising Unalaska's observance, said many survivors find their experience too painful to talk about. "It's been 50 years of forgetting, I guess," he said.

Aleut Corp.'s Petrivelli was 12 in June, 1942, when she watched American troops burn her village of Atka and its church. No one told the villagers what was going to happen, that the troops were instituting a scorched-earth strategy. Villagers were put on a boat; no one told them their destination.

She and her family were taken to a dilapidated former cannery in Killisnoo, about 60 miles south of Juneau. They felt abandoned and confused.

"They kind of dumped us and left us on our own," Petrivelli said.

The Aleuts were without hunting or fishing gear, even boats, and could not continue their subsistence lifestyle, she said. Tlingit Indians taught them to live off the unfamiliar land. This was a rain forest; many of the Aleuts had never before seen trees.

Petrivelli said the government provided less than the bare essentials. Atka lost 17 of its 85 people at Killisnoo to disease and malnutrition, she said.

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