WWII internments set Aleuts adrift from their islands

Like the Aleutian Islands surrounded by fog, the story of the World War II Aleut internment camps seems hidden away. What's left behind is a painful legacy of whispered grievances.

Today marks the 62nd anniversary of Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt, which sent 120,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps, ostensibly to prevent wartime sabotage and espionage. Smaller groups of Italian and German Americans were also interned during the war, but less is known about the forced evacuation of the Aleuts of Alaska.

"Most Americans have little knowledge about the incarceration of Japanese Americans. It's fair to say even fewer know the hardships the Aleut Americans suffered during World War II. Their removal was done in haste and the conditions they faced in the centers were abysmal," said Tetsuden Kashima, a professor in the American Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Washington.

In 1942, 881 Aleuts were removed from their homes in the western Aleutian and Pribilof islands, presumably for their own safety and military reasons, and relocated to camps in southeast Alaska. Unlike interned Japanese Americans, the Aleuts could leave — but most had no other place to go and remained in the "duration villages" until 1945.

Though Order 9066 did not specifically intern the Aleuts, some say it created an environment for race-based relocation and denial of civil rights. The U.S. government required anyone with one-eighth Aleut blood or more to be evacuated from the islands.

Now survivors from the Aleut internment camps are coming forward to tell their story.

For 77-year-old Alexandra Tu, of Seattle's Lake City neighborhood, St. Paul Island was an idyllic place to grow up. She recalls playing "Aganutha," traditional Aleut stick ball, with her seven siblings, finding a herd of bull seals and exploring the tundra.

"I remember the winds and combing the beaches and hiking on the hills. It wasn't that big, but to us it was a mountain," Tu said.

All that changed when she was a teenager and war approached.

The Aleutian Islands stretch from the Alaska Peninsula westward about 1,300 miles, dividing the Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea. About 200 miles to the north are the Pribilof Islands of St. George and St. Paul.

In 1941, U.S. officials feared that if the Japanese gained a foothold in the islands, their bombers could reach the Boeing plant in Seattle or the Bremerton Navy Yard in only eight hours.

For about a year, the Navy warned of possible attacks near Dutch Harbor, on the island of Unalaska. While the U.S. had time to prepare for an evacuation, squabbling between the Department of the Interior and the military meant there was little real planning.

Then it happened.

On June 3, 1942, Japanese planes attacked Dutch Harbor, and Kiska Island was invaded. On the nearby island of Attu, 42 residents were taken as prisoners of war, and eventually held in Otaru City on the island of Hokkaido.

Sixteen would die there; the rest were imprisoned for three years.

The U.S. decided to evacuate the remaining Aleuts. The islanders were given a day — although some Aleuts say it was only a few hours — to pack their belongings into a single suitcase each.

Some of the 881 evacuees were lucky enough to get passage aboard the Alaska Steam Ship Columbia, while others were herded into dirty cargo bays of military transports.

Tu said the ship ride still haunts her memories.

"People were packed together in the bowels of the ship. People were lying around, not moving. It was dark like a dungeon," Tu said. During the passage, a baby was born but died on the ship.

They were taken to Wrangell Institute, an Office of Indian Affairs boarding school, while permanent evacuation sites could be found.

Finally, the Aleuts were placed in camps scattered across southeast Alaska — inside abandoned canneries, Conservation Corps camps and a gold mine. In all, there were four camps: Killisnoo, Burnett Inlet, Ward Lake and Funter Bay, which was divided in two.

While the U.S. military and civilian agencies insist the Aleut evacuation was a military necessity, others say the relocation was a tragedy that didn't have to happen.

The lack of an evacuation plan meant inadequate housing, food, and health and sanitation conditions in the relocation camps. About 10 percent of the evacuees, mostly Aleut elders and babies, were unable to survive the harsh conditions. With the loss of the elders, years of knowledge and Aleutian culture vanished.

Some of the internees had a hard time adapting to the forests. Many had never been off their barren islands and had never seen such trees.

"I'd seen trees before. But some elders felt like they couldn't breathe," Tu said of the dense forests.

Tu and her 10-member family were relocated to Funter Bay on Admiralty Island and lived in a bunkhouse next to the cannery.

"We were lucky there. We had a little stove. Some people had nothing. It was bare," she said.

But Tu's 7-year-old brother, Nicholia Gromoff, died of meningitis on the island, and her grandmother, Anna Stepetin, was one of about 40 people who succumbed to tuberculosis at Funter Bay.

"People were dying. And no one was helping us. How could this happen to our people? Our children? Our babies? I asked myself, 'What am I doing here?' And I wanted to go home," Tu said.

But home as she remembered it no longer existed. Within a day of the Aleuts' evacuation, some family homes had been burned and farm animals were slaughtered because the U.S. feared the Japanese would take them.

Over the years, Aleut religious artifacts, cultural icons and family heirlooms were looted by both Japanese and U.S. military personnel. Lost were Aleutian icons dating thousands of years.

Questions remain about why the Aleuts were left in the encampments for so long. Some believe there were racial undertones in the Department of Interior's decision.

And because some Aleuts were allowed to return to the Pribilofs so the $2.4 million fur-seal industry could continue, there is suspicion that the U.S. government used the Aleuts for labor during the war effort.

In 1980, Congress established the Commission on Wartime Relocation to investigate the internments. In 1982, the commission released its report, which detailed the mistakes the U.S. Department of Interior and military made in keeping the Aleuts in deplorable conditions. The Civil Rights Act of 1988 awarded damages to Japanese-American internees and restitution to the Aleuts, and President George H.W. Bush issued an apology.

Eligible Aleuts received up to $12,000 in compensation, while the U.S. Treasury established a $5 million restitution fund to benefit the Aleut evacuees, their descendants and their communities.

But for Aleut internment survivors like Tu, a trace of bitterness remains. Like other Aleuts who were evacuated, she talks about her time at the camp with difficulty and still asks, "How could this happen to us?"

"There are times when I cry. But hopefully, telling this to people will help. They should hear. It shouldn't have happened and shouldn't happen again," Tu said.

In the late 1980s, she finally returned to St. Paul Island.

"There was a seal that greeted us," Tu said. "It was like telling me 'Welcome home, Alexandra.' "

Levi J. Long: 206-464-2061 or levilong@seattletimes.com

Commemorations today

• Former Aleut and Japanese-American internees will take part in a panel discussion and see a preview of a new documentary, "Aleut Story," from 7-9 tonight at the University of Washington's Ethnic Cultural Theater, 3940 Brooklyn Ave. N.E. Admission is free but seating is limited. For more information, contact the UW American Ethnic Studies Department, 206-543-5401.

• Frank Kitamoto, president of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community, will give a presentation at noon today in Schafer Auditorium at Seattle University, 900 Broadway. Displays commemorating the day can be seen at the university's Lemieux Library from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

From the Congressional Record, 1988:

"As documented in the Commission's reports, the Aleut civilian residents of the Pribilof Islands and the Aleutian Islands west of Unimak Island were relocated during World War II to temporary camps in isolated regions of southeast Alaska where they remained, under United States control and in the care of the United States, until long after any potential danger to their home villages had passed; the United States failed to provide reasonable care for the Aleuts, and this resulted in widespread illness, disease, and death among the residents of the camps; and the United States further failed to protect Aleut personal and community property while such property was in its possession or under its control."