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Alaska islanders held during WWII reunite

Oct. 14, 2012 - 03:18PM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 14, 2012 - 03:18PM  |  
Two of the last three surviving Attuan Aleuts, brothers Greg Golodoff, center, Nick Golodoff, center right, and George Kurdin, center left, representing the Golodoff's sister, Elizabeth Kurdin, pose for a group photo on the first day of the Attu Reunion at the National Park Service building in downtown Anchorage, Alaska. The National Park Service and Aleutian-Pribilof Island Association hosted the event, where survivors and descendants of survivors of the Japanese invasion and occupation if Attu are meeting -- some for the first time.
Two of the last three surviving Attuan Aleuts, brothers Greg Golodoff, center, Nick Golodoff, center right, and George Kurdin, center left, representing the Golodoff's sister, Elizabeth Kurdin, pose for a group photo on the first day of the Attu Reunion at the National Park Service building in downtown Anchorage, Alaska. The National Park Service and Aleutian-Pribilof Island Association hosted the event, where survivors and descendants of survivors of the Japanese invasion and occupation if Attu are meeting -- some for the first time. (Erik Hill / The Anchorage Daily News via the AP)
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska — On a calm spring day in 1942, Nick Golodoff was roaming on the beach in front of his home village, Attu, when he heard a loud, unfamiliar noise — the clatter of machine guns.

He looked at a hill behind the government school and saw Japanese soldiers descending on the settlement at the western edge of the Aleutian Islands.

As bullets splattered the mud around him, Golodoff, then age 6, ran to shelter in a sod house.

The Japanese rounded up the residents and put them under martial law. A few months later, Golodoff and 41 other Attuans were shipped to Japan as prisoners.

Half would die before they returned to America. None would ever see their village again.

Today Golodoff, his younger brother Greg and sister Elizabeth Kudrin are the last survivors of Attu, the only people alive who had homes on American soil that were occupied by a hostile force, the only living Americans to have been taken forcibly from their country by an invading army.

This week the National Park Service and Aleutian-Pribilof Island Association are hosting "The Attu Reunion." Survivors and descendants of survivors are meeting — some for the first time.

Activities began on Tuesday in Anchorage as Golodoff and others looked over old photos of Attuans and tried to identify them in a race to record the village's past before the last memories vanish.

"No one knows anything about us," Golodoff said in an interview this week. . "That's why I wrote the book."

Golodoff's "Attu Boy," published by the National Park Service earlier this year, includes historical photographs, commentary by NPS Senior Cultural Anthropologist Rachel Mason and additional first-person recollections from Attuans who have since passed away. It recently received the Alaska Historical Society's annual award for Contributions to Alaska History.

The Japanese occupied two Alaska islands in World War II as part of a sprawling military action that included the pivotal Battle of Midway. A few Navy men were the sole inhabitants of Kiska, southeast of Attu. But Attu itself consisted entirely of civilians, mostly Alaska Natives.

In 1943, Attu Island became the scene of the bloodiest land battle in North America since the Civil War. Total losses of American and Japanese troops is calculated between 2,500 and 3,000 or more, a number on par with Pearl Harbor or the 9/11 terrorist attack.

Anchorage historian John Cloe, a prominent authority Alaska's role in World War II, has observed that the battle is better known in Japan than in America, where it took place.

Americans are even less aware of the wartime fate of Attu village and its people, something Golodoff wants to rectify.

As a child in Attu, Golodoff lived in a small, uninsulated home and, with his family, subsisted mostly on local fish and game. He spoke the island dialect of Unangan, the Aleut language; adults also spoke a mix of English and Russian. He picked up Japanese while interred but didn't use English until after the war was over. He never graduated from high school, but admits to being an avid reader.

"In most of the books I have read about World War II in the Aleutian Islands, there is some truth, but there is a lot of dishonesty in the books. I know this because I have been through it," he writes. "I'm talking about my own experiences so people will know what happened to me. I don't remember everything about my childhood but I do remember well my experience during World War II."

He recalls how the Japanese soldiers bunked in the Orthodox church and how a sentry gave him candy, how he accompanied his mother to dig clay while in Japan, how disease and hunger cut down the villagers one by one.

"I used to get a quarter of a bowl of watery rice a day and sometimes oats and water," he writes. "The Attuan boys stole food at night."

He remembers American planes dropping food to the POWs when the war ended and his first taste of Coca-Cola.

The Japanese treated the Alaskans somewhat better than civilians taken from China or Korea, Mason says. But the Attuans nonetheless endured three and a half years of malnutrition, illness and, at times abuse at the hands of their captors.

Other Alaska Natives were treated almost as badly by their own government. After the capture of Attu, officials ordered Aleuts to internment camps in Southeast Alaska. Poor food, lack of heat in the wet, cold climate and inadequate medical care killed many.

When the war ended, some had no homes to return to. Soldiers had looted churches and towns. Whole villages had been dismantled by combatants.

Among the so-called "lost villages" was Attu, leveled during the build-up to the great battle. Today only a lonely memorial marks the old village site.

The surviving Attuans were sent to other Aleutian towns, including Atka, where Golodoff now lives.

"I had not money when I got back," he recalled. No socks, warm coat or boots. "My shoes had holes in them, but even then I still packed wood in the snow with my feet freezing."

He found work in the Pribilofs and later worked as a fisherman, carpenter and maintenance man. He was part of a salvage crew that cleaned up war debris on Attu island, but never returned to the site of the village.

"I was working long hours and did not have time," he said.

He did find time, however, to visit Japan. In 1995 he attended a conference there and received much attention in the Japanese media. He met the soldier on whose back he one rode as a child in Attup; a photo of the two is on the cover of "Attu Boy" and, inside, a snapshot of the elder Golodoff playfully carrying the aging former soldier, identified as "Mr. Kamani" on his own back. He also met the doctor who had treated the Attu POWs.

The cover of the book includes the title in Japanese. Golodoff hopes to have it circulated in Japan where interest in Attu remains high.

"Attu has more meaning to the Japanese since it was the first battle of the Pacific war in which they willingly sacrificed an entire garrison rather than surrender," said Cloe, the historian. "The battle does not resonate the same way with the American public."

Golodoff indicated no rancor toward his captors.

"They never treated me mean," he said in the interview. . "I was hungry," he said, grabbing his stomach at the memory. "But they were, too. No one had any food. But the Japanese were kind to me."

Golodoff will mark his 77th birthday on December 19. He remains agile and alert, still on the job as a maintenance man at the Atka school and airport, making "just enough to stay comfortable," as he puts it in the book.

When this reporter observed that he seemed in remarkably good shape for a septuagenarian, he smiled and quipped, "I should hope so. I've been working hard all my life.

"I never found anything I could not do."

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