This week, we’re sharing stories from the Battle of Attu and the greater Aleutian campaign of World War II.
The conflict ended in the 1940s, but its legacy is still very much alive — both for the veterans who served and the Unangan people who were forced to leave during the fighting.
Even now, many vets have never spoken to an evacuee, and vice versa.
To commemorate what happened 75 years ago, KUCB invited people on both sides to sit down and reflect together.
Today, we hear from Tara Bourdukofsky and retired Lieutenant Colonel Bob Brocklehurst. Her grandmother survived the internment, and he served as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force.
A note to listeners and readers: A person in this story uses an offensive word for Japanese people.
BROCKLEHURST: We were all young. We were 21 years old. The oldest could have been 27. And we were ready to go. We wanted to fly, and we wanted to just come on down to the Aleutians. I don’t think anybody in my squadron thought anything about being afraid. You have to do your job. It was war. That’s all we thought about.
BOURDUKOFSKY: My experience of the whole evacuation and internment time comes from the perspective of my grandmother, who was interned in Funter Bay. You know, the Aleuts of St. Paul, and specifically her. Her experience.
I was probably about 21 years old when I found out about it. And she would talk, but I could tell that it was difficult. She would only she would only talk for so long, and she would just have to stop. I didn’t really push her, but she did want to tell her story. She did want other elders to get up and talk about it. She did realize how important it was for us to know our own history.
To hear what happened to the Aleuts, the Unangax, here in Unalaska … There are other communities that were equally impacted and affected by this. I know very, very little about their experiences. I wonder a lot about Attu and the Aleuts who were taken as prisoners of war over to Japan.
BROCKLEHURST: See, I didn’t know that at the time. We didn’t know that. When I got there, our army was still fighting three battle areas …
BOURDUKOFSKY: So Bob, when you were in Attu, during that time …
BROCKLEHURST: I was the first fighter pilot to land on Attu and Shemya. Yes, ma’am.
BOURDUKOFSKY: And when you were there, were the Aleuts already taken as prisoners of war at that point?
BROCKLEHURST: I never heard anything about the Natives. I often wondered what happened to the Natives up here. I flew into Atka, I flew in to Adak, and I never heard anything or saw anything about the Natives. It was always on my mind. I didn’t know about the evacuation of the Natives and that they were sent to other places in Alaska. Of course, here at the 75th commemoration of the bombing of Dutch Harbor, I learned the story of the elders as you describe it. A very, very touching story.
BOURDUKOFSKY: I’ve always had kind of mixed emotions and thoughts about it, all these years growing up. It has to do with the profound and deep respect that my grandmother, Mary Bourdukofsky, had for the military.
I think I’ve heard that Alaska Natives serve at the highest rates per capita. And among Alaska Natives, the Aleuts are the highest. Maybe that’s where some of that respect comes from. Because my grandfather was Alaska Territorial Guard, and my dad a Vietnam veteran.
And yet, at the same time, when I was learning about what happened during WWII, there would always be these horrific stories about the shape of the homes, the damage that was done, and personal items that were stolen and whatnot at the hands of our own. The military. The two scenarios that I’ve grown up with have always presented in my mind a little bit of like, “Wow. I don’t know.” I respect the military, and yet I also feel badly that something like that happened by our own military. I’m not even sure what my question would be …
BROCKLEHURST: At the time we came up here, the impression we were given — and this was voiced oral stuff — was that we had nothing to stop the Japanese. They figured that the Japanese, if they wanted to, could have come up the Aleutians, taken Anchorage, and come down past down Vancouver to Seattle, Washington.
So we were rushed up as an additional squadron with the 18th, which was up here. The impression was given that if the Japs came, we were the only force to stop them. And we probably couldn’t with that limited force.
And I was talking to my son last night after the meeting, and I was thinking we didn’t have much choice but to move the Aleut Natives out. Because they could all have become prisoners of the Japanese or killed. It was probably the best thing that we could do to save the Native population. It was done very poorly. [They were] sent to a bad place, and it certainly wasn’t handled professionally. But I still think that it was probably the best thing to do. It’s just too bad that we couldn’t handle it properly.
This story was produced by Zoe Sobel and Laura Kraegel with KUCB.