People got sick all the time
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) – Mary Bourdukofsky was at home on rugged St. Paul Island one Sunday in the summer of 1942, when her husband rushed breathlessly through the door from his weekly baseball game.”He came running in and said, ‘They’ve stopped the ballgame. They’ve come to evacuate us people,”‘ Bourdukofsky said.The federal government was forcing them from their home on the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea for a dank, raw wartime internment camp in the rain forest of southeast Alaska, 1,500 miles away.
A new documentary film, “Aleut Story,” tells the story of the little-known internment of 881 Alaska Natives from the Pribilof and Aleutian Islands during World War II.Many in the film are speaking publicly for the first time about their experiences in the camps, where they were sent after troops from Japan invaded Alaska’s western outposts in June 1942.”My mother, when she was living, she used to start crying, so we wouldn’t talk about it,” Bourdukofsky told The Associated Press. Bourdukofsky, now 82, was a young mother of two during the evacuation.Homes looted and rotting
Many Aleuts at first were thankful to be ferried out of the war zone – until they arrived at five overcrowded, disease-ridden sites scattered throughout damp spruce rain forests.”There was a lot of sickness at the camp,” said Jake Lestenkof, 73, who was 11 years old when his mother died of pneumonia at a camp at Funter Bay. “There was a lot of pneumonia and tuberculosis that was going around and not treated. There were certainly no medical facilities or personnel.”Sanitation and pipe systems were never installed. Residents drank water tainted with sewage and – at one camp – runoff from the expanding cemetery.”It was terrible,” said Maria Turnpaugh, 78. “We lived in little shacks full of holes, and no running water. People got sick all the time.”One in 10 people died in the camps from 1942 to 1945, according to federal estimates cited in the film.
Aleuts weren’t suspected of spying or sabotage, as were tens of thousands of Japanese Americans interned after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941.”I looked hard for evidence that there had been any suggestion at any time” of Aleut spies, said Marla Williams, who wrote, directed and produced the film. “There was no question of their loyalty whatsoever.”The film includes letters from officials who thought internment would protect Aleuts from the fighting in Alaska’s distant western islands.Still, Aleuts weren’t allowed to leave the camps without penalty unless they were drafted into the military or threatened into working the Pribilof fur seal hunt, which brought millions in income to the U.S. government.”No one knew what to do with the Aleuts. They wanted to keep them under control of government agents,” said Dorothy Jones, who researched the Aleut case for the Justice Department during lawsuits in the late 1970s.
Families returned to the Aleutians and Pribilofs in 1944 and 1945 to find their homes and Russian Orthodox churches looted by U.S. soldiers and rotting from years of neglect in the wind, rain and salt air.”My grandmother’s house, she had a lot of old things up in her attic, lots of Russian antiques,” said Turnpaugh of her family’s return to Unalaska. “There was nothing left.”I watched it aloneAleuts joined Japanese-Americans in the 1950s through 1980s in lawsuits seeking federal restitution for loss of property and civil liberties during internment.
In 1987, Congress passed legislation granting reparations of $12,000 each to interned individuals who were still living, $1.4 million for damaged homes and churches, a $5 million trust for evacuees and descendants and $15 million to the Aleut Native corporation.Restitution money partially funded “Aleut Story,” which was nominated for best documentary honors this year at the American Indian Film Festival and is airing on public television stations across the country.”Aleut Story” began as a short documentary on the restoration of Aleutian and Pribilof churches damaged during World War II.”Once we contracted with (film production company) Sprockethead, the scope of the story got expanded,” said Lestenkof, a retired two-star general who has served as Alaska’s adjutant general and commissioner of the state’s Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs. “It’s a crucial part of Alaskan history.”Many internment survivors have watched the film in Anchorage screenings or at home with younger family members. Turnpaugh watched a statewide public television broadcast of “Aleut Story” by herself at the Senior Center in Unalaska, about halfway down the Aleutian chain.
“I watched it alone and I’m glad I watched it alone,” Turnpaugh said. “I cried. To me, it was letting it all out.”—On the Net:http://www.aleutstory.tv/Vail, Colorado