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Episode 66: The Uncovered History of Alaska’s Attu Island

By KTVA Alaska 6:26 PM July 31, 2016

Forgotten history is one of my favorite Alaska frontiers to explore — uncovered secrets from the past inform the present.

This week on Frontiers we take you to Attu, one of those isolated, hard-to-get-to spots. Abandoned yet full of mystery with so many unanswered questions lingering in the air.

Although this small island in the Aleutian chain played a pivotal role during World War II, its history has been mostly forgotten. Few Americans even know Japanese soldiers invaded and occupied Attu and another island, Kiska — the only American soil ever seized since the War of 1812 when America was at war with the British.

KTVA’s Bonney Bowman recently traveled to Attu with photographer John Thain to report on a clean-up of toxic wastes left behind from WWII. And as often happens with Frontiers, one thing led to another.

Bonney was intrigued by the island and began to explore another chapter of its forgotten history: the story of the Aleut or Unangan, the indigenous people who once lived and thrived there before the Japanese invaded and took the entire community to a prisoner of war camp in Japan. Only half of the forty people survived the harsh conditions, but they never returned home to Attu. The United States government resettled them on Atka, another island in the Aleutian chain.

This week, we are happy to showcase some of Bonney and John’s fine work on Frontiers. Some of the highlights:

  • A look at the tar, fuel and goo that contaminates the island and threatens birds other wildlife.
  • Nick Golodoff’s story — Nick was only six-years-old when the Japanese invaded Attu. Thanks to help from his granddaughter, Brenda Maly, who co-wrote his book, “Attu Boy,” we learn about Nick’s friendship with a Japanese soldier who befriended him at a POW camp in Hokkaido.
  • An interview with Rachel Mason, a cultural anthropologist with the National Park Service. Rachel not only helped to edit “Attu Boy,” but in the course of her research interviewed many of the Unagan survivors of WWII.

One of the wonderful things I love about being a part of Frontiers is all the help we get from Alaskans in bringing these stories to you.

We want to thank the archivists at the Alaska State Library and Alaska State Archives for providing video and photographs.

We also had help from Michael Livingston of the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, who provided the POW photographs we shared with you. They are haunting images — especially those of the children with numbers attached to their clothing, reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps.

We hope this show helps you to see beyond the numbers. I knew the Japanese invaded the Aleutians, as part of their strategy to control the Pacific, but like many Alaskans had never heard of the story of the Attu islanders.

We did not have time to look into what happened, when the Americans took back Attu — also a fascinating chapter of WWII history. Perhaps a story for a future Frontiers.

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