Healing trip to site of Aleut internment precedes historic apology from federal government

 June 14, 1942, evacuation day on St. Paul Island
June 14, 1942, evacuation day on St. Paul Island (KTUU)
Published: May. 25, 2017 at 8:10 PM AKDT
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The first time Tina Krukoff arrived on the shores of Admiralty Island in 1942, she had a different last name. She was only 15.

Everyone she knew had just been evacuated from their homes on St. Paul Island by U.S. government agents, as the threat of Imperial Japan grew. As a result, 881 Aleut people were taken a thousand miles away to Southeast Alaska. However, through the eyes of the teen, the change of scenery was exciting, at first.

Krukoff had never been off her home island, and she had seen nothing like the canopied rain forest and jagged mountain peaks that decorate the landscape here. And it was here that a man, Afogon, built a chapel, so he could marry Tina, under Russian Orthodox traditions.

But the initial excitement quickly faded, as bright moments were overshadowed by the harsh reality of the situation.

While American government officials forcibly relocated Aleuts to protect them from encroaching Japanese forces -- which six months prior had attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and Unalaska in the Aleutians -- the living conditions in Funter Bay and other camps around Alaska, operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, were abysmal. One in ten Aleuts died overall, including 32 in Funter Bay alone; moreover, among them were many elders and children, who succumbed to tuberculosis or pneumonia.

The Aleuts suffered a great deal of problems.

St. Paul islanders were left for more than two years at the site of a cannery, which had been shuttered a decade prior. This internment camp was located just 20 miles away from Juneau, which was then a mining hub and the capital of the Alaska Territory. Juneau had many modern amenities and health facilities.

Making matters worse, the Aleuts neither knew how to fish salmon, nor did they have experience in bear country. Admiralty Island is known to Tlingits as Xootsnoowú, or fortress of the bears. Furthermore, in the summers, U.S. government officials relocated the ablest men to St. Paul to harvest fur seals - leaving behind the elderly, women and children to fend for themselves.

"My cousin, who was only about 15 years old - maybe 14 - died there, too. Got sick. A lot of kids died there," Krukoff said. "My grandpa was the one that got mad about that. He said, 'It's not sanitary. They let us live like pigs.'"

It's a difficult past to confront and a historical episode that is often overlooked, but Krukoff was part of a group of survivors and descendants of internees that recently returned to the camp on a cold, rainy Saturday in May. Friends of Admiralty Island, a Juneau nonprofit, organized the trip in effort to promote awareness and healing.

The visit happened just ahead of the 75th anniversary of the evacuation, and precedes historic apologies, from the federal government, that are scheduled to happen this summer in St. Paul and Unalaska.

Krukoff is now 90 years old and needs a wheelchair to get around. So her son and grandchildren attached wooden beams to her chair and carried the matriarch through the towering forest to the site of a cemetery, where the Aleut dead were buried, so she could pay respects and watch as a large Russian Orthodox cross was raised.

Bishop David Mahaffey, the church's highest-ranking official in Alaska, was in attendance.

"When God gathered the Aleuts, he could have taken them anywhere," he told the crowd. "The ship could have gone to California for crying out loud. God sent them here. Why? Because the Tlingits loved them and took care of them. He knew that they would be cared for, if they came to Funter Bay."

Many Tlingit elders were also on hand for the event, including David Katzeek, who made this observation moments before he sang at the foot of the cross: "This isn't something that's going to be raised up that is a big event, and now we're all well. We have to walk the path," he said.

Carl Stepetin, one of Krukoff's grandsons, said that the day, as a whole, was at least one step on a path toward healing. And for him especially, helping to carry his grandmother down the trail was something he considers one of his "greatest memories."

"I'm happy today happened. I just wish it never had to happen," he said. "I can't even begin to comprehend what life was back then. They were shoved on a boat, taken out of their house by people they didn't know, told that everything was going to be 'okay', and it wasn't."

For many descendants, including Elary Gromoff, Jr., it was a first trip to Funter Bay - a place they had always heard about.

Many of Gromoff's family members were interned, and he said government officials put his father, Elary, Sr., in charge of running a canteen. As time passed, his father grew tired of waiting for conditions to improve, and he eventually found a way to the capital city - bucking the requirement that a federal official provide permission, before anyone left the island.

"He decided that he had enough after one year, and he snuck off the island," the son said. "The government listed my dad as AWOL. Basically, he started working with the Alaska Native Brotherhood and tried to get the Aleuts off Funter Bay to Juneau to help them out."

Tara Bourdukofsky's parents were also held at Funter Bay, and her grandmother and great-grandfather are buried on Admiralty. To her, the trip was a way of getting a sense of what her family endured, and to make sure she does her part to convey this chapter of history to future generations.

She said, "My grandmother is gone. Those elders and those who were here and experienced it, there are very few of them left. For the generations to come, it's incumbent upon people, like myself, to understand it, and know it, and do our part now."

There will be a historical moment this summer. U.S. Rep. Don Young successfully championed a restitution bill, which paid Aleut residents $12,000 each in 1988, but the federal agency that managed internment camps has never apologized - not until now.

On June 14, the same day St. Paul residents were rushed from their homes 75 years ago, the director of the Fish & Wildlife Service will head to the Bering Sea island to present a formal letter of apology.

During the boat ride from Juneau to Funter Bay, Karen Clark, the agency's deputy regional director told the crowd of the upcoming apology.

"As much as we wish, we cannot take back the course of history," Clark said. "While agents were following orders given by higher command, our agents should have acted with more humility and in a more humanitarian manner towards the people of the Pribilofs - their fellow Americans."