Martin Stepetin digs a hole for a memorial post at the Killisnoo Island Aleut cemetery May 31. Stepetin, an Aleut from St. Paul Island, helped emplace a memorial for the Aleuts from Atka Island who died during their WWII evacuation from the Aleutian Islands. Almost 10 percent of the evacuees died during their internment by the federal government.
Martin Stepetin embraces his wife, Ann, after breaking down as he dug a hole for a memorial post at the Killisnoo Island Aleut cemetery.
Story last updated at 6/4/2014 - 1:57 pm
KILLISNOO ISLAND - The Orthodox bishop of Alaska stood in a forest as a young man from St. Paul Island quietly wept.
On the last day of May, more than 90 people gathered in this quiet forest to pay their respects to 17 of World War II's forgotten victims.
In a solemn ceremony, the Friends of Admiralty Island dedicated a memorial plaque to the Atka Island villagers who died here after being evacuated from their homes by the U.S. government. The evacuation was supposed to preserve their lives from the advancing armies of the Empire of Japan, but instead decease claimed almost 1 in 10 of the 881 people evacuated from nine villages in the Aleutian and Pribilof islands.
Thirty-two people died at the Funter Bay internment camp, 17 here at Killisnoo, 20 at Ward Lake (near Ketchikan) and five at Burnett Inlet (near Wrangell).
"We do not forget who has died," intoned Bishop David Mahaffey at the end of a ceremony sanctifying the cemetery. "Please remember these people in your prayers ... that is the way our memory is eternal."
Little is left of the camp that housed 83 Atka residents for three years from June 25, 1942 to December 1945. Only corroded, overgrown machinery indicates that anything existed here before Whaler's Cove Lodge was built on this fish-shaped island south of Angoon.
Even the cemetery is hidden - marble tombstones, covered in moss, lean beneath towering trees that conceal the sun. The longest-lasting markers are those left by whalers and herring plant workers who left the island after a devastating fire in 1928. The graves of the Aleuts are all but obscured by time, their wooden crosses rotted and collapsed.
When the Empire of Japan invaded Attu and Kiska on June 7-8, 1942, it caught Alaska all but defenseless. While the U.S. Navy's admirals knew what was coming, they deliberately let the Japanese attack fall on Alaska in order to trap the Japanese fleet at Midway Island, thousands of miles to the south.
The Navy sent seaplanes to Atka Island, using the Native village there as a base to bomb the Japanese on Attu and Kiska. When the Japanese found the source of the bombardment, they strafed and bombed the village.
On June 12, Gen. Simon Buckner ordered the village evacuated. Most of the villagers were at fish camps and had little time to gather their things.
"Imagine that happening to you, being told you had just minutes to leave your home," explained Daniel Johnson Jr., who guided the Friends of Admiralty Island trip.
To deny the village to the Japanese, U.S. soldiers burned buildings, homes and the village church, then shipped the villagers to southeast Alaska.
Eight other villages were similarly packed up and shipped east: St. George and St. Paul in the Pribilofs, Nikolski, Akutan, Kashega, Biorka, Makushin and Unalaska.
Villagers from St. George and St. Paul were taken to Funter Bay, on the northwest coast of Admiralty Island. Those from Unalaska were taken to Burnett Inlet cannery, about 40 miles southwest of Wrangell. Those from the smaller villages were taken to Ward Lake camp north of Ketchikan. Some stayed for a time at the Wrangell Institute - a primarily Native school - before being taken to their final destinations.
It was a culture shock for all - from the wide open islands of the Aleutians and Pribilofs, they were taken without boats, without guns, without traditional tools, to a place where trees blotted out the sun.
"These people were not provided anything at all," said K.J. Metcalf, president of the Friends of Admiralty Island.
Many suffered from tuberculosis and other diseases, and the camps lacked plumbing, electricity and - in some cases - adequate shelter.
The old and young, particularly vulnerable to disease, died and were buried thousands of miles from their homes. The surviving villagers worked in Southeast Alaska until the end of the war, when the U.S. government returned them home. While the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans is well-known, that of the Aleuts went all but unnoticed until the 1980s. In that decade, the U.S. government acted to compensate the villages. In 1988, Congress approved the Aleut Restitution Act, which paid each evacuee $12,000 and created a trust fund for the betterment of Aleut life in affected villages.
Martin Stepetin grew up on St. Paul Island and now lives in Juneau with his wife, Ann. He traveled to Killisnoo with the Friends of Admiralty Island and - without prompting - grabbed a shovel and began to dig a hole for the memorial plaque.
After finishing, he stopped and wept.
"It's just really emotional, you know," he said after the ceremony. "I have dug a lot of graves in my home town of St. Paul, and it feels the same. ... I've heard about this all my life. Coming here is the closest thing - it's the ultimate way to get closure."
Friends of Admiralty Island is dedicated to preserving the wilderness and historic mission of Admiralty Island National Monument, Metcalf said.
Last year, the Friends organized a similar trip to Funter Bay to dedicate a plaque at the campsite there. The ceremony under the trees here on Killisnoo included remarks from Johnson Jr. and Joe Zuboff, who offered the Tlingit perspective.
"I thought it was beautiful, a blending of the cultures," Metcalf said.