One of those survivors, Nick Golodoff, became a prisoner of war at just six years old. He was among the dozens of Unangan Attu residents swept away to Hokkaido, and one of only twenty-five to survive. Attu Boy tells Golodoff’s story of these harrowing years as he found both friendship and cruelty at the hands of the Japanese. It offers a rare look at the lives of civilian prisoners and their captors in WWII-era Japan. It also tells of Golodoff’s bittersweet return to a homeland torn apart by occupation and forced internments. Interwoven with other voices from Attu, this richly illustrated memoir is a testament to the struggles, triumphs, and heartbreak of lives disrupted by war.
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A Young Alaskan's WWII Memoir
By Nick Golodoff
UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA PRESSCopyright © 2015 University of Alaska Press
All rights reserved.
A YOUNG BOY'S EXPERIENCE DURING WORLD WAR II
There are many books about the Aleutian Islands in Alaska during World War II, but hardly any books about the invasion of Attu Island and the personal experiences of those who lived through it. In most books that I have read about World War II in the Aleutian Islands, there is some truth, but there is a lot of dishonesty in the books. I know this because I have been through it. I am also talking about Aleuts in this book because I never saw any true stories about Aleuts. Not all the books that I have read and seen are all true. Some books I have read about Aleuts in this region from Attu to Atka contain false information. I'm talking about my own experiences so people will know what happened to me. I also want to sell my book in Japan. Some people there are interested in what I did during and after the war.
The stories in this book are personal to me, as are the feelings I have felt through this unexpected, frightening, and life-altering ordeal. I have told these stories to many individuals and in their expressions and questions, they were perplexed by what I have gone through. After telling my stories I was asked if I was going to write a book about my life, and so here it is. Please, know that I am going to be seventy-six years old by the end of 2011 and I don't remember everything about my childhood, but I do remember well my experience during World War II.
I was born December 19, 1935, about thirty miles southwest of Attu during trapping season. It was winter and my parents were fox trapping on Agattu Island. Dad made most of the family's living from trapping. Before the war they used to trap on all the islands. They trapped white, gray, silver, and blue fox. The trappers took their furs to the store and traded them for things like flour, sugar, and other food. There was a boat that used to come from Seattle to collect the furs. Before people trapped for fox, they used to hunt sea otters and fur seals for the furs. There was no trapping during the war.
While they were trapping they lived in a mud house, like a barabara. My dad's name was Lovrenti Golodoff. My mom's name was Olena Horisoff. She was from Atka, and my parents met in Atka. My father's brother Innokenty was with them on Agattu Island when I was born. Aleuts have Russian names because the Russians gave the Aleuts family names and new names when they baptized the Aleuts.
My uncle told me that when I was a baby, he used to let me suck on a sea urchin. At that time babies didn't have any milk other than from their mom. We would pick up sea urchins at low tide. We ate seaweed too.
After the winter I was born, neither my mother nor I ever went back to Agattu after that. I lived on Attu until I was a little over six years old. When the Japanese invaded the island of Attu, I was taken as a prisoner of war to Japan. I was in Japan for more than three years. On the way back from Japan to Atka, we stopped at a few places like Okinawa, Manila, San Francisco, Seattle, Adak, and then Atka. I have been living here in Atka ever since. As an adult I did go back once to work on Attu, but I didn't see the village again.
Attu before the War
In 1942 before the war began, Attu was a nice, quiet place with a population of about thirty-four people. We had nothing: no insulation in the houses and no inside plumbing. There was a wood stove to heat the house. Attu was plain and quiet all the time. There was a trading post, church, and some houses. Some people were still living in barabaras. The BIA school had a white teacher and her husband. People did not have much to do since there were hardly any jobs. The only source of money was trapping during the winter, and during the summer they just dried, salted, or smoked salmon and did some woodcarving. I was only six years old during this time, so I did not have much to do besides walking the pathways. There were only a few of them, and they were nothing but gravel. One went from one end of the village to the other end and the other went down to the beach. The main one was from the church to the school. There were no streets, just paths. Back then everyone in the village used to help or work voluntarily, but today people work only if you pay them.
I have a picture of my house in Attu with my dad standing outside with someone (above). I remember the inside of the house. It had two rooms; one room had beds, and the other had a table and a stove, and also we had an attic, which we used for storage. I remember while I was in Attu, one morning in winter when I got up, my house was dark so I thought it was still night. My dad went out and made steps out of snow to the top of the almost-built house and after I went outside I could only see chimneys and the smoke coming out where the house should be. I remember the house used to be cold in the morning because we only had a wood stove and the house was not insulated. I know where my house was because it was the second from the other end, on the school side. I used to know the man who lived next door, but cannot remember the name.
Attu is just like any other Aleutian island. It has more gravel than any other Aleutian island I have been on, too, and it has rougher country. There is very little sand. I don't remember any volcanoes on the island. Attu does have bushes that Atka doesn't have.
I used to like going out in the boat and still do. I could not live without the sight of the ocean, so when the weather was nice I would be at the beach almost every day. Whenever I needed wood or to go hunting, I was at the beach wanting to go out in the boat, but the adults would not take me, and if they did not I was told I would cry and throw rocks at them.
Sometimes after church, my parents used to tell me to get my godfather and bring him over to our house for tea. I was told to not let him walk in the puddles because he was blind. I guess I was a bad boy because I used to let him walk in the puddles and he never said anything till he got to my house. Then he would tell my parents what I did. I would get kicked out of the house, but I would still do it.
Prewar Fears and Clues about Japanese Invasion
Before the war, some trappers from the village didn't return. They found them shot on Attu. The old-timers thought it was the Japanese who shot them. When the Attuan men would go hunting on Attu, they used to see other people. Later they learned that the Japanese were mapping in the area.
Before the Japanese came to Attu, a man used to talk about seeing tracks when he had to go walking. He would see tracks on the beach and sometimes he would see somebody and when he hollered to that person, it would disappear. I figure now they were Japanese mapping the island before they invaded it. The same thing happened on Atka and Unalaska. They used to call them "Tuginagus," which means boogieman. When a man from Attu went and checked his traps, he returned and asked the people in the village who was out hunting earlier. He was told that no one left the village besides him. Therefore, no one knew and no one understood what was going on. Just before the war started, I also saw a man, a ghost and his son. The elders, they told me stories of what might have happened. We thought the man killed his son then himself but there were no rifles nearby, so we guessed it was the Japanese while they were mapping the area from Attu to Unalaska. The reason I am saying this is because after the war, people went trapping again but never found tracks or saw ghosts anymore.
I think the Japanese were all over the Aleutians before the war because after the war, the elders were talking about seeing people when everybody was in the village and seeing mysterious tracks, not just on one island but all the other islands. People also heard boat engines. After the war, no one talked about boogiemen anymore.
The Japanese Invasion, June 7, 1942
The Attuans had been warned by the US military that the Japanese might come. Before the US could evacuate the Attuans, the Japanese invaded. The teacher, Etta Jones, told them about Pearl Harbor. Her husband had a radio.
When the Japanese arrived, it was a nice calm day. Now I know that it was June 7, 1942, but I didn't know it then. The whole village of Attu was in church that Sunday morning. As I was going to church, I looked up and saw Jesus coming down real slow. I turned around to see if anyone else was looking, and when I turned back he was gone.
Once church was over, we all heard noises that sounded like motors from the next bay. It was a sound we had never heard and turned out to be machine gun fire. Four or five young men were sent up a hill to look. By the time they figured out what the noise was it was too late; the Japanese were already there. Then we saw a plane go over the village. This plane flew over once. The plane had a red round symbol on the wing, and the plane was so close to the ground we could see the pilot.
When I saw Alex Prossoff heading down to the beach, I started to follow him thinking he was going boating and that I could come along. Just before I caught up with Alex, on the way down, there was a platform where they were going to build a house. On the platform there was a gunnysack spread over it. While Alex and I were down at the beach, we heard sounds and voices that we did not understand. The Japanese were loud as they came down the side of the mountain. We heard a noise that sounded like crows. Every time I looked I didn't see anything. We started to hear shooting, so Alex ran and I followed. Alex and I ran past the church to the other side of the village and that's where we saw the Japanese soldiers coming down the hill. While I was still running after Alex, I could see a piece of mud popping up in front of me, so I stopped. I looked back, and the mud behind me was popping up. The reason we were not hit is that the bullets did not reach us, but they came only one or two feet short of the path we were running on. I did not understand the mud popping up at the time, but now I understand that the Japanese were shooting at us. Alex and I were lucky to get away.
Alex was still running, so I continued following him. When Alex reached his house, he went under it. His wife was already hiding under their house, so Alex crawled in. When I tried to go under I was told to go in the mud house, which was behind the house Alex was under, and that is what I did. They had a barabara behind Alex's house that was his old house before they built a wooden one. It was used for storage. Someone opened the door to the mud house for me.
When the Japanese landed in Attu, I wonder why they were shooting when they were coming down the hill. I think because everybody was outside listening to the noise from the next harbor where they were landing and nobody knew what was going on. The reason the Attu people were all outside was that there was all kinds of noise from the next bay to the village. That is my first time I have seen so many people out at the same time.
When we went up, we saw a Japanese plane go over, and then later the Japanese came down the hill shooting. The school teacher's husband had a radio, but they did not send out a message until the Japanese were almost to the school. Then they started to send a message, and the Japanese took over the school and cut them off. During the gunfire, I believe the Japanese killed their own people because I heard that one or two of the Japanese people were dead. The only person that was hit from Attu was one woman who was shot in the leg.
While I was in the mud house, I heard people outside speaking a different language. It was lucky that Alex went under the house because if he wasn't there, the Japanese would have shot the mud house and could have killed us all. After the Japanese caught Alex and his wife under the house, they gave him a note. The note said that everyone had to come out, and if no one listened, the Japanese were going to blow up the house and mud house with machine guns. Alex translated what the Japanese wrote in English. If they told us to get out, we would not be able to understand, and the reason for the note, Alex told us, was that the Japanese know how to write in English but did not know how to speak it. Alex translated back to the Japanese in English.
We all went out, and the Japanese marched us all over to the school. That's where I met up with my mom and dad. I threw up when I got there because I was scared. I do not know how they got the other Attu people, but when we got to the school, everybody was there except for the four men [teenagers] that went up the hill. Later they took two men from the village and a Japanese soldier to go up and look for them, and they hollered at them to come out to let them know everything was okay, and they brought them back. There was a teacher and wife [sic] in Attu, but I don't know what happened to them. The white couple were married, and Mrs. Jones was the teacher. I heard they both tried to kill themselves on Attu. I don't know what happened to them. They didn't want to be POWs, I guess. They cut their wrists only someone found out.
I'm unsure how long they kept us there in the school, but it seemed like almost all day. Later that day, toward evening, the Japanese sent us all to our houses. Once we had gotten to our houses, the Japanese posted guards with guns at every house. The guard by our house didn't have any matches or a lighter, so he would knock on our door and ask for a match in Russian. My dad would give him matches. Our guard was nice — just like most Japanese people I know.
The next day I went out and walked around a bit. I cannot really recall what happened, but again, I was only six years old. Every day I would go out and walk around. I got familiar with the Japanese troops and they were friendly to me. When I would go down to the beach, there was a guard that had a box and inside it there was some candy. Every time that I saw him down at the beach, he'd offer me some. Behind each house, there was a mud house [barabara] and I believe that the Japanese troops were taking turns sleeping in them. I noticed behind the village there was a long mud house and I think they used it for cooking and a mess hall. The Japanese had foxholes all over Attu. One time I went to church and there were Japanese navy men living inside the church. They had beds on each side of the church. I am unsure why they cut the cross that was on top of the church. They used cloth as a net to catch trout with.
The Japanese commander used to take baths in drums. The Japanese soldier would put water in the drum and build a fire underneath it to heat the water and when the fire went out, he would take a bath. When Japanese purchased anything in Attu, they did not use money; they used fox fur. They would take their foxes to the store and were told how much it would cost and used furs to cover the purchase.
Early one morning while the Japanese occupied Attu, an American plane flew low over the village before anybody got up. Just before the American plane showed up, we heard a cannon go off at the point of the bay. That happened twice. I figured they were just taking pictures. The first time it happened, my mom and dad hid under the bed, but I was at the window. I saw a Japanese soldier come out in his underwear running to a foxhole with his rifle. While this was going on, my dad grabbed me and pulled me under the bed with him. The second time the American plane flew over, my mom and dad went under the bed, and I ran to the window again. This time the Japanese soldier had his clothes on as he was running to the foxhole with his rifle.
Life as a Japanese POW
I guessed that the Japanese were planning to stay a while because they brought in extra supplies like onions and potatoes. Once the Japanese finished unloading supplies, I guess plans changed because they were leaving and they took us with them. At that time [mid-September], I did not understand why they did not leave us in Attu. While we were heading down to the beach, the Japanese were burning the onions and potatoes. My mom gave me some cooked potatoes off the beach so I had some. The Japanese took us out to the boat and put us in the cargo hold, where we stayed all the way to Tokyo. They dropped off some Japanese troops there. From Tokyo we went to the island of Hokkaido, which is where we were held until the war was over. We were taken to Sapporo, the largest city on Hokkaido.
The next thing I knew, we were in a house and we weren't allowed to leave. In Japan, they put us all in one building for over three years with one Japanese police officer guarding us. The building we were kept in was made out of wood; there were two levels, and I stayed on the second floor. There were two planks under a building for a bathroom. Coal was piled under the house. There wasn't a sink. I remember my mom used to wipe my hands with a wet cloth. The house must have had a stove to provide heat, but I don't remember it.
Excerpted from Attu Boy by Nick Golodoff. Copyright © 2015 University of Alaska Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA PRESS.
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