Shayla Shaisnikoff and Karen Abel discuss internment and the military during Aleutian campaign

Shayla Shaisnikoff hands a microphone to an elder at a storytelling session at the 75th commemoration of the bombing and evacuation of Dutch Harbor. (Photo by Berett Wilber, KUCB)

This week, we’re sharing stories from the Battle of Attu and the greater Aleutian campaign of World War II.

The conflict ended in the 1940s, but its legacy is still very much alive — both for the veterans who served and the Unangan people who were forced to leave during the fighting.

Even now, many vets have never spoken to an evacuee, and vice versa.

To commemorate what happened 75 years ago, KUCB invited people on both sides to sit down and reflect together.

Today, we hear from Shayla Shaisnikoff and Karen Abel. One is the granddaughter of internment survivors, and the other is the granddaughter of a fighter pilot.

Listen now


ABEL: My name is Karen Abel, and my grandfather served in the Royal Canadian Air Force in World War II. And he was stationed in Alaska — Kodiak, Umnak, Adak. Who are you?

SHAISNIKOFF: My name is Shayla Shaishnikoff. I am a descendant of two evacuees actually. My grandfather Larry Shaishnikoff was evacuated when he was 11 years old. And then my great grandmother Maria Turnpaugh was also evacuated and actually gave birth to two of my great aunts in Burnett Inlet.

ABEL: And were they do they live here?

SHAISNIKOFF: Yes. Well, my great grandmother passed, but my grandfather still lives here. Yes.

ABEL: Were they evacuated from here?

SHAISNIKOFF: Yes. From Unalaska.

ABEL: So … Ber — Bernard? Bernard Inlet?

SHAISNIKOFF: Burnett Inlet.

ABLE: Burnett Inlet. And where is that?

SHAISNIKOFF: That’s in southeast Alaska. They lived in an abandoned cannery. My grandpa said that when they arrived it was pretty much a shack. It wasn’t in living conditions. So the military — or the government or whoever it may have been — handed them a pile of wood and said, “Here you go. Fix it up.”

ABEL: They did that too. The higher government ordered the military to do the same kind of thing to the troops that were coming in when they landed on Umnak. They said, “Well, there’s your tent. Dig a hole.” The same kind of inhumane …

SHAISNIKOFF: Conditions.

ABEL: Terrible conditions.

SHAISNIKOFF: Yeah, and I was surprised to hear about that actually. One of the veterans said that he had served and he visited multiple different locations. And all the while, he was wondering where everyone was. He had no idea that the Natives were evacuated.

ABEL: They didn’t.

Karen Abel atop Bunker Hill. (Photo courtesy of Karen Abel)

SHAISNIKOFF: And he only found out a few months ago, I think. And that just blew my mind, because I had no idea. Coming from Unalaska, I guess, and growing up with the stories, I guess I never really thought that much about the perspective of the veterans. I never even considered that they didn’t know what was happening.

ABEL: I think what I’ve found — now having talked to a lot of the veterans, and this is several of them — they have made that comment that they had no idea. And I think it bothers them. And they don’t agree with it. They think it’s flat-out wrong and inexcusable. So I hope it doesn’t give them shame, because it wasn’t their decision to make. Because they still should be proud to have served.

SHAISNIKOFF: Yeah, I’m definitely grateful for the soldiers who — you know, they defended my home. And I know that the Unangax were evacuated for their own safety. It’s a shame that no one was prepared and it happened the way it did. But that’s just life sometimes, I guess.

ABEL: Hindsight is a wonderful thing. So your family was able to return. How many people other people — other villagers — returned with them? Do you know?

SHAISNIKOFF: With numbers, I don’t know. I know that 881 Unangax were evacuated from nine different communities and that one out of every ten would not return home.

ABEL: Hmmm. I started researching my grandfather’s war history about five years ago. He never talked about it — ever — and it wasn’t until he passed that we found all his briefcases of documents. And it led me to want to find out what exactly he did. So I started learning a lot about the relocation camps. I guess you call them “relocation camps”? And I found it difficult to celebrate what my grandfather and the other military did, knowing that there were so many people — our own people — who suffered because of it. How do I still have honor for those who served but not disregard those who got relocated and had their homes taken away?

SHAISNIKOFF: It’s definitely an interesting balance. I guess I could say I’m extremely proud of my grandparents for coming through that. I like to say that they persevered in a world that didn’t favor them. My grandfather really made something of himself. He was a very successful fisherman and today the “Deadliest Catch” boat — the Wizard — actually catches his quota for him. He also owned the Elbow Room, which was a very popular bar here in Unalaska. My great grandmother had 14 children, so we’ve got a big family.

ABEL: Wow. [laughs]

SHAISNIKOFF: And she was a very talented artist. So I’m very proud of them, and I’m proud of who it’s shaped us all to be, I guess. It’s even a part of me. Even though I didn’t experience it, it’s sort of incorporated itself into my personal history. So there is that balance of — we don’t celebrate it, per se. The evacuation, that is. But I guess we just honor everyone who was involved. The military and the locals who had to leave their homes.

ABEL: So do you hold resentment towards what happened?

SHAISNIKOFF: I don’t hold resentment against the military. I guess I could say that I’m upset that the government wasn’t more prepared for this to happen. And … I don’t know how to word it, really. I’m upset with the way it happened because I know it hurt a lot of people and a lot of people were lost. But I’m not upset with the soldiers who were here and who fought. I guess I’m upset with those who made the decision. Those who were there with the Unangax in the internment camps. Those who told them not to speak their language. Those in particular people who looked down on the Natives — I guess I could say that I do resent them. But against the military and the United States as a whole, I can never say that. No.

ABEL: Yeah. War is not pretty. For everyone.

SHAISNIKOFF: Every side.

ABEL: Every side.

This story was produced by KUCB’s Laura Kraegel and Zoe Sobel.

Laura Kraegel covers Unalaska and the Aleutian Islands for KUCB . Originally from Chicago, she first came to Alaska to work at KNOM, reporting on Nome and the Bering Strait Region. ( / 907.581.6700)

Zoe Sobel is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk based in Unalaska. As a high schooler in Portland, Maine, Zoë Sobel got her first taste of public radio at NPR’s easternmost station. From there, she moved to Boston where she studied at Wellesley College and worked at WBUR, covering sports for Only A Game and the trial of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

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