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The Story

This book portrays events as they happened to Etta Jones, my great-aunt whom I knew during my first 20 years and her last 20. Qualities we often hear about, such as resolve and courage, are qualities that defined Etta. She was a pioneer in Native Alaska villages. She survived profound adversity. She played a significant role in a pivotal but little-known event in America’s history.

The photos in the book are primarily from Etta’s collection, photos she took in Alaska in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. For the captions, I’ve used the information Etta wrote on the back of the photos. If there was no inscription, I gathered information from her letters and unpublished manuscript. Regarding the photos of Attu, I’ve used several that include the Aleut Natives to document these disappearing people.

In 1922, at age 42, Etta was still single. Living in Pittsburgh, she was professionally accomplished - a teacher, a nurse and hospital social worker. Her sister Marie, who was 39 and single, was the true adventurer in the family. Also a teacher, Marie was the one who had lived and taught in cities from Montana to New York, something that was amazing for a single woman in the 1920s.

Marie’s co-workers had been talking to her about teaching opportunities in Alaska, and she was very intrigued. She talked her sister, Etta, into going out there with her, and Etta agreed, on the condition that they stay for one year only. From Pittsburgh, they began a 2-month, 4,000-mile journey by train and boat. Their destination was Tanana, a predominantly Native Athabascan village located in Alaska’s Interior.

At the end of that year, Marie had had her fill of the Alaska lifestyle, and she returned to the East Coast, but not before her sister’s wedding to Foster Jones, a gold prospector who had lived in Alaska for 20 years.

In 1923, Etta took over Marie’s teaching position in Tanana, but by 1928, she had decided to change the focus of her teaching; she wanted to be more actively involved with the Alaska Natives. In 1930, Foster also became an employee of the Alaska Indian Service, and for the next 11 years, they were assigned to isolated Athabascan, Alutiiq, Yup’ik and Aleut Native villages. In her letters, Etta wrote their purpose was not to change the culture of the people with whom they lived; rather, she and Foster taught English and math, and they assisted the Natives in any way possible, always respecting the worth and dignity of each person. Etta and Foster’s last post before retirement was at Attu, the westernmost island in the Aleutian chain. Their friends and family were not enthusiastic, saying, “Don’t go to Attu. That’s practically in Japan’s back yard!” Etta’s response was to laugh at them. She asked, “What would Japan want with Attu?”

Upon their arrival in this village of Aleuts in August of 1941, Etta wrote, “Attu looks good to us. There are only 45 in the village, and they live and work as a community. There are 9 or 10 houses, all well painted, large and furnished. There is a lovely Russian Orthodox Church, and the chief tells us they have several thousand dollars in the treasury. They all speak a little English which is surprising because they are so far removed from other communities. They rarely see other people, except men on the occasional Coast Guard Cutters that put in here.”

On Sunday morning, June 7th, 1942, this tranquil setting was disrupted when 1,200 Japanese troops ran down the mountainside all the while yelling and randomly shooting their rifles. One week later, Etta was taken to Japan.

The POW years are not a story of concentration camps, rape, murder and violence. They’re more about the slow torture of hunger, loneliness and isolation, but a very distinctly different kind of isolation from the kind Etta experienced in her beloved Alaska Native villages.

At the end of the war, Etta wrote to her family, “All I want is to get back to the States. Almost 4 years is a long time.” Etta started traveling a long road back to a normal life.

She never returned to Alaska, this place that had brought her so much joy and such unimaginable despair. She traveled, spent summers with my family in Michigan, and had numerous friends. It was almost the life of any retired teacher.