Piama Robinson Oleyer is the daughter of Mary Chagin Turnpaugh and Verne Robinson. She is compiling oral histories from her family members. In commemoration of the 74th anniversary of the bombing of Dutch Harbor, Oleyer shared an excerpt of her mother's recollections with KUCB.
The American military showed up in the Aleutians when my mother was very young. Mom's dad was a casket maker and the pine shavings would fall to the floor as he planed the wood smooth. The little girls would adorn their hair and pretend the long spirals were little blond ringlets. One day a soldier asked their names and mom laughed when little, brown-skinned Sophie very seriously answered, “I'm Shirley Temple.” The military had become a part of everyday life.
Local families were accustomed to crowding into their personal foxholes where voices traveled clearly through the underground river rock. Neighbors could tell their friends were okay by their response to quiet calls in the night. No lights, not even a cigarette were allowed during those air raid drills which became more and more frequent. Then, for two eerie days residents heard the staccato crunch, crunch, crunch of thousands of soldier's feet marching on the gravel roads of Unalaska town. Something was brewing but nobody seemed to know just what. It was war time and the people were accustomed to hills and trails being blown up, leveled out, built over. Destroyed.
Then, in the cloudy dawn of June 3, 1942 the Japanese planes appeared in the sky. Bombs dropped everywhere it seemed, and an organized chaos ensued. Mom looked up the hill which seemed to have exploded with soldiers in full gear, their packs piled high over their heads with supplies. Like a mass of swarming insects, they took to their posts and fired back.
My mom was Mary Chagin, a young teen at the time and she ran for her life toward the open door of her grandmother's house as a Japanese aircraft strafed the street along front beach. She dove under the kitchen table and as she turned around she realized she hadn't shut the door behind her. Watching in horror, she first saw the spent shells bouncing in the dust making little clouds as they landed. Slow motion memory, it seemed, she told the story as if hours had passed during those few seconds. The sound that the metal shell casings made as they bounced off the wood of the front step never left her until the day she passed away nearly 70 years later.
That's what mom told me and I wish I asked more questions, listened to her golden voice a little closer, paid closer attention to her words.
Mom's aunt worked as a nurse in the hospital which had been mostly evacuated before it was bombed and destroyed, never to be replaced. Damage and destruction remained for the next 50 years around the island, only recently being cleaned up (just in the last two decades). This island has returned to its original green velvet beauty, yet to this day evidence of the bombing of Dutch Harbor can be seen around the island. Some wounds will never heal such as the toxic residue of war in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor and the effects it has had on the people since 1942. May we all offer our remembrance for the soldiers and civilians who were there that day and also for the island scars that still remain.