Veterans’ disappearing stories

Veterans of World War II won’t be around for much longer and it’s with an increasing sense of urgency that the Alaska Veterans Museum is collecting their oral histories before it’s too late.

About 2,000 World War II and Korean War veterans are dying every day, Suellyn Novak, president and executive director of AVM, said.

So far, Novak and the museum have collected around 160 oral histories from veterans living all over Alaska.

Not only does the museum maintain an archive of the collection, but they also provide the veterans’ families a copy of the video interview for posterity.

“It’s been a great great boon for the [veterans’] families and the museum,” Novak said.

While AVM has collected interviews with veterans of Vietnam, Desert Storm and more recent conflicts, they’re focusing on World War II and Korea while they still can.

Novak’s favorite interviews were with men who served in the Alaska Scouts, also known as Castner’s Cutthroats, during World War II.

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“These guys told wonderful stories,” Novak said. “They told stories about being trapped out in the weather and what they would have to do to survive. They told stories about being out in the Aleutian Islands and scouting out the Japanese.”

Formed in 1941, Castner’s Cutthroats wasn’t the typical army unit serving in World War II. They were Alaska Natives, hunters, fishermen, prospectors and trappers — tough guys who had the skills and knowledge to survive in the Alaska wilderness. During the Aleutian Campaign it was their job to collect intelligence on Japanese troops while staying undetected.

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The Aleutian Campaign exhibit at the Alaska Veterans Museum explores the soldiers who served in the western islands of Alaska during World War II. Photo credit: Ammon Swenson

The unit’s official name was the 1st Combat Intelligence Platoon, but the Cutthroats looked more like a band of outlaws than soldiers. They wore a mix of civilian and military clothing, grew facial hair and often carried their personal gear and weapons instead of the standard issue military equipment.

In addition to their scouting missions, they tested cold-weather gear and trained soldiers how to survive in Alaska. They also did extensive mapping and surveying. Some of their work was eventually used when the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was built.

The last surviving Cutthroat, Earl Acuff, died in 2013, but not before recording an interview with AVM for their oral history archive.

“They were so dedicated, especially the ones who weren’t regular army. They just wanted to get the war over,” Acuff said of his fellow Cutthroats. “They would do anything to get the war over, because a lot of them were wanting to get back to their traplines and some of them wanted to get back to their fishing boats.”

Prior to joining the Alaska Scouts, Acuff was stationed by himself in an outpost on Adak to warn of incoming Japanese planes. The skies had been quiet, so he had been out of radio contact with anyone for a long time. He was eventually presumed dead and a group of Cutthroats was sent to search for him. They were surprised to find Acuff not only alive, but thriving.

The Cutthroats asked him how he managed to survive alone with limited rations. He told them he had been hunting birds and catching fish and crab. He hadn’t even touched his rations. With skills like that, he was a natural fit for the Alaska Scouts and joined their ranks.

“I enjoyed being in the Scouts more than any other unit,” Acuff said. “Didn’t do as much fighting as I did in other units, but I got more experience.”

Novak recounted a story Buck Delkettie told her about a close call while observing the Japanese for the Scouts.

As far as Delkettie remembered, he was on Amchitka in the western end of the Aleutians. He and his partner were crawling their way across the tundra and came upon some Japanese soldiers who were cooking a rice dinner. As the pair observed them, one of the Japanese soldiers sneezed. Delkettie barely managed to get his hand over his partner’s mouth before the man accidentally said “God bless you” to the sneezing Japanese soldier. It was the closest he’d ever come to being discovered, Delkettie told Novak.

Delkettie died about 10 years ago. Novak said it’s not uncommon for veterans to pass away relatively soon after their stories are recorded.

It can be a challenge to get some veterans to share their histories, but with help from local VFWs or American Legion posts, Novak has been able to continue finding people to interview.

The museum used to have two teams of oral history collectors, but these days, it’s mostly just Novak when she can find the time. Despite this, she’s managed to get over 20 interviews this year with a handful lined up.

Novak is a retired colonel in the Air Force with over 30 years of service and feels that her interviewees have an easier time opening up to a fellow veteran. Not only can she relate to serving in the Armed Forces, but she can also guide the interview to make it clear and understandable to the general public, without them getting bogged down in military jargon.

“It really takes a veteran to do these, because so many things the interviewee will say will make no sense to a civilian,” she said.

While some veterans can be apprehensive about sharing their stories, Novak said they often feel better after doing so. Sometimes they share things they’ve never told anyone.

“It’s a healing process for them too, and it’s a very very moving process for the interviewer, because you learn all kinds of things you never knew before,” Novak said.

The Alaska Veterans Museum is located at 333 W Fourth Ave., Suite 227. Their winter hours are Wednesday – Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.