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The lone civilian: One Alaska war hero's unique place in history

Mike Dunham

The headstones at Fort Richardson National Cemetery include the ranks of the deceased or, in the case of family members, the rank of the service member to whom they were related.

But the marker at Plot A, Row 1, Grave 2 is different. That one bears only a name and date of death. No rank.

That's because Charles Foster Jones was a civilian, the only civilian killed by the Japanese army in North America during World War II. Though he never enlisted in the military, he is honored on this Memorial Day along with the hundreds of soldiers, sailors, airmen and officers buried beneath the neat rows of white stone.

Jones' part in the war is often mentioned in passing, but few know much about the man. One who does is Mary Breu, author of "Last Letters From Attu" (Alaska Northwest Books). Published in 2009, the book is primarily a biography of her great-aunt, Etta Schureman Jones, but also contains much information about Etta's husband, Charles.

Klondike sourdough

Jones was born in St. Paris, Ohio, on May 1, 1879, the son of a doctor. His mother died when he was four months old. It is said that Dr. Jones was a very strict father and the young Chawky, as the family called him, chafed at small town life.

"Foster wanted to get away from all that," Breu said in a phone call from her home in Anderson, South Carolina. "He had a natural wanderlust."

As soon as he could, he left Ohio to attend Puget Sound University. He may have enrolled there in 1897, but he didn't finish anything. When the Klondike Gold Rush erupted the following year, he took off for the Chilkoot Pass to join the adventure.

At first, he sent articles back to his hometown newspaper, describing the Yukon, the price of food, his outfit, the high wages and the life of a sourdough. Then he more or less disappeared for 20 years, most likely working various mining claims, never striking it rich, but never giving up on the country either. Aside from a short trip to the Seattle area, there's no record that he ever left Alaska after he arrived here.

While in Tanana he met Etta, a Jersey girl trained as a teacher and nurse. She'd followed her sister to the wilds of Alaska on something of a lark. When Jones saw her working at the post office, he told a friend he was going to marry her.

They did just that on April 1, 1923, and mushed off to a trapper's cabin for their honeymoon. They were both 42.

Breu records the Joneses' travels around Alaska in the years that followed. They were sent to one- and two-teacher schools in remote communities including Kipnuk and Old Harbor.

A veteran of the Trail of '98, Jones was a good mechanic and fixer, essential skills in places where the mail might not arrive for months. He could read currents and run a boat through shoals, construct a house with hand tools and make a generator run on fumes. He built his own radio and earned a license to operate it.

Letters quoted in the book reveal a couple who were devoted to each other. "Etta called Foster 'a perfect companion,'" said Breu. "'Never sick, never worried, never irritated.' He was not a type-A personality at all, but non-confrontational, calm, a born mediator."

Execution

In 1941, they transferred to the village of Attu. Etta was the teacher and Charles' duties included sending daily weather reports, keeping the school in repair and directing band music and entertainment programs.

On the long, stormy boat trip from Kodiak, Etta noted the military buildup in Dutch Harbor. "The whole place bristles with guns," she wrote to relatives.

But the Joneses did not feel at risk at their post on the tip of the Aleutian Island chain, even after America entered the war. Attu was tiny and far from everything, of no strategic value -- they thought.

It was also, by all accounts, a lovely place to live, even if the weather was extreme, with months between mail deliveries.

One visitor described the self-sufficient village of 40 people as a "little Eden." There was no alcohol or crime. The sea and tundra supplied abundant fish, wildfowl and berries. Profits from the sale of fox furs were divided among all residents, young and old. The money bought tidy houses, fishing boats and white dress clothes the children wore to Sunday services at the beautiful Orthodox church.

The Attuans were walking home from that church on June 7, 1942, when the war descended upon them and rent their lives forever. Hundreds of Japanese soldiers came across the hill above the village school, yelling and firing machine guns.

"The mud was flying up from the bullets," the late Nick Golodoff told the Daily News in a 2012 interview. Golodoff, six at the time, recalled running for the shelter of an old sod building as the Imperial troops stormed into the town.

Jones had just finished sending a weather report to Dutch Harbor when the gunfire began. "The Japs are here," he messaged before destroying the radio. Those would be the last words American authorities heard from any citizen of Attu until Japan surrendered three years later.

Breu is not sure, but thinks Jones probably had the only heavy hunting rifle in town. None of the permanent residents would have had a reason for one. There was no big game on the island. Foxes were trapped, not shot. A few men may have had .22s or shotguns, but bows and arrows were still in use for bird hunting.

"At any rate, there would have been no point in 40 people trying to fight an army of a thousand," she said.

The villagers were rounded up while their homes were searched and sacked. The Joneses received special interrogation.

"Etta wrote that they thought they were spies for Russia," Breu said. Attu was much closer to Asia and eastern Russia than the North American mainland. The Joneses had in fact heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor via broadcasts from Tokyo.

Amchitka Island was mentioned repeatedly by the interrogators. "She didn't know anything about Amchitka," an island 272 miles east of Attu. "Why would she?"

The couple was separated and Charles Jones was grilled, perhaps tortured. No records remain.

"Finally they told him to fix the radio," Breu said. "He didn't. And they killed him."

The Japanese informed Etta that her husband had slashed his wrist and committed suicide. They brought her into the school to see the body in a pool of blood. Then, as she looked on, they decapitated the corpse.

Attu men were summoned and ordered to bury the body without a coffin. They interred him near the church, carefully noting the position of the grave and Jones' clothing. A small bottle was placed at the head of the grave in accordance with local custom.

To Fort Rich

Etta was taken to Japan as a prisoner of war. For months she was by herself, grieving, in terror and utterly isolated until a group of Australian women captured in Papua New Guinea arrived. They found her hiding behind a potted plant, weeping and bewildered by the first voices speaking English she'd heard since leaving Attu.

In years to come, she often talked about Alaska. But she never spoke of her time as a POW. For that part of the book, Breu relies on the memories of the Australians.

The Australian women were much taller than Etta, who was "five feet if she stood on her toes," Breau said. They were also much younger than the little American who was then in her 60s. She became a surrogate mother to the group.

The rest of the Attuans were also taken to Japan, but to a different internment facility where many died of illness and malnutrition. Nick Golodoff remembered subsisting on a meager diet of watery rice.

In May 1943, American troops retook Attu Island in grueling combat that cost thousands of lives. Virtually the entire Japanese force was killed in the first land battle in North America involving the U.S. military and an invading foreign army since the Battle of New Orleans -- and the last such to date.

When the war was over, the U.S. Army sought Jones' body. Though the church and every other building in the village had been obliterated, men who had buried him, Mike Lokanin and Alfred Prokopioff, led searchers to the exact spot. The exhumed skull showed damage consistent with a bullet wound to the head.

The body was buried at Little Falls Cemetery, where American casualties from the battle were first interred. But in time, the military began the process of returning the remains to relatives. Etta was staying at the home of Breu's mother in Michigan when a phone call came from authorities asking what she wanted them to do.

"She said she wanted him to stay in Alaska, because he loved it so much," Breau said.

Since he had been killed during wartime while performing duties for the military, he was accorded a place of honor in the cemetery at what is now Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

A book and a grudge

Etta Jones never returned to Alaska. She died in Florida in 1965 at the age of 86.

Breu says she was close to her great-aunt, but admits that she knew little of her ordeal. "I only knew that she had taught in the Bush, that she was a POW and that the Japanese killed Foster," she said.

After Etta died, Breu wound up with her photos, letters and official documents. When she retired from teaching in 2002, she wrote up a little two-page biography to share with members of the family. But with every sentence, she found herself wanting to know more.

"I started digging," she said, "and some of the history conflicted with everything I knew."

With a grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum, she went to work on a book. "I wrote for seven years total," she said. "It occupied all my time. My husband did the laundry and cooking and stuff."

It took four years of writing before she could bring herself to deal with the chapter about the invasion of Attu. "It took me that long to get the stamina because I knew what had happened," she said. "It was eating me up. It wasn't pleasant at all."

She was perturbed by what she considered errors in earlier histories, like the suggestion that Jones had run into the hills when the Japanese attacked.

Etta herself had chafed at similar rumors. "Foster did not broadcast long messages after the landing of the Japs. He could not. Nor had he trained the Natives as a fighting unit. There were no weapons. Neither did we hide in caves, or do any of the other spectacular things such as I have been reading since my return to the United States," she told a newspaper in a rare statement about the attack.

There were warm moments, too. Shortly after the book came out, she was signing copies at an Anchorage bookstore. A woman identified herself as Elizabeth Kudrin and pointed to the photo on the cover. It shows Etta with the villagers receiving orders from their captors. A small, wide-eyed child is held next to her.

"That's me," Kudrin told her.

Jones' headstone, in the front row of Plot A at the cemetery, is easily seen from the visitor's parking lot. Also visible, a short distance away, is a plot containing non-American war dead whose lives ended in Alaska: Soviet, Canadian and British personnel.

As part of that plot, a tall memorial with Japanese characters rises above a little mound containing the remains of more than 200 Japanese soldiers who died while fighting in the Aleutians.

"I have a problem with that," Breu said. "I carry a grudge."

History preserved with a pen and a stamp

Without Etta Jones' letters, the record of her experiences would have vanished when she died. In writing "Last Letters from Attu," Breu said she used half of the letters she has in her possession, letters full of details about life in rural territorial Alaska.

When Breu was talking to an Alaskan high school class a few years ago, she asked students if any of them had ever written a letter. "Nobody raised their hand. Isn't that sad? This book wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been for letters."

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

 

Related articles about WWII in Alaska

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By MIKE DUNHAM
mdunham@adn.com
Contact Mike Dunham at or on