The passing of Gregory Golodoff: The last link to life on Attu Island and a forgotten chapter of World War II
Attu was one of the forgotten Alaskan villages of World War II, an isolated island at the very tip of the Aleutian chain, where the Unangax̂ led quiet lives – hunting, fishing and living almost entirely off the land and the sea – where women wove grass baskets with the tiniest, tightest weave from the rye grass that rippled in the wind.
All that changed in 1942, when the Japanese Imperial Army invaded and took all 42 villagers to Japan as prisoners of war. More than half died.
The remaining survivors of Attu had dwindled down to just one man, Gregory Golodoff, until Nov.17, when Golodoff died at the age of 84, not too long after his younger sister, Elizabeth, died in February at the age of 82.
Golodoff was only three years old when his mother, father and all seven of the family’s children were taken to Japan. The Japanese also killed a white teacher in the village, Charles Foster Jones. His wife, Etta, was also taken captive and sent to a different POW camp. Jones was a radio operator, who had sent Dutch Harbor a message that the Japanese had invaded. He destroyed the radio after that. It was the last time anyone heard from the islanders. The survivors of Attu have said very little about what happened to them in Japan.
In a 2018 interview, Golodoff said he was too young to remember much, except the constant hunger.
He said he was lucky he arrived in Japan, with some extra fat, due in part to the Unangax̂ islander’s ability to hunt and fish.
“I was so fat, I guess,” Golodoff said. “Chubby little boy.”
“We only get one bowl of rice a day. Sometimes, one salted herring,” he said. “And sometimes we get a fry bread a day.”
The rice was actually less than a cup, because it was watered down.
“I understood this was all I get,” Golodoff said.
He chuckled as he described how the Japanese cooks gave him the burned scrapings from the bottom of the rice pot, even though they were starving too -- that captives and captors alike suffered through the final days of the war.
But the difficulties did not end with World War II. His father, two brothers and a sister died before the federal government rescued them. His mother, brothers John and Nick, and his sister Elizabeth, were never allowed to go home to Attu – and relocated in Atka, an island about 500 miles away.
The homes and other buildings in Attu had been bombarded heavily in the Battle of Attu in May of 1943, one of the bloodiest battles of World War II and the only one fought on American soil since the Battle of 1812.
Both Golodoff and his sister, Elizabeth, were told that they arrived in Atka, singing and speaking Japanese. They had to learn a new dialect of their language, Unangam Tunuu, so the Attu dialect was eventually lost.
Golodoff says his mother never spoke to him about their experiences as prisoners of war, partly because his mother was unable to raise four children by herself, so they were divided up among relatives. Goldoff said there also wasn’t time to dwell on the war – that the children, as soon as they returned, had to help with hunting, fishing and gathering food.
Dimitri Philemonof, a longtime Unangax̂ leader, describes Golodoff as a humble man, who never spoke of the war and the hardships it brought to his family but instead devoted himself to his new community.
“Throughout his life he has been a great leader,” Philemonof said. “I never saw him hate or anything of that sort. I think that says a lot for the Aleut people.”
Philemonof said Golodoff exemplified the Aleut or Unangax̂ value of quiet perseverance – and took the advice of elders to not let anger or bitterness get the best of him. Golodoff became a tribal leader in Atka in the 1980s – a time of significant growth that included a new subdivision and school.
For others, like Moses Dirks, who grew up on Atka, Golodoff was a good role model.
“He was always helpful, and he was always willing to help the people there in Atka for many years,” Dirks said.
Golodoff’s niece, Joanna Thompson, marveled at how her uncle never showed any anger over his family’s captivity in Japan.
“Uncle Greg just turned it into something else. He could have been one of the other children that passed,” said Thompson, who believed her uncle felt lucky to be alive. “And he just found joy in every day.”
Thompson says she enjoyed watching her Uncle Gregory snuggle next to his wife, Pauline, as she knitted, one of many examples of how he enjoyed simple pleasures.
Thompson says her uncle followed the old Unangax̂ prohibition against complaining, not even about the weather.
“There’s an old story that says these two brothers did it and it brought eternal winter,” she said.
Rachel Mason, the senior cultural anthropologist for the National Park Service’s Alaska Region, interviewed the survivors from Attu extensively and helped Golodoff’s brother, Nick, write his memoire, Attu Boy. Mason says their subsistence lifestyle may have ultimately saved them. The Japanese captured the village in the spring and did not take them to Japan until the fall, which gave them time to hunt and fish and preserve food.
Mason says the Japanese let them take their dried fish, which helped to stave off hunger for a while. But the surviving Golodoff children told her stories about how their mother, Olean, would collect orange peels tossed on the street and boil them for her children.
Beyond the hunger, there was also sickness. Tuberculosis was rampant in Otaru, Japan’s northernmost city on the island of Hokkaido.
Golodoff still had scars on his arm, where he says the Japanese injected him with drugs that he believes were experimental and may have contributed to the deaths of the Attu islanders, who did not survive the war. Mason says it’s possible the Japanese were testing medicines for TB.
Mason says the story of Attu is not well known but it has been repeated many times in history, as in the recent outbreak of war in Gaza.
“There are people trying to live their regular lives, just like the Attuans were, completely disrupted by war,” Mason said.
“I think we can identify with living a peaceful existence at the most isolated village out at the end of the chain, and by being captured and taken by Japan as prisoners,” she said.
“It was sad to say goodbye to the last Attuan. But what’s encouraging is that the descendants of Attu are still really a vital group,” she said.
Mason says Gregory Golodoff may have been the last link to the people of Attu, but not the end of the story, which will live on through the descendants.
“This obscure corner of history, we need to keep that alive,” she said.