Tommy Ongtooguk, originally from Teller, Alaska, speaks on March 1, 1996 during the Communities of Memory public storytelling event held at the NANA Museum in Kotzebue, Alaska from February 29 to March 2, 1996. He talks about his experience in the Alaska Territorial Guard and the military during World War II. He talks about being stationed at Nome, Alaska and seeing all the Lend-Lease airplanes flying to the Soviet Union and the increase in Nome's population from the number of military personnel there. He also talks about how traditional skills he learned as a young man, such as having stamina when running, were helpful in the military context, and what it was like when he was stationed at the radar site at Kotzebue in the 1950s.
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Enlisting in the Alaska Territorial Guard (ATG) and being rejected from the U.S. Army
Working for the military building air fields in Nome
Lend Lease airplanes in Nome, and influx of large numbers of military personnel
Basic training, and dismantling weapons and putting them back together
Learning traditional skills as a young man in Wales, Alaska that were transferable to the military
Hunting polar bears
Long distance cold weather hike as part of basic training
Stationed at radar site in Kotzebue
Story about witnessing a shaman performing
Officers' club in Nome, and learning to dig ditches
Working overseas in the military, and baking bread in Korea
Being stationed in Japan
Driving in Japan
Being stationed in Thailand, and flying in a fighter jet airplane
Living in the barracks and using a public commode
Dealing with snakes, and connection between Inupiaq belief about a weasel jumping into your mouth and Thai having similar belief but with a small snake
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My name is -- English translation of -- pronunciation of my Eskimo last name is Ongtooguk. Ongtooguk. Ongtooguk. O-n-g-t-o-o-g-u-k. But Eskimo way of pronouncing that is Angutunguk (sp?). And that’s the way they pronounce it in Diomede and Siberian dialect.
And -- because I have an aunt in Siberia and some of my cousins are named after my dad, Ongtooguk, at Siberia.
They came over -- when they came over one of them introduce themself as -- as perhaps second cousin.
So, I have ancestry in Diomede and on my dad’s side in Siberia, and my mother’s side is at Wales.
But I was born at Teller and -- actually I was born 1922, so I’ll be 74 this year. And it was at Nome that I entered the Alaska Territorial Guard and I’m listed under Muktuk Marston’s book. My name is in there.
And so then it was at Nome that I enlisted in the old army, U.S. Army. November 4th, 1946. And World War II did not officially end until December 1946, so I became a World War II veteran by a fluke and -- just by -- because of the dates I enlisted. I didn’t know that. And so officially I’m a veteran of World War II even though I didn’t see the thing.
But to go back, before that I -- During the war time, the draft board at Nome made me 4F because of -- being the only son I couldn’t get in the army.
And -- because that’s -- they wouldn’t let me in because I was the only son. And that was the regulation.
But just until after hostility was over that I was able to enter the service -- enlist me. Change my rating. But prior to that, I work for old war department, which is now Department of Defense.
And I was a rod man for surveyor when they first built that Marks Air Force Base at Nome. And that was a --
They were trying to build it to counter the Japanese in Attu Island primarily. And -- and I was also -- I know how long an old Moonlight Field was. Seven thousand feet long, because we measured that.
I was a rod man for surveyor. It was a bomber base for Mitchell Bombers -- aircraft -- I mean, Marauders, below Anvil Hill.
That’s two bases. One for fighter, and one for the medium bombers.
And it was quite an interesting period at Nome for me. During that time the Lend Lease planes start going through Nome to Siberia. Russian pilots were taking over from Fairbanks and ferrying them to Nome, and all the way to Siberia.
It was about nine thousand Lend Lease planes went through Nome to Russian front through Siberia. And that’s the Air Cobras fighters and Mitchell bombers and Martin bombers with two motors -- two engines.
And -- one day I counted one hundred and fifty fighters at Nome airfield. One hundred and eighty bombers at Moonlight Field.
They were all storm bound at Nome because of the fog in Siberia. And, so, finally, when the fog lifted over Siberia the -- the largest formation of planes I ever saw took off in my lifetime.
One hundred and fifty fighter planes began to circle around and start formation and they went to Siberia just for -- mass formation, one hundred and fifty fighters. That’s over Nome. That was back World War II.
And -- then I counted one hundred and eighty bombers, same thing. And it was a continuous thunder, it seemed like. It’s just lot of noise.
And then we had these six inch coast of defense cannons up -- in placement on concrete up the coast. And those cannons are on -- situated on top of the permafrost.
And when they fired those cannons, it’ll shake the whole town because of permafrost. And it was very interesting. You know, them cannons are going off, the cannons are a few miles away, but it just -- that shake the whole top of the tundra. It -- because of the permafrost and situation.
And so it was quite interesting period for me. And it was during that period that I saw a build up of fifteen thousand troops around Nome. That was a lot of troops.
And one interesting note about that. All the girls were very popular at Nome. I'll tell you, they weren’t lacking for dates. And fifteen thousand troops, population of Nome was 2000, well, you can just imagine how popular they were. What few girls that was and --
And it was there when I enlisted at Nome before I even went to basic training. They asked me if I would be interested in becoming an officer. Because my aptitude test and everything, and I says no.
And it was in -- it wasn’t until February that I left Nome for basic training at Fort Rich(ardson).
And you know -- just -- at Elmendorf Air Force Base. Just at the other side of it.
That’s where I took my thirteen weeks of basic training. And one month of house-to-house combat training.
And I was an expert on BAR automatic rifles. And I was also ex -- expert on -- on M1.
And my favorite weapon was an old automatic weapon. Thompson machine gun was also another one. So I was well trained, and -- we were training those days to dismantle the old M1 blindfolded and put it back together. And we had to be able to do that blindfolded.
And we used to race each other how long it would take to -- I think the record was one minute for the quickest time that it was dismantled and put together.
And that guy was really trained how to do that.
And in that class of 36, there was two unusual students. They were up -- way up in genius level and one guy had an IQ of 160. Way up there. Of course, the average IQ is about 110. And we had another guy who had an IQ of 165.
And there were way up there in a very unusual class and --
Now, before I entered the service I grew up at Wales. One of -- after my mother died -- just to give you background on something I did.
I went to Wales and my mother died. That’s where she wanted to die. She had TB and the -- my aunt took over and --
And they used to have old qargis. Men’s house at Wales. And I went there to listen to people talking.
My grandfather, who was about 90 years old at the time in 1937, sent me on an errand. I walk out, and my uncle followed me from behind. Right behind me.
When I walked out, though, I start walking. My Eskimo name, given name, Muquluk (sp?), and then -- The way he sound, Muquluk, I knew I did something wrong. I knew I did something wrong right away just by sound of his voice.
Then he said, "In this village, when an old lady and old man send you on errand, you don’t walk, you run."
And so we were already in basic training long before I got in service.
And so we’re forever running around that place, it seemed like. And it was part of discipline training.
It was part of our training to traditional way of hunting polar bear. And it was a interesting period.
That part -- even though we had a high powered rifle at that time, that training period was going on, very traditional village of Wales, and it was to build up our wind.
And, you know, when the polar bear run -- most of the time polar bear run away from man and -- and the only way you can catch a polar bear, run half a day and when you -- because you have built up stamina, you can catch up to polar bear when the polar bear get tired.
The reason why you want to catch up the polar bear, you want the polar bear to charge you. The best way to kill a polar bear is a charging polar bear.
And my dad used to give me all the motions, how to do it. And my uncle, how to do it traditional way.
They said the best way to kill a polar bear is charging polar bear. And he said, then, just like human being, some polar bears are left handed. Very few of them, about the same ratio as a human being.
You have to know, is that polar bear left handed or right handed. So it’s a very good thing to know.
Because a right-handed polar bear, when it strike it, you will only strike this way. You have to know that.
A left-handed polar bear will strike this way. So you know those already.
When you get so close, you got this mitten, you throw the mitten up, he rears up and you give -- give him a hard thrust with your spear.
And when he goes down, don’t go on this side, go on this side and you could get him, finish him off. So that’s the way we were trained.
Of course, I was chicken. I never catch polar bears that way.
Why not? We have high-powered rifle anyway. And I was -- I never try it myself.
So, I took my basic training at Elmendorf, Fort Rich. At the end of basic training of thirteen weeks, we have a forced hike of 30 miles. 25 miles, 30 pound pack.
It was 25 below zero. I was the long distance runner already, and I learned to control breathing in cold weather when you run long distance. You learn that.
And, so -- there was 36 of us on that force hike, all of them dropped out. One by one, one by one. There was only two of us left.
Last two miles, one Indian guy, full blooded Indian, and myself. And that Indian guy didn’t wanna give up, he wanted to -- and he was a -- He was so intense on staying with me, he was almost crying. He was trying to protect his honor, I guess, or something.
And I tell you, we had a young Italian officer, he’s a tough one. He had a pack already, he took his packs out and finish it, and I says, "Sir, that’s unfair." I told him it was unfair.
And -- but he did it anyway so -- He still didn’t finish even though he took his pack, and I was the one that made it all the way through. It was because of that training at Wales.
And so, it paid off. And -- and it’s a quite interesting period of my life, how some of these old traditional training make me survive during a period when I was in Thailand and during the Vietnam War.
And -- it was that kind of training that sharpen your reactions. And kinda give you a sixth sense.
But, to make a interesting part of territory of Alaska in them days, we were under different rule as far as army regulation. And you had that point system to go back to Lower 48 for most of the Lower 48 personnel. And so from 1946 to 1951, I start asking for stateside duty.
And, you know, in 1951 I was stationed out here at the old radar site in Kotzebue. And DEW line. That was when population of Kotzebue was around over 300. And -- and so you know everybody by name. Just one row of streets.
It was very primitive site. It was -- old DEW line system during the height of the Cold War. And it was the only place in Armed Forces that I didn’t have any mixer. I was a food service baker. And I had to hand-mix all my bread for the base. And so, it was quite interesting period.
And the -- it was so primitive that they built the outhouse and they just emptied the fifty-gallon drum and placed the fifty-gallon drum underneath their commode. And it was very cold sitting when it gets 50 below zero.
And one young lieutenant said, "Tommy, I wrote my wife a letter the other day. I told her this is the first time that toilet paper ever flew back at me." During that blizzard it was very unpleasant.
And so, that’s another little side story of interesting thing that happened up there. And it was at this place that I saw aŋatkuq. We call aŋatkuq. I think he was aŋatkuq, a shaman.
Name your drink, what you want. You want Tom Collins. Anything. "I want Tom Collins." So he'd give him a shots, that’s why it -- you want beer? And half of them chose beer. Different kind of brands.
Then, so, he -- there was about forty people in the crowd. He went to -- "What do you want?" "Beer." Out of that same tea kettle he pour out a beer. "What do you want?" "Tom Collins." He never change his face. Tom Collins, pour out.
Then go to next guy. "I want a whiskey sour." Oh, a whiskey sour came out. This beer.
And that little tea kettle fill up all the requests of the -- never change it, never empty. And it’s still full by the time he got through.
That was the strangest thing I have ever seen.
Then he took -- he make one more trick. He had two men about nine feet long on rope, tight. And we examined the steel ring. They’re about the size of your finger, heavy.
And right in the middle of that rope -- people -- we examined it. There’s no flaw, there’s no opening. And he told that thing -- that thing and it would be -- and a rope would be inside.
He put three rings like that. And it was the most incredible trick we have ever seen.
And then he sat three men on the stage. Three young GIs. He talked to them.
When he got through, he said, "You’re wearing his belt." He changed all their belts without us seeing it. And he change all their wristwatches, and he changed to -- and he changed all their pocketbook.
And we never saw it, but he -- yet he change it. He was so fast with this hand. Slay (slight) of a hand. And he did that to Stalin and Roosevelt and Churchill. When he was -- when they were at Yalta.
And, you know, it was a -- interesting phase up at Nome. There was a very nice officers' club. I often wondered why officers would build their extremely fine building when we were so short of material in World War II.
What I didn’t know, that fancy building that they built with the extra large bathtub was for Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin. That’s where they were supposed to have the meeting. Bef -- and they change it to Yalta. But that’s where they were gonna have it, at Nome.
And that was the interesting part of the history that I found out. And so Nome has a very interesting history of this kind of situation that you don’t hear in newspaper.
But I got to know them because I was the right department. I was with the engineering department, so I got to know all these things just because I was with them.
And I was a ditch digger and everything. And a rod man and you name it. And I was a -- and there was another white boy. His name is Billy Smith. We were same age.
Another little interesting period came in. We have a seventy-year-old prospector come in, we’re gonna dig a ditch to a different ditch. Billy and I talked together, how can that old man survive? And they began to build. He was an old prospector.
You know, being young man we worked like everything and this old guy he’s just steady pace, you know. By the end of the day, he was ten feet ahead of us.
And he show us why. He said don’t -- he show us how to dig. Body, everything. And he showed us the trick of digging in ditch. We learned that from the old man. And how to conserve your energy.
So -- so finally I got to go overseas. Back -- I had to re-enlist to go to Lower 48. I want to see Lower 48, so where’d they send me? Montana. Another cold place. Might as well be in Nome.
And I says to heck with that, so I put in for worldwide tour. And that’s the quickest way I can get out of Montana and they sent me to Philippine Island. Woo, that was hot.
Ninety degrees temperature, ninety percent (humidity). And that was during the Cold War, the Korean War. And we were part of the staging area.
And this is where I operate in charge of a -- all automatic bakery. Everything touch, push button. You load all the flour, they sift it, put it in the mixer, unload it, put it in the machine, load it, and -- and go through conveyer belt and -- and when it get through with the whole system the bread come out already baked.
And it go through and then you -- we put out seven thousand loaves of bread a day. That way.
And then during this Korean War, a General Jones came to see me, was a base commander. And I gave him a salute. "I want to talk to you. Talk to you in your office. We’re interested in providing bread for Korean front. And Korea. How many loaves of bread a day can you produce if you work three shifts?"
I said, "We have a -- we have a capacity to make twenty thousand loaves of bread a day." And that’s all automatic.
And I had thirteen Filipino bakers all civil service. And you know, I said, "That’s very impractical, though. Because the bread takes a lot of volume and it’s gonna take a lot of airplane to ship all the bread out. And because of the volume, it’s just a waste of shipment."
And the general realized that and he called off bread protection for Korea.
And I said, "It’s better to set up a field kitchen in there." So part of my war effort in Korean War.
Then the next shipment, I had extra time and was in Japan. By this time, I had four boys. They were all born in the military and -- one year apart.
And Japanese were very much interested in these four boys. And they know we were -- I was an Eskimo. But my wife is Irish, Scottish, German, French. And so they’re nalaugmisauq. Half-breed.
And we live off the base, off base in a Japanese housing. I want them to have playmates. Japanese playmates. All their playmates were Japanese and we live among the Japanese.
And -- and they learn to plant rice and they learn to -- we were -- our landlord was a farming community.
And they -- they really spoiled those kids. They gave them pet rabbit, pet goat, pet everything. Just make them part of the family, and they became part of the Japanese family.
We were more or less adopted as a whole, as a family.
And this is where I learned to -- I went to school on base to take Japanese writing. First week I gave it up, because I have to learn twenty thousand alphabet in Japanese. Twenty thousand alphabets and that’s basic.
And I -- I just -- I don’t have time for that. I think I’ll just take all of Japanese, so I just took all Japanese and I learned to speak pretty good Japanese.
I can count up to a hundred thousand in Japanese. I can trade. I can order food. I can get my hotel room. I can bargain.
And interesting period about this time, whenever I go to Tokyo, walk in street, invariably some Japanese would start talking to me in Japanese. They thought I was part of the population. And I used to go to town in civilian clothes.
And so that was an interesting period of my career there. It was during the occupation. And this -- we were -- night shift was feeding Yokota Airforce Base about five thousand troops every night. This is night shift. They went to our dining hall.
And most NCO’s (non-commissioned officer) last only six months and it was so demanding. It was hard for them to push the Japanese. They slow down on them.
What they forgot is that primarily most of them are innocent men in the first place. So the only thing they understand is army discipline. I know that.
First day they try to slow down on me I told that Japanese, I said, "I want all them guys out of night shift." Because they get twenty-five percent more per hour. I want the one's that will work for me.
"Chottomatte, chottomatte. Wait a minute, wait a minute. I talk to them first." Maybe you can talk to them.
From the oldest, they start coming. They bow real low to me. I’m number ten, that’s from the scale. That’s, the number ten is way low. I’m number ten.
"I will work harder and try to become number one." They bowed three times. And each one of them bow, then I line them up.
This is military, see. I know military, they can understand military, that’s the only language they understand.
And so, I talked to them. You work for me, and I’ll protect you from GIs and officers. I’ll be your boss, I’ll protect you. We work together, we’ll be alright.
You know, I had the most easiest job I ever had in military career. I worked night shift for two years.
When my two years was up, I was the only GI that there was ever given a "sayounara" (good-bye) party by Japanese. And they even gave -- promised me geisha girl. And, you know, to wait on me.
And I told my wife, "I had a beautiful geisha girl last night." And, "Yeah?" "Yeah, yeah."
So one of the workers act -- dressed up as a geisha girl, and she was the prettiest one they had in the food service. And she was my geisha girl. And -- serving me.
I told her, "This was my geisha girl last night." She look at ‘em, "At least she’s very beautiful."
And so, it was a very interesting period for me in Japan.
And so we put in fifty thousand miles in our station wagon in Japan. I learned how to drive on the left hand lane.
And then if you go to Tokyo you have to have a spirit of kamikaze, because traffic is so horrendous you got to be part kamikaze to drive in Tokyo.
It’s a game of chicken everywhere you drive. And I always out-chicken them, because I had a great big station wagon. And so I out-chicken all of them and out drive them. And I --
What I didn’t know about that station wagon was I bought it from the police. It was confiscated. It was a high-powered, souped up station wagon from rum-runner. And that was in ‘50s.
And you know, it was -- it was so powerful, I can maneuver all over Tokyo with that thing. And it was quite interesting.
Now I’m going to finish out my story very quickly. I -- during the Korean War I went to Thailand. I was at Bangkok. Then I got stationed on Udon Thani about few miles from Mekong River.
A lot of communist activity. It was a fighter base. We were obvious again feeding the flyers.
This is the second time I was with a fighter outfit in my career. Different command.
And so Major King was a test pilot. We lost two hundred Thunder Chiefs, jets, to enemy action or outfit.
Sure that’s never part of the paper, you know. We lost a lot of planes. In my outfit.
And so Major King would test these planes before -- I shouldn’t say -- he never go to officer's club. He always stay with me during the night when I’m baking. He’s -- like to talk to me about Alaska.
So I give him all the fishing stories. See, he like fishing stories. Of course, I always tell him about the big fish and everything.
And so one day, I said -- he always bring me six-pack of beer every time he visit me. That was almost night time.
And so, one day, I says, "You know, I’ve been in service sixteen years almost. I’ve never flown a fighter plane." "You never?" "I sure wish I can fly in one of them." "I tell you what you do, go to -- go down there..." Give me the place, high altitude chamber pass -- if I can pass it. My heart can take it. "I’ll take you up. Get you card."
I pass it, I got my card, I show him the card. Ah, we can take up -- we can fly Saturday.
So we went down -- and all the food service officers and mess sargeant, my boss, and they all went down to see me take off.
And -- and so they strap me, they give me flight suit and everything. They strap me down.
When I got strapped in the plane, he told his crew chief, "Give Tommy a puke bag, I’m gonna make him sick." And then he took off and went straight up and he did all these things, crazy maneuvers, trying to make me sick. And I never got sick.
When I got through, that Major King asked me, "How come you never got sick? How come you never got sick?"
"I tell you, I have all kind of maneuvers like that when I was Bering Sea on skin boat. So I’m used to that kind of maneuvers in rough sea. And so I’m already used to that."
And he said, "No wonder, you couldn’t get sick." No. And so --
But, you know, when I first arrived there -- To go back a little bit, we were in a Japanese barracks before we moved to new one. It was the most heavily infested snake area.
And it had an open sewer and -- and the interesting thing about that commode, outhouse, is up to here, everybody can see you sitting on commode.
It’s just like having a outhouse like that right in the middle of town, everybody see you sitting down on commode. And it’s the same thing over there, that’s the way they set it up.
And if you sit down to go to toilet everybody passing by and everybody say, "Hi there, Tommy!" "Hi there!" And it was quite interesting period.
And -- and so we moved to new barrack. And in the meantime, one of the colored guards went home on emergency. We carried all his stuff, we moved into brand new barracks.
I tell you, this is the most heavily infested snake area. In the jungle. Very hot.
And you know, one Indian guy -- we rested after we move, and there was a colored guy with his big box of belongings. Paper box. We put it over there.
Indian guy said -- he’s a full-blooded Indian from Texas. I sit there and I looked, all three of us were moving. Others --
And we sat -- laid down to sleep for a little -- rest a little bit and pretty soon this Indian guy give a wild hoot.
I’ve never saw a man from laying position already flying through the air and he land on the -- on the other side. From that box, a king cobra was coming out. And it was -- that’s why he jumped so quickly. Albert, too.
And -- and so we killed that. It was a young king cobra. It was about -- they grow as tall as eighteen feet.
You know, when I was working in Thailand I didn’t have much -- more or less, Thai people didn’t listen to me too much and they were very lax.
And, you know, the old tradition among my people, they have superstitions about weasels. And they -- they gave them a supernatural power. They can jump through to your mouth and go in. That’s the lot of belief of the old Eskimo.
And they have a little snake over there, one of the most poisonous snakes in the world.
And all the Thai people will tackle any kind of snake, even king cobra.
But when I went in from work, going to work that night, there was all kind of commotion at that point. And I tell you, they were running all over. Scared.
They have a superstition about that snake that can jump, go through your mouth. And they didn’t want that, they were very much afraid of -- They’re not afraid of big snakes, but they were afraid of that little fella.
And I didn’t know, you know, ignorance is a bliss. And I got me a broom and start whamming at thing. And I killed it.
And, you know, from then on them Jap --Thai people, they give me lot of respect. That’s the end of my story, thank you.