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The White Russian From Yap—Alex Tretnoff
Permission granted to reprint this excerpt by the author, Bruce M. Petty.
The father of Alex Tretnoff, Alex Sr., was born and raised in Russia. His mother, Augusta, was born in Vladivostok to parents who immigrated there from Germany. Alex’s two older sisters, Olga and Ada, were also born in Vladivostok. The family sided with the Czarist armies during the Russian Civil War and was forced to flee to Japan as Bolshevik armies advanced east. The family settled on the island of Yap in 1925. Alex Jr. was born there in 1930.
My father was born and raised in Moscow. He spoke many languages: German, Polish, Russian, and Italian. He was working as a radio operator for the Siberian Railroad at the time of the Russian Revolution. My mother’s name was Augusta and she was German. Her family lived in Vladivostok where they owned and operated a business. That is where my father met and married my mother.
My father was on the losing side of the Russian Civil War. He didn’t fight, but he helped tear up the railroad tracks to slow down the advance of the Bolsheviks. After that he fled to Japan to save his life and the lives of his family. From Vladivostok they took a ship to Japan. My father told me that everybody had to stand on the ship on the way to Japan because it was so overloaded. There was no place to lie down. While my family was in Japan my father bought a book about Micronesia and concluded that Yap was the best place to go because the people were nice and there were no dangerous animals that might harm the children. They arrived on Yap in 1925 and I was born there in 1930. My father opened a bakery and provided bread and other baked goods to the local population. At that time there were only civilians on Yap – Japanese, Okinawans, Koreans, and Chamorros. There were also a few Europeans.
Even though I wasn’t Japanese I was allowed to go to the Japanese school. All of the other students were Japanese, Okinawan, and Korean. At that time my sisters were older and didn’t go to school except at night, and that was so they could learn Japanese. Mr. Yamada was the principal, but he left before the war. He came back to Yap maybe fifteen years after the war with a group of Japanese school children. He looked me up and we went fishing together, but we never talked about the war. He died just two or three years ago in Japan.
One of the boys I went to school with was from Okinawa. His name was Oshiro and he later became governor of Okinawa. I think that was in 1969 or 1970, something like that. All of my teachers were pretty good. I never got beaten up, but sometimes if one student did something wrong the whole class had to stand up, face off in twos, and slap each other across the face. Then after school we would find the student who caused the trouble and beat him up. Once the war started getting close to Yap, the school was closed and most of the civilians were sent back to Japan. Some made it, but some were torpedoed and their ships sank.
Before the war life was very good. We had good times and plenty to eat. I didn’t have to work after school. I played with my friends and went fishing. Even after the war came to Yap we had plenty to eat. We had good relations with the Japanese and Chamorros. My father was a good friend of the Japanese governor. The governor spoke German; that is why he and my father got along so well. However, my father never learned Japanese so one of my sisters acted as his interpreter.
Agapito Hondonero and his wife, Filomina Untalan, were good friends of my mother and father. Agaptio was a Filipino weatherman. I remember him as a big man, but I never got to know him because when adults came to see my family they always chased the children outside. I used to play with Agapito’s children, Baltazar and Caroline. They were about my age. I remember Agapito’s wife, Filomina. I think she was the most beautiful girl in her family. Her two sisters, Tomasa and Ursula, are still alive and live on Guam. All the members of the Hondonero family were arrested later during the war. They were taken to Palau along with some Catholic fathers and killed. At this same time there were four Americans, two from a plane and two frog men*, who were captured by the Japanese on Yap and sent to Palau on the same ship. At least that is what somebody told me. My father asked the Japanese general on Yap if they were going to arrest him too, but the general said, “No! Don’t worry.” That was General Edo.** You see, orders to arrest those people came from the Kempeitai (military police) on Palau. They were the only ones who had the authority to execute people. We didn’t know they had been killed until after the war. The Untalan family came back to Yap sometime after the war, then went to Palau. They tried to find the graves of Filomina and her family but never did.
I was a young boy during the war and for about two or three months I worked for Taisho (General) Edo. He was a Japanese general, a big shot. This guy was always smoking Lucky Strikes, Chesterfield, Old Gold. I was thinking, “Where did he get these things; they’re American cigarettes.” He also had a stock of American canned food. General Edo could speak German and English. At night he would visit my parents and take them rice and corned beef. They were good friends. During the day he was carried around the island by Japanese soldiers on a chair with long poles. At night he would walk around dressed like aYapese. I passed him one night dressed like this, and I said to myself, “Her, that’s my boss.” I said to him, “Where are you going dressed like that?” He said, “I’m going to see your folks.”
The Japanese started sending troops to Yap in 1943, or maybe it was 1944. The officer in charge of the navy had higher rank than General Edo, and he had a plan to kill all of the natives because there wasn’t enough food. I don’t remember the name of that admiral, but he was having tunnels dug in the sides of this mountain. When they were done he was going to have all of the Yapese and Chamorros taken in there and killed. I know this because a Japanese medical corps man who spoke English told me this. His name was Ichki, Masumi. When the war was over he said he would write to me but I never heard from him after that. He came to my family and said the Japanese are going to kill all of the natives because the soldiers are starving. But when General Edo met with the other Japanese officers on this subject he said, “No! Put them to work growing food for all of us.” The admiral said, “No, no, no! I am higher than you. We are going to kill them”
Lucky for us, before he could kill any of us, this admiral was killed by one of the American bombs. That left General Edo in charge and we were saved. After that the whole island was put to work planting sweet potatoes and other crops to feed both the Yapese and Japanese.
I was still working for General Edo when the Americans began bombing Yap. I remember one morning when the Americans were bombing he said to me, “You’re not going into the bomb shelter; don’t worry about it.” He told me they weren’t going to bomb where we were. His house was out in the open, in the middle of a taro field. During the whole war the American’s never bombed his house; they never shot at it with machine guns. Then, after Yap had been bombed for about two months, the general said, “I think we should go into the bomb shelter today.” That day the Americans dropped bombs all down the valley where we were.
The general’s laundry was another thing. He never hung it from a line, and he never tried to hide it from the planes flying over head. He had us lay it flat on the taro patch where the planes could see it, and he made us lay it in patterns that looked like letters. One day we would wash his laundry and lay it out to dry. The next day he would have us take the
Same set of laundry, even though it wasn’t dirty, and lay it out again but in a different way. You know, at that time I was very young and I didn’t think too much about why we did things like that – why the General had us hang his laundry this way one day, then that way the next. But after the war I started thinking, “Maybe he was sending a message to the planes.” They bombed all over Colonia, and even in the jungle, but they never even came close to the general’s house.
After the bombing stopped and the war was over General Edo disappeared. An American boat came in at night and he was gone, just disappeared. This happened even before the Marines landed. His second in command, I think his name was Colonel Ito, was left in charge. He ran Yap until all of the Japanese were sent back to Japan. The American left him there to run things. Even the American troops then on Yap were under Colonel Ito. I think that lasted maybe three months.
All of the Chamorros who were living on Yap were sent back to the Marianas after the war. They weren’t sent away because they were bad people, but I think the chiefs on Yap wanted their land. A Commander Kenney was in charge of Yap for a while after the war. I think he was afraid of the chiefs; that is what one of the chiefs told me. He said Commander Kenney was afraid of the chief’s magic.
After the war lots of Yapese were killed, probably more than during the war. We had all of this dynamite that the Japanese had left and people were using it to get fish in the lagoon. But the fuses were old and sometimes the dynamite would explode before they could throw it. My friend Francis Tikihn was with four others trying to remove the fuses from a mine to use in fishing when it blew up. Francis was thrown twenty-five feet away, but he lived. The other four were in small pieces. What was left of them wouldn’t fit in a small basket.
* The U.S. submarine Burrfish landed a beach reconnaissance party on Yap in lieu of a planned invasion of the island. Half the party failed to return, and to date no one knows what happed to them. The invasion of Yap was later canceled.
** According to Col. Hirpahi Shiraiaki, chief of military history at the Staff College of Japan’s Ground Self Defense Forces, his real name was Col. Daihachi Etou. Col. Shiraiaki believes there is no evidence to support the idea that Col. Etou was a spy for the Americans.
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