By Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero
Cecilia Cruz Bamba lost both her parents and her childhood during World War II. Like many children on Guam at that time, her innocence was replaced with fear, her happiness with grief. And yet she survived with a purpose – to gain recognition for those who suffered during the World War II Japanese occupation of the island.
Sadly, her fight is still not won, and she is no longer alive to see if it ever will be. Mrs. Bamba died more than 20 years ago, and to this day the people of Guam who survived some of the worst atrocities of war continue to wait for reparations from the United States government.
Even sadder is the number of survivors who, like Mrs. Bamba, have died before ever seeing justice. There were more than 22,000 people who lived through the war on Guam. Of that group, less than 1,000 are alive today, and more continue to die.
It has been 66 years since the war, so most survivors who were adults during the occupation have died from the illnesses of old age. Those who were children during that time are also aging. Some of them have already died before their time due to cancer and diabetes, two terminal illnesses that are common on Guam. Mrs. Bamba died of cancer in 1986 at the age of 51.
Until she was on her deathbed, Mrs. Bamba dedicated her life to documenting and telling the stories of the war. As a senator, she authored legislation that created a local War Reparations Commission. She held public hearings and town meetings for people to share their story on the record.
Mrs. Bamba also set up a personal office and invited survivors to come and share their stories with her. “Sometimes I’d be bewildered observing mom and a random survivor crying as they recounted the awful events of the war,” wrote Mrs. Bamba’s son Patrick.
Former Congressman Robert Underwood passed legislation in U.S. Congress that funded a memorial wall in Nimitz Hill that features the names of both survivors and victims of the war, which were collected by Mrs. Bamba.
Despite her efforts to document war stories, the hardest story for Mrs. Bamba to tell was her own. Her son George said it wasn’t until she was dying that she shared the details of her parents’ deaths with him. And after her death, one of her children discovered some notepapers entitled “An Interrupted Interlude,” which was her personal account of the war.
Her children learned that Mrs. Bamba’s mother Rosa died a month after the occupation began. She was eight-months pregnant and Mrs. Bamba believes that because she was fair-skinned and looked American, a Japanese solider beat her in the lower back with a rifle. Mrs. Bamba witnessed her mother’s beating at the age of seven. In the next few days, her mother began hemorrhaging, delivered a stillborn child and did not survive.
Just over two years later at the end of the occupation, her father was working for the Japanese in a labor camp. He saw an American plane crash nearby and rushed to help the pilot. The Japanese arrived, took the pilot away and arrested her father. He was tortured, beaten and eventually beheaded. A few days later, an interpreter from Saipan delivered her father’s wedding ring and wallet to Mrs. Bamba’s grandmother, and informed the family of his death.
Before the war, Mrs. Bamba’s father was one of few Chamorros who held a high position in the U.S. Naval Government. He also owned a 154-hectare farm where he raised livestock and cultivated several crops that he exported to the Philippines. When the Americans retook Guam, they confiscated his land from his family and never returned it. The land is now being used as a Naval Communications Station.
Mrs. Bamba became the president and co-founder of the Guam Landowners’ Association and along with war reparations, also fought for restitution for Chamorros who lost their land after the war. She went to Washington to seek justice on the issue and was the first Chamorro woman to testify before the U.S. Senate.
“My mom didn’t let whatever bad happened to her allow her to wallow in self-pity, instead she forged ahead,” said George Bamba. “She had a really strong purpose in life.”
After Mrs. Bamba’s death, Congressman Underwood finally passed legislation that created a federal Guam War Claims Review Commission in 2002 with the purpose of proving that survivors were not justly compensated during the war. Many of the survivors who testified before the Commission were prepared to tell their story because of Mrs. Bamba’s work. And like Mrs. Bamba, their memories stayed with them until they died.
Edward L.G. Aguon appeared before the Commission and shared that he had watched as his friends were tortured and killed, but could do nothing to help them for fear of losing his own life. His wife, Dr. Katherine Aguon said he talked about the war all the time. “He never forgot his friends that were killed,” she said. “He suffered, too, because he was hit on the back and that hit stayed [with him] throughout his life.” Mr. Aguon died in 2007.
Local Senator Frank F. Blas, Jr. sponsored a weekly testimonial series in the Marianas Variety, which featured the photos and testimonies of 30 survivors who appeared before the commission. Mr. Aguon’s was the first story to be published. Since the series began, two other survivors whose stories were published have died – Dr. Rosa Roberto Carter and Francisco Perez Sablan.
Mr. Sablan’s family did not know he had agreed to have his photo taken for the series. In the week following his photo shoot, Mr. Sablan's health deteriorated and the family was tending to his needs. They were not aware that his war story was published that Wednesday. He died two days later.
“It was an emotional moment for the family knowing that their dad did this in spite of his failing health,” said Norma J. Aflague, legislative assistant to Senator Blas. “He made that effort, not knowing it would be his last, to unselfishly share his story.”
Mrs. Bamba would have been proud. She believed in the power of these stories.
“It was important to her that the stories of the people and what they went through be made available to future generations,” said George Bamba. “It was just something that she felt in her heart she needed to do to ensure that people knew what that great generation went through. It’s part of our history; it’s part of who we are.”
Cecilia Bamba’s papers, which document the war stories she collected are available at the Micronesian Area Research Center at the University of Guam.
War Survivors Continue to Die without Restitution
By Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero