By Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero

For some it is a promise the United States made but has not kept. For others it’s a symbol of justice, a measure of peace. But for all who survived World War II on Guam, it is a necessary action that is long overdue. Sixty-six years after the people of Guam endured some of the worst atrocities of war, the island is still awaiting restitution from the United States.

Guam’s quest for World War II reparations has become a drawn-out, emotional saga. All of the island’s delegates to United States Congress have introduced legislation for war reparations, and with the exception of one successful bill that created a War Claims Review Commission, none of the bills have passed the Senate.

“They always promise us war reparations,” said 94-year-old war survivor Magdalena San Nicolas Bayani. “It makes me feel bad because we suffered, and I’m still waiting.”

Bayani was forced to work for the Japanese without compensation and witnessed a horrific beheading of three men that still remains fresh in her memory. For her and the few survivors alive today, the issue of war reparations has become painful.

Survivor Lourdes Perez, 80, said her husband had nightmares about the war until the day he died. She, too, still remembers watching in fear as the Japanese whipped her aunts. “I want the people [in U.S. Congress] that refuse to give us war reparations to try wearing somebody else’s shoes,” she said. “You wouldn’t like it if this were happening to you.”

The people of Guam who have been fighting for war reparations have shoes that are terribly worn. This saga began just after the war in 1945 with the Guam Meritorious Claims Act.

The Guam Meritorious Claims Act of 1945

In a short one-year period, the people of Guam were allowed to file claims for wartime damages. The claims were intended to provide relief to those whose property had been destroyed. There was a $5,000 cap per property claim, and if people felt they deserved more they had to appeal to the Secretary of the Navy in Washington D.C. Death and injury claims also had to be approved in Washington.

Former Guam Congressman Robert Underwood said the need for approval in Washington created hesitancy in people. He added that it was also difficult for survivors to put a price on their suffering. “What if you lost your arm as opposed to your leg, or if you lost your life as opposed to anything else?” Underwood said. “Some people found this distasteful, that you could claim death.”

But most people on Guam at that time did not even know they could make war claims. The island was completely destroyed by United States bombs at the end the war, and families were busy trying to pick up the remains of their broken lives and start anew. Many were displaced and had to rebuild their homes in new villages.

“People were all over the island in makeshift places,” said Senator Benjamin J. Cruz, who was a member of the Guam War Claims Review Commission. “People were out there just trying to live day-to-day, they were not out there looking to see if there was anything posted about war claims.”

Cruz found that the families who did receive reparations at that time were “the more educated in the community, the business people.”  Thus, nearly all of the claims paid were for property and not death or injury. He also discovered that people weren’t properly informed about the process. The island did not have any form of mass media, in fact there was not even electricity, and thus information about filing claims was poorly disseminated. 

Despite its limited reach, for decades Guam was not included in national war claims legislation because Congress believed the people had already been compensated under the Guam Meritorious Claims Act. But since most of the people who suffered and lost relatives during the war were not in fact recognized by the Act, the United States was left with the moral obligation to provide them with war reparations.

This obligation was solidified in the 1951 Peace Treaty with Japan, in which the United States agreed to pay for all wartime claims made by U.S. citizens and nationals against Japan. This included Guam.

War Reparations Legislation

In the 1980s, the issue of war claims surfaced in Congress as they had to consider and award reparations for Japanese Americans who were interned during the war and Aleutian islanders who were evacuated from their homeland in advance of the Japanese invasion.  This prompted Guam’s first Congressman Antonio Won Pat to introduce the initial Guam war claims bill in 1983.

Judith Won Pat, Congressman Won Pat’s daughter who is now speaker of the Guam Legislature, said the issue was very personal to her father because he had survived the war.

“His generation didn’t want to talk much about the war because it was still very fresh and painful for them,” Speaker Won Pat said. “My father was emotionally affected because he watched as the Japanese beheaded his brother. They were all warned that they should not even flinch or they would be next. I can’t even imagine how he would have felt during that time.”

Congressman Won Pat was loyal to the United States, his daughter said, but at the same time believed “very strongly in war reparations.” As Guam’s first delegate to Congress, he worked tirelessly for many years to simply educate other members of Congress about Guam.

For decades after the war, it was difficult for Guam’s leaders to travel to Washington D.C., so few members of Congress knew what happened to the people of Guam during the war, or understood the need for reparations. This made it impossible for Won Pat to pass his legislation.

Guam’s second delegate, Congressman Ben Blaz came closet to winning reparations. After introducing three unsuccessful bills, he finally got the support of other members of Congress to appropriate money for H.R. 2024, which would grant $20,000 for death, $5,000 for personal injury and $3,000 for forced labor, forced march or internment. But there was a catch. Senator Dan Inouye from Hawaii said he would find the money if Blaz could get approval from the Guam Legislature.

“According to Ben Blaz, this is a painful thing for him to talk about,” said Congressman Underwood. “Congressman Blaz went to each senator and they all said, ‘yes, ok,’ … but once it went public, they said [the money] was not enough.”

Senator Inouye decided that without a positive response from the island’s leaders, he could not appropriate the funds and the effort failed.

Congressman Underwood became Guam’s next delegate and in his five terms in Congress, he introduced five pieces of legislation. His first three bills sought compensation for those who were killed or suffered during the war, and the creation of a trust fund for the descendents of survivors who had died since the war. The trust fund would have granted post-secondary scholarships, first-time homeownership loans, and grants for research and educational activities about the Japanese occupation. All three bills failed.

Underwood turned to his colleagues in Congress for advice. He had a long conversation with Senator Inouye and Representative Norman Mineta from California about their success in attaining reparations for Japanese-American internees. Mineta, who was interned during the war, said for a long time it was difficult to get Congress to understand the issue. Thus, they set up a commission to validate their claims.

Underwood realized that Guam needed to do the same thing. He introduced two bills that would establish a War Claims Review Commission. Finally, at the end of his last term in Congress, the second bill passed and became law at the end of 2002. When Underwood’s successor Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo came into office, she was able to secure funding from the Department of Interior to create the commission.

The Commission, which was made up of three federal officials and two local leaders, was supposed to determine whether or not the people of Guam were adequately informed about and compensated by the Guam Meritorious War Claims Act of 1945. They were also supposed to determine if there was parity between the war claims awarded under the act and claims awarded to other U.S. citizens and nationals with similar experiences.

Hearings were held on Guam in December 2003, and the Commission heard from 104 speakers, most of whom were survivors who recounted the horrors they experienced during the war. The survivors were each asked if they had filed a claim after the war, and most of them said they did not file, nor did they know they could.

Based on these hearings and their extensive research, the Commission unanimously concluded that the people of Guam had not been justly compensated and confirmed the United States’ moral obligation to pay reparations for war damages. Congresswoman Bordallo then had the validation she needed to reintroduce legislation seeking compensation.

Bordallo’s first bill did not succeed, and now she is awaiting resolution on her most recent effort, H.R. 44. She introduced the bill as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010, and while it passed the House of Representatives, the amendment did not make it to Senate.

Bordallo’s greatest obstacle concerns the issue of descendents. Her bill awards reparations to the heirs of survivors who have died since the war, but Senators John McCain and Carl Levin refuse to support such a measure. Since it has not been done before, awarding claims to heirs would create a legal precedent that could obligate the U.S. to compensate the descendents of people who suffered other injustices.

The War Claims Commission foresaw this dilemma, and made the recommendation that since Congressman Blaz came very close to securing funding for reparations in 1990, the descendents of all survivors who were alive at that time could claim reparations.

Bordallo, however, believes the descendents of all who endured the war are entitled to compensation. McCain and Levin attempted to compromise with her and said that they would support the amendment if it only provided reparations to those who died during the war and survivors who are still alive. They gave Bordallo 30 minutes to make a decision, and she turned it down.

“It wouldn’t be fair to the people of Guam if I didn’t come back and get their feelings on this,” Bordallo said.

She re-introduced H.R. 44 as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2011 and again it passed the House of Representatives. Senators McCain and Levin have said they will hold a hearing on the issue before deciding if they will keep the amendment in the final bill, which will be voted on in September.

“I’ve done everything I can, and so have all my predecessors,” Congresswoman Bordallo said. “I am a persistent person and I just keep pushing at it all the time, and I will continue to do that and hopefully we will be successful.”

Sadly, those who have awaited reparations the longest are the survivors of the war. Of the 22,000 people who were alive after the war, less than 1,000 are alive today. Those who remain fear they may not live to finally receive the restitution they deserve.

“I don’t know if I’ll be around much longer, but I want something at least for my kids and my grandkids,” said survivor Francisco Perez Sablan, who lost his parents in the war and suffered a severe burn on his back. “I hope that one of these days the Senate will change their mind and have a good heart to at least think of us.”

Anita B. Hofschneider contributed to this report.