Why Guam’s World War II stories must be told

By Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero

War is ugly. It claims the lives and sprits of people and is one of the worst human experiences imaginable. On Guam, too many people know this reality – so much of the island’s story has been shaped by war.

Recounting the horrors of war, however, has not been easy for Guam’s people. For decades, almost an entire generation of war survivors kept secret the atrocities they suffered during a two-and-a-half year World War II Japanese occupation.

But there is value in the telling of war stories. Local leaders and the relatives of war survivors have learned that as the stories of World War II are revealed, people have gained a deeper understanding of themselves.

“The value of understanding this is to contextualize human experience – to contextualize not their suffering, but our own suffering,” said University of Guam President Robert Underwood. “We stand on the shoulders of other people. Whatever we think we’re going through, it’s not much compared to them.”

But what exactly did they go through? For many children of war survivors, their parents’ experience was a mystery and they were only given a few clues about what happened during the war.  

Dr. Jose Q. Cruz, for example, did not learn that his parents were almost killed during the war until he was playing outside one day and it started to rain. “I was telling my mom that I wish God will stop the rain,” Dr. Cruz said. “My mom just said in passing, ‘if the rain hadn’t come, you would not be born.’ And that stuck in my mind, but I didn’t question it.”

It wasn’t until later in his life that he learned his parents appeared before a Japanese firing squad, and had it not rained, they would have been shot.

“I think that my mom and dad did me a service because they never glorified war, neither did they focus on the atrocity,” Dr. Cruz said. “The silence did not open up a wound that would lead to hatred, prejudice and bias.”

But Dr. Cruz believes silence has an appropriate time, and once the silence of his parents’ story was broken, he began to look at things in a new way. This also happened to him when he was living with his parents-in-law. His mother-in-law would often have nightmares about the war. She would say she didn’t understand why the nightmares, and the war, had to happen.

“It occurred to me that those traumas stick in the brain,” Dr. Cruz said. “The vividness you could see because she would feel drained after her dreams.”

His father-in-law was also haunted by his wartime experience. He was beginning to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and one evening while it was raining he disappeared from the house. “Pop was under a bushel and he was saying, ‘Adahi, the Japanese,’” Dr. Cruz recounted. “He was really huddled trying to protect himself and he kept saying, ‘I can’t get out because the Japanese are coming and they will kill me. He was already in his eighties.”

While many families have stories of their elders reliving war experiences, it wasn’t until Guam’s delegates to U.S. Congress began fighting for war reparations that the details of wartime suffering were made widely known. 

In order to validate the people of Guam’s claims for reparations, a federal War Claims Review Commission was formed and held public hearings on December 8 and 9, 2003 at the Guam Legislature. During the hearings, the floodgates were opened and stories started pouring out.

Senator Benjamin J. Cruz was a member of the commission and said listening to each of these stories changed his life. He had not been privy to the details of the war in his own household, and never got to know his mother’s story for she refused to testify before the commission. 

“She said, ‘I don’t want to talk about it. I pray every night that you and your sisters never endure what we suffered, and that is all I am going to say,’” Senator Cruz recalled.

His mother was in her twenties during the war, and after hearing testimonies about rape, he wondered about what may have happened to her. “I have my suspicions,” he said. “She had a 19-inch waist and she was beautiful, fill in the blanks.” Suddenly, Senator Cruz began to realize why his mother was so frigid and had not been as affectionate with him as a child.

What he found interesting during the Commission’s hearings was that women who shared that they were raped told the story very differently from men who had witnessed sexual violence.

“The women were strong, they were defiant in their admission. They didn’t cry. It was matter of fact to them,” Cruz described. “But the ones that I felt really bad for were the men. A man in his seventies or early eighties would just start to bawl like a baby. And I would ask what was wrong and he would say, ‘Judge, what was I supposed to do? I was 10, or I was 14, and they were going to kill me if I did anything, but they came to my house and they went in and I could hear my mother screaming in there and then they would leave and my mother would be all beat up and all messed up. What was I supposed to do?’ This poor man had been carrying this guilt for the last 60 years in his heart.”

Another story that struck Senator Cruz was that of a man who along with his siblings promised to never tell their mother’s story. By the time of the hearings, his parents and all of his siblings had already died, and he believed he had to share what happened. “We witnessed our mother being raped,” the man told Senator Cruz.

“The next week he died,” Senator Cruz said. “I was just devastated. Can you imagine living the rest of your life having witnessed your mother being raped in front of you? What would that have done?”

Senator Cruz was a judge in the family court for 12 years, and he said hearing the testimonies from war survivors helped him make sense of some of the cases he saw in the courtroom.

“It was both enlightening and educational because I was able to put the dots together. I was then able to understand why there was so much dysfunction in the community,” Cruz said.  “Both in sexual dysfunction and the large amount of incestuous relationships and abuse within families.”

The hearings also helped the survivors gain understanding and resolution, Senator Cruz said. “For a lot of them it was cathartic to be able to finally spill because they had been holding this in for the longest time, and then it was ok to say it,” he said.

For survivor Lourdes Perez, her testimony at the hearings marked the first time she had shared her story in public. She keeps all the documents from that day and copies of her testimonies like they are treasures.

“I wanted to [testify] because like the little children say, I am pissed off,” she said.  “There are things I wanted to get off my chest because it is really hurting and I want to tell the whole world what happened to my family.”

Senator Cruz said finally making these stories known was one of the greatest accomplishments of the hearings.

“What is important with the testimonies now is that we should read them and understand what our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents went through, and then on our own try to figure out how that affected our lives,” he said. “Then in understanding how it affected our lives, if it affected our lives in a negative way and made us dysfunctional for some reason, we should find some way of turning that around, of breaking that cycle.”