By Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero
Fear. From the moment Japanese Imperial forces bombed Guam on December 8, 1941, the island’s people knew fear in a way they had never imagined, had not been prepared for, and will never forget.
The people of Guam were not forewarned about Japan’s attack, although two days before the invasion the island’s U.S. Naval governor was in his office shredding documents. The United States had expected the attack, and most of the Americans who were living on Guam had already been evacuated. The island and her people were left almost defenseless to Japan.
Most people were busy celebrating the feast day of their patron saint Santa Marian Kamelen, one of the most significant religious holidays on Guam. Hundreds of families were attending mass at the Agana Cathedral when Bishop Olano was informed about the invasion, stopped services and told everyone to go home.
“We never knew we’re gonna have war,” said survivor Magdalena San Nicolas Bayani, 94. She remembers being in church when the bishop made the announcement. “People are crazy because they didn’t know what to do.”
She said most families were cooking and preparing to celebrate the feast day, but abandoned their festivities to find a safe place to hide. Mrs. Bayani and her family marched from Hagåtña to Talofofo, where they had relatives. “When we reached Ylig bridge, the people were burning it,” she said. “We just ran over the burning bridge and made it to Talofofo.”
The Naval Government surrendered Guam two days later on December 10, 1941. Now under Japanese rule, the island was renamed to Omiya Jima, or great shrine island. Japan had wanted to make Guam a part of their “Western Pacific Co-Prosperity Sphere.” The occupiers established Japanese schools, forced the people to bow before them and toward the emperor, and ordered them to work for long hours with no pay in labor camps.
Dr. Katherine Aguon, 79, said because the U.S. Navy ran Guam “like a battle ship” before the war, she was ready for everyday life under the Japanese. “I felt that I was prepared in that pre-war naval period to be confined, to be in obedience to authority, because there was no voice,” she said. “To me that set my mind and when the Japanese came, I stayed away from conflicts, I withdrew.”
Thus, her experience during the occupation wasn’t one of continuous terror. Instead Dr. Aguon remembers only a few scarring incidents that eventually shaped who she became as an adult.
One incident that broke her withdrawal was when the Japanese took her American uncle away. Her father’s sister had been married to an American man, and he was brought to Japan during the war. “Everybody was crying and the Japanese, I saw them make my aunt kneel down and they slapped her,” she said. “That agitated me and was the first time I ever felt resentment toward the Japanese, because we were a very close family.”
One day at school, she expressed her resentment in a quiet revolt. On a placard posted next to the library, she wrote, “I love America.” “Despite what I felt during the military rule before the war, I wrote that,” Dr. Aguon said. “That incident just ballooned.”
Her Japanese teachers held a penmanship competition, and despite her poor handwriting, Dr. Aguon won. She was greeted by a police car and taken away from the school. “I thought maybe this was a prize for me,” she remembers. “Since I won, I would be taken around for a ride in the police car.”
Dr. Aguon was taken to the police station instead, where her father was already being interrogated. “I vaguely saw my dad in one room,” she said. “Then I heard him begging because they were really slapping him around.”
The police officers asked her whom she loved and Dr. Aguon replied, “Well, there is only one American that I like. I don’t like all the Americans, I only love my uncle because he is gone away to Japan.” She had said the right thing because the officers stopped their questioning and went to her father. An interpreter told him, “You should teach your children that there is no America.”
“They released my dad and he had been all bruised,” she said. “I thought he was going to get angry, but he smiled at me and said, ‘good for you.’”
Like Dr. Aguon, most survivors of the war say that the experience was not about daily suffering. But many of them saw or felt the brutality of war in specific moments that have now become nightmares.
“I enjoyed myself at times during the war,” said Barbara Castro Dela Cruz, who was seven when the occupation began. “Our life become a little bit better when we got back to our house from hiding. The Japanese soldiers camped in our place under a big mango tree and every time they cooked, they gave us something to eat.”
Toward the end of the war, however, Dela Cruz was not as carefree about the occupation. Still a small child, she was forced to work long hours with no food at a labor camp in Ta’i, Mangilao. While at the camp, she saw something that she will never forget.
“I witnessed a beheading of three guys,” Mrs. Dela Cruz said. “They put me in the very front because I was small and then they told us not to look away or cry, because [the men] were our mirror and we would go down with them.”
She said her uncle dug the hole for the men and they were lined in front of it. They were given salty water to drink and allowed to pray. The man in the middle of the three shouted out in Chamorro, “They are going to kill me but I committed no sin.”
“The Japanese hit him first with the bayonet and then when they cut their neck, that guy didn’t go down – he fell on the other side, but the other two guys went straight down,” Mrs. Dela Cruz recalled. The Japanese officers kicked the man into the hole.
“That was horrible, oh my God. I can still picture it,” said Mrs. Dela Cruz, who is now 75 years old. “I was standing there pretending that I am looking at something else, but my eyes are still on the hole. I was scared that I might go down with them, but I didn’t cry.”
Mrs. Bayani was at the same labor camp and witnessed the same beheading, but she was farther away in the crowd.
“We are just so quiet, no body is talking, and then ay, pretty soon they take the big knife and tell them to put down their hands at the back, and they count 1-2-3 in Japanese and cut them all at the same time,” she recalled. “The heads flew up, and the blood was all in the air, and then they fell down in the ground. The bulldozer came right away to bury them, and everybody had to get back to work.”
Despite what she witnessed, Mrs. Bayani said she had to keep her emotions hidden and return to the tedious labor of the camp. “Work. That’s all we do every day – digging, collecting rocks and trashes, and oh the sun was so hot,” she said. “From morning to night we didn’t eat, but we are not hungry. If you are afraid, you don’t feel hungry.”
Mrs. Bayani said fear not only took away her appetite, it took away her love. “I was supposed to marry before the war, but then the war happened,” she said. “After the war my boyfriend came to look for me and I told him that I was sorry, ‘I forgot how to love you.’ Who’s gonna think to love when you are suffering?” Eventually, Mrs. Bayani married someone else.
The Japanese occupation of Guam lasted two and a half years, and in the last two weeks of the war, the Imperial Army was exceptionally vicious. They brought groups of young Chamorros and village leaders to caves in the southern part of the island and brutally massacred them. They knew the Americans were returning because they saw U.S. planes overhead and heard that America had already taken the Northern Mariana Islands.
The Japanese decided to march most of the island’s people to a concentration camp on the southeastern side Guam in an area called Manengon. Even if people were crippled, pregnant, or suffered from old age or illness, they were forced to march. Most people marched for days with no food or water, and arrived to inhumane conditions at the camp.
Dr. Aguon, who carried her two-year-old brother on her back during the long march from Agana Heights to Manengon, said she saw the full extent of the Imperial soldiers’ cruelty.
“That was the period when the Japanese knew they were losing the war,” Dr. Aguon said. “They were yelling and pushing us over. I was walking with (former first lady) Geri Gutierrez’s mother and she was kinda slow because she was carrying a baby. And when I saw that the Japanese hit her, I ran. My brother got off me and I just grabbed him and continued to run.”
When they got to Manengon, she said a lot of people were sick and dying. A few days later she recalls three American soldiers coming to rescue the people. They lined everyone up and marched them through the mountains to camps in Agat.
On July 21, 1944, the United States secured Guam and the people were liberated from the Japanese. But in order to retake the island, the Americans leveled the landscape with bombs. Whole villages were destroyed and most people lost their homes to the bombing. Had they not been at Manengon, many would have lost their lives.
The United Sates took nearly 75 percent of the island immediately after the occupation and used it in efforts to end the war with Japan. People lived for months in refugee camps, and even in the cemetery, as the island recovered from the war. Eventually some of the property used in the war effort was returned, but to this day several families never got their land back.
Francisco Perez Sablan’s family had land in Sumay, which is now Naval Base Guam, and they were not able to return to their property. But that was not the worst of his suffering after the war.
Mr. Sablan was only a year old when the Japanese invaded the island. His father was suspected of being a spy and stealing from the Japanese. Imperial soldiers beat both of Mr. Sablan’s parents and they eventually died from their injuries. Mr. Sablan was thrown into a fire and suffered a burn that still remains on his back today. He has no memories, not even a photograph of his parents, and said his life was very difficult without them.
“Most of the time I just cried,” he said. “Especially when I was at school and saw a lot of kids had a lot of toys to play with, and I had nothing.”
Mr. Sablan learned to be resourceful. He would poke a hole in a sardine can, tie it to a rope and drag it around as his toy.
Raised by his grandmother, Mr. Sablan lived in a small house they built in Chalan Pago. He began working at the age of eight because he did not have parents to provide for him. He would wake up at two in the morning to sort newspapers, then would deliver and sell them until just before eight a.m. when he had to rush home and get dressed for school. He only had two sets of clothes for school, so he had to wear them two-to-three days in a row. After school he would come home to feed the chickens, tend the garden and prepare dinner. It was not much of a childhood and Mr. Sablan was forced to grow up quickly. Eventually he withdrew from school to work full time.
For many survivors like Mr. Sablan, the impacts of the war never left them. But they have become a strong people, raising families and reclaiming their lives despite all they endured. Theirs is a story of struggle, but more importantly of triumph. A story that must never be forgotten.
World War II on Guam: A Story of Struggle, A Story of Triumph
By Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero