Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Lesson of Peace from Times of War

I wrote about last week that I was working with the Office of Senator Frank Blas Jr. on their Real Stories. Real People. project, which has been working to collect the stories of our manamko' who survived World War II and also push for war reparations with the US Government. Most of the discussion on island around World War II happens around July of each year when the island transforms itself to celebrate Liberation Day. This year the Senator's office wanted to do something different and try and get the island to remember its history and this important event, not when the war ended, but when it began, in December.

Part of my job with the office was conducting researching and helping the Senator write four columns on what sort of lessons we might draw about the war, by looking at it from its tragic and traumatic beginnings, rather than its celebratory and grateful ending. These columns were published in the Marianas Variety over the past month. I've decided to collect them here in my blog, because even though they are short, they contain important messages for Guam to consider, not just about its history, but its present as well.


Strength to Go On
Senator Frank Blas Jr.
The Marianas Variety

When I think about the struggles our island’s World War II survivors have overcome, and the need to pass War Reparations legislation as soon as possible to recognize them, I am reminded of a famous survivor from South Africa. A man who spent 27 years in prison for no other crime than fighting for equality and freedom for his people in their land. This man is Nelson Mandela, and the words that helped him endure his hardest times seem to perfectly capture the spirit of our manåmko’.
If you were to meet Nelson Mandela and ask him how he survived nearly three decades of his life in that tiny cell on Robben Island, or why when he was released he didn’t seek violent retribution against the people who had put him there, but instead became South Africa’s first black president and focused on healing his divided nation, he might recite for you some lines of poetry. According to Mandela, during the times in prison when he would find himself no longer able to go on, no longer able to stand strong, he would read the poem “Invictus” by a 19th century British poet named William Henley. This poem was something he held closely to his chest, and when he would recite it, the words would burn into his mind, and he would find iron again in his back, and steel in his will.

Here are a few lines from that poem that truly remind me of our own survivors:

“I thank whatever gods may be, for my unconquerable soul ... I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

When I say those lines to myself, inside my head, they conjure up images of what Guam must have been like during World War II, or I Tiempon Chapones as they used to call it. Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were caught in a terrible place during that time. Their island transformed for 32 months into a battlefield for two superpowers. One of these powers claimed that Asia and the Pacific was its domain and conquered Guam and many other places in order to turn itself into a modern empire. The other deemed that Guam could not be defended, and left our island to be sacrificed to their enemy.

Many historical accounts have shown how the Chamorro people, in order to endure the trauma of war, used the hope that the US would return to Guam. The song “Sam, Sam, My Dear Uncle Sam” is a testament to that. But to reduce our war stories to that narrative, or even to say that this is the idea that should define that experience does not do justice to our survivors.

As my team and I have been working on a public awareness campaign documenting our war survivors’ stories and pushing the United States Congress for War Reparations, we have found that survival requires not a belief in someone else, but a deep strength that can only be found within.

Our survivors’ stories have taught us that it was not Uncle Sam who worked in the rice fields. It was not Uncle Sam who was forced to watch as his or her relatives were beheaded. It was not Uncle Sam who was forced to “comfort” occupying soldiers and then remain quiet for decades about the abuse. It was our manåmko’ who did all that. And even if the hope that Uncle Sam would return helped them, it was the Chamorro people who endured and survived the War.

Although I doubt many of our manamko’ were aware of the poem Invictus during the war, and Nelson Mandela himself was just in his twenties, the spirit of that poem was something they brought to life in their own ways. Guam’s former delegate to Congress Ben Blaz once wrote, “The Chamorro spirit was not an abstraction; rather, it was demonstrably real during those years and I have drawn inspiration and sustenance from that reality my entire life.”

When faced with swords and bayonets during the war, and later American bombs and bulldozers, the Chamorro people did not lay down to die. They did not give up or give in. They held tightly to their families, their culture, and their unconquerable souls.

I imagine an island of 22,000 people – mothers, fathers, children, elders, each reaching deep within themselves to find that strength to go on, to endure and live another day. I can imagine each in their own way, whispering to themselves, “Estegue i taiå’ñao na ante-ku, ya put este, Guahu i ma’gas I lina’la’-hu.”
To learn more about Guam’s war survivors, please visit


The Dangers of Blind Faith in War
Senator Frank Blas Jr.
The Marianas Variety

On the morning of December 8, 1941, rumors spread rapidly around Guam that Pearl Harbor had been bombed, and the war in Europe had truly become a World War. But when Chamorros who looked to the sky in Hagåtña saw nine airplanes flying south, many thought they were American planes sent to protect the island. They could not fathom that they were in fact Japanese planes about to bomb Sumay.

The late Guam historian Pedro Sanchez once noted that to understand how Chamorros reacted to the war, it is essential to know of their almost blind faith in the United States as the most powerful country in the world. This is what they had been taught in schools and told by the Naval Government. As such, even though war was looming, many Chamorros believed they had a protector who would never let anything bad happen to them.

The surprise and shock of that fateful day thus became the fact that the United States allowed Guam to be taken so easily, and that it took them so long to return. Then Naval Governor George McMillin surrendered the island to Japan on December 10, 1941 – just two days after the attack. And the United States did not return for two-and-a-half years.

One of the main lessons we must learn from World War II is that our island, because of its strategic location, will always be a prized chess piece for both our friends and our enemies. With that in mind, we must always be ready to think about our place in the world in broader and more complex terms. The people who call this island home, who may have done so for thousands of years, may think of our land as one thing, but Admirals, Generals, Congressmen and Presidents see it differently.

This is why another lesson to be learned from the war is to be wary of blind faith in the United States, of believing that they will always look out for the best interests of this island and its people. In the decades that led to World War II, we can see that this clearly wasn’t the case. The faith Chamorros had in the US wasn’t deserved as the country had anticipated war with Japan for decades, but did little-to-nothing to warn the people of Guam, or defend the island from attack.

Japan had surprised the Western world by defeating both China and Russia at the start of the 20th century and then rushed into World War I, seizing German holdings in Asia and the Pacific. This left Guam the sole US possession, surrounded by new Japanese islands in the Marianas and Micronesia. As early as 1906, the US had begun to develop War Plan Orange, or plans in anticipation of possible war with Japan (which was given the color Orange).

The reasons for war began far earlier than Pearl Harbor, and have to do with competitions between nations for dominance over parts of the globe.

Japan sought to become a global power and was merely following the example that Western powers had already established. Europe had divided up the world into separate colonies; the US got its independence, but later acquired its own slate of colonies (including Guam) and argued through the Monroe Doctrine that Central and South America were its regions to “influence.” By the 20th century, Japan sought to create an empire of its own in Asia and the Pacific, a prosperity sphere through which it would have easy access to markets and raw materials. Naturally, the US did not want the threat or the competition.

Robert Rogers writes in his book Destiny’s Landfall, that for more than three decades War Plan Orange was continuously revised, and several increasingly large proposals for the fortification of Guam were made. For instance, the Hepburn Report released in 1938 called for $200 million to transform Guam into a major air, submarine and fleet base. This recommendation, along with many others, was rejected.

In the 1930’s, Japan invaded Manchuria, started to militarize the Micronesian islands around Guam, and began to make more aggressive moves in Asia, yet the US did little to prepare Guam for war. Throughout the decade, none of the plans presented were implemented because the US Navy had come to assume that Guam simply could not be defended.

Discussions about Guam being indefensible, and the possibility that the island would be sacrificed to Japan were not made public. These discussions were held behind closed doors, and Chamorros did not hear about War Plan Orange until after the war.

By 1941, however, the Navy knew that war was coming. They conducted blackout drills and reconstituted the Guam Militia as the Insular Guard. In October, they began evacuating all Naval dependents from the island. This was one of the clearest examples of how the US Navy saw itself and its interests as separate from the people of Guam. None of the island’s people were allowed to evacuate. Chamorros in the Navy, such as former Senator Adrian Sanchez, tried to have their own dependents evacuated when they received word about the Navy’s plans, but they were rebuffed and told that only white dependents would be allowed to leave.

It is very common nowadays for Guam to be called “the tip of the spear.” In some ways this is true, because we are the closest piece of America to the threats it perceives from Asia. But, just because the US has thought of this island for more than a century as a piece of real estate, a sleepy outpost, or the tip of its spear, doesn’t mean that we need to settle for being a strip of land to be used one moment, and then sacrificed the next. We must not make the same mistake of having blind faith in the US to always have our interests at heart, but instead rely on our own intelligence to see our place in the world.

To learn more about Guam’s war survivors, please visit

The Power of Prayer
Senator Frank Blas Jr.
The Marianas Variety

The week before Guam was bombed on Dec. 8, 1941, Chamorros were busily preparing for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception; war was probably the furthest thing from their minds.

Families had spent the week setting aside crops, slaughtering animals, hunting fanihi or panglao, and cooking up their best dishes for the taotao tumåno’ who were on their way to the island’s biggest fiesta. When news began to filter around the island that Pearl Harbor had been bombed, and soon after so had Sumay, the cheerful atmosphere turned gloomy.

The masses were packed that morning throughout the churches on Guam, and these large spiritual gatherings soon became full of whispers. The Bishop at that time, Miguel Olano later wrote in his autobiography that for the congregation that sat before him in the Dulce de Nombre Cathedral in Hagåtña, “The joyous songs of rejoicing at the beginning of the Mass had ended in mournful agony and silence…” What was to be a celebration became the prelude for a very dark and difficult time.

He sent the congregation home without finishing the mass, and told them to prepare for the worst. People fled the church to gather their families and hide, but they kept their prayers close. Whenever survivors of the war recount their memories, they always attribute their strength to their faith and belief in God, and to the power of prayer.

This year, the Guam War Survivors Memorial Foundation will celebrate that faith by allowing survivors, their families and the rest of our community to finish the mass that was interrupted on December 8, 1941.

At 7:30 a.m. tomorrow, Archbishop Anthony Apuron will celebrate a remembrance mass at the Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral-Basilica. After the mass, our manåmko’ will recount their memories of how the war began and how their lives were drastically changed.

When stories of the war are recounted on our island, we tend to focus on the end of the war and Liberation Day. The start of the war, an equally tragic and important historical moment, is often given far less attention. It sometimes passes without any historical commemoration whatsoever. When Liberation Day comes, we insist that we remember lessons and that we honor heroes, but when the eighth of December arrives, why do we not remember it with the same determination?

We commonly say today that everything changed with World War II, and I’m sure that during the trying times of the war, our elders must have commonly thought to themselves that nothing would ever be the same. Our people today were forged in the fire of that war. We still have the burns, like scars on our hands and our hearts. We still feel the wounds, so deep they can even be passed down to future generations. This pain can never be fully spoken of and we all try to find imperfect ways of healing or of demanding justice. Some choose to swallow the pain and seal it up.

I have been working for several years now on finding my own ways of bringing closure to our manåmko’ for this period of their lives. The main way in which my office has done this is through the program Real People. Real Stories, where we have been documenting the struggles of our manåmko’ who survived World War II, and have also been advocating locally, nationally and internationally that the Chamorros of Guam, at long last, receive the recognition and compensation they deserve through war reparations from the United States.

Through my office we have interviewed many of our brave war survivors, some of whom may be familiar to the people of Guam, as their stories have been told before in documentaries, books or newspaper inserts. But there were many others who had never shared their stories before. My staff and I consider it a great privilege to work with so many people, many of whom have become very dear to our hearts. Sadly, a handful of those we interviewed have already passed on.

The mass tomorrow represents the next phase in our journey, a hopeful way of taking our difficult history and bringing closure to it. The celebrations of Liberation Day are only part of our war story, the easiest to confront because it appears to be such a happy ending. But we must also find a way to return to the solemn and somber beginning of the war. In order to bring closure to this part of our history, we must return to that moment where the happiness of prewar life on Guam was shattered, and where indeed so little would ever be the same. It is important that we come together as an island once again and finish that mass on our own terms. I hope you will come and join us tomorrow morning.

To learn more about Guam’s war survivors, please visit


Remembering Our Greatest Generation
Senator Frank Blas Jr.
The Marianas Variety
During his homily at the 7:30 a.m. mass on December 8, 2010, Archbishop Anthony Apuron asked all the survivors of World War II in the congregation to stand. More than 100 manåmko’ rose proudly but gave humble smiles to the children, grandchildren, friends, and leaders gathered around them in a packed Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral-Basilica.

It was powerful to watch their facial expressions as the Archbishop recalled that terrifying day exactly 69 years before when they were told Guam had been bombed and the war had begun. These strong survivors, many just children during the war, carry their memories in their eyes. And for just a moment, as they stood before us and the church filled with applause, we felt peace together.

After the mass, as we gathered behind the church for breakfast, the storytelling began. Our elders, who for years kept the war a secret they’d never share, were laughing as they recalled more lighthearted memories of the Japanese occupation – the food they ate, how they got it, where they walked, the new language they learned, and the adventures of hiding at the ranch.

The day was full of their stories, and everyone who came learned something they never knew before. In a more formal sharing of memories, the breakfast was followed by a storytelling session featuring four war survivors. More than 100 people of all ages and backgrounds stayed to listen to them.

I often refer to Guam’s World War II survivors as the greatest generation because despite the suffering they experienced and witnessed, and despite their quiet acts of heroism, many of them have never sought fame or fortune. They simply wish that future generations learn from their experiences, and that this history never repeats itself.

Many have only heard a summary of our elders’ war experience, which tends to focus on the end of the war. Very rarely do we take the time to learn what life was like everyday during the two-and-a-half year Japanese occupation. During the storytelling session, I was reminded that there is still so much that we don’t know, and that we must begin to record.

There were more than 20,000 Chamorros who survived the war, each with their own unique experiences and memories.

The four stories that were shared made this abundantly clear.

For Rita Cruz, the war was hell. One day while at Japanese school, she and her classmates were called into the yard to witness something horrific. Her pregnant mother was beaten to near death for refusing to bow to Imperial soldiers. So much of Mrs. Cruz’s story centered on the strength of her mother, who always protected her family, even when it almost cost her, her life. Mrs. Cruz’s mother never lost her voice, and spoke openly to her children about the injustice of the war until the very end. Mrs. Cruz said that although she and her mother were grateful to see the Imperial Army leave, her mother reminded her that the Americans were not there to liberate them, or to save them. “They came here for our land, never forget that,” she said.

Joaquin Lujan, or Tun Jack as many know him, shared a different story. He was 21 when the war began. While this time was not easy for him, Tun Jack and his family were left alone for two interesting reasons. The first was that a Japanese general who had moved into the house across from Mr. Lujan’s Anigua home, enjoyed talking to his younger sister. She reminded the General of his three daughters in Japan. The second was that this same general, after learning that Tun Jack and his father made farming tools behind their house, told them to continue their work because it was important to both the Japanese and the Chamorros. The Japanese believed that as long as Chamorros were working in their farms, and were happy and well fed, the Japanese would prosper on Guam, too. As a result, Tun Jack and his family were rarely harassed in the ways many other families had been.

Gloria Nelson, who was only five-and-a-half when the war began, told her story with wide-eyed honesty. Because she was just a child, Mrs. Nelson had some fun times during the war. She liked being with her relatives at the ranch, climbing trees and swimming in the swamp. The Japanese soldiers and their fancy uniforms amused her. She also enjoyed learning the Japanese language, and recited her numbers for the audience to show that she still retained what she was taught then. She also laughed as she described the strange tasks she was assigned like filling a jar with flies. She liked catching flies because she’d be awarded with small “goodies” when she returned with the jar. Another survivor in the audience said she had the same memory, and was told that the flies would be used for soy sauce. Mrs. Nelson, however, said the Japanese simply wanted to irradiate the insects.

The final elder to speak was Cristobal Reyes, who was only a little more than 100 days old when the war broke out. He spoke very briefly, but read from a list of things that he felt could be considered good about the war. Although the war was terrible, he said that it brought out the best in people, especially in terms of their faith. For 32 months, people prayed constantly and held Santa Maria Kamalen so fiercely in their hearts. According to Mr. Reyes, she had performed a miracle and kept the Chamorro people from being wiped out.

As we move into a new year, with new leaders in our government, we cannot forget these stories. Our manåmko’ continue to wait for justice. It is my resolution in the year ahead to avidly pursue war reparations for our island’s survivors. I will work with both local and federal leaders to remind the United States Congress that they have a moral and legal obligation to finally recognize the sacrifices and suffering of our greatest generation.

To learn more about Guam’s war survivors, please visit

No comments:


Related Posts with Thumbnails