Men escape nightmare in Merizo
By PAUL J. BORJA
So near, yet so far.
In July 1944, the ships of the U.S. Navy could be seen off Merizo, almost as close as the waves rushing over the reefs that fringe the southern village.
For Juan Atoigue Cruz, just 16 years old then, those ships were the stuff of dreams.
"I would think about, make this idea for myself, for me to swim out to the ships, maybe go out there in the dark. Then I'd think, they'd never see me in the dark if I swam out ...," he said in a recent interview. At that time in the occupation, Cruz was a slave laborer for the Japanese troops in Merizo preparing defenses against an American invasion force.
Little did he know that his wish to be aboard one of the ships would come true. On July 21, 1944, led by the late Jesus Barcinas, Cruz would be in a canoe paddling to one of the Navy ships off Merizo. With them were Jose Mata Torres, who is still living, Juan Meno Garrido, Joaquin Manalisay, and Antonio L.G. Cruz.
The men were escaping from Japanese soldiers who were becoming more and more brutal to the people of Merizo - Imperial Army troops all around the island were brutalizing Chamorros as the American forces prepared to retake the island. Women were being taken from villages and raped; beatings were more frequent.
But the soldiers, their brutality turned more evil. In Yigo, 51 men were killed in two different incidents; at Fena in the interior of southern Guam, a dozen Chamorros were executed; at Tai, in early July, three men were beheaded, soon to be followed by the Rev. Jesus Baza Duenas and his cousin Edward.
Merizo was not spared its share of tragedy. On July 15 at Tinta, 13 men and three women were massacred by Japanese soldiers; 14 people survived but only because soldiers who were tasked to kill the wounded were caught in a heavy downpour in the hilly area and they decided to return to their encampment. They were chosen for death because they were former members of the Insular Guard Force, or considered pro-American or rebellious to the Japanese.
A day later at Faha, 30 Merizo villagers were massacred by Japanese soldiers using grenades, machine guns and bayonets. There were no survivors.
The Faha victims, Cruz said, were chosen solely because of their physical size. He remembers one of them quite well: Vicente Acfalle Champaco, who was 6-foot, 7-inches tall or more. "They called him 'Carabao'," he said. Champaco was the owner of the canoe that would take Cruz, Torres, and other Merizo men to freedom.
Meanwhile hundreds of villagers were ordered to march to Manengon where the Japanese were incarcerating Chamorros to prevent them from assisting U.S. forces. in Merizo, people gathered their belongings and the Japanese made them leave food and other items at Tintinghanom.
After about three days' march, villagers were encamped for the night at Atate, up the Geus River valley.
Torres, Cruz and other boys earlier that day were sent back to Merizo to forage farms for chickens, pigs and vegetables; whatever they found, they were to bring them to Atate, Torres said.
Meanwhile, Jose Soriano Reyes and other men were ordered to go to Tintinghanom to also retrieve some food for the people at Atate. But at Atate was a large pit that villagers were earlier forced to dig. "My God, it was big - 50 feet by 50 feet square," said Cruz. "I was forced to work there one day and I helped dig some of that hole."
Reyes, who had heard through the grapevine the massacres at Tinta and Faha, was convinced that the pit was for the Merizo people now at Atate. He recruited about five men, some of whom were very scared, to attack their guards at Tintinghanom.
Despite being unarmed, they succeeded in killing the guards and taking their weapons. Shortly afterward, arriving at Tintinghanom were Cruz, Torres and other boys carrying food from the village's farms. "When we arrived there, we saw a guard they had killed, killed by Joe Reyes, and then Joe shot and killed the one guarding us. He was a big man, that guard," Torres said.
Killed by the same shot was 16-year-old Gregorio Santiago. "The bullet that hit the Japanese went right through him and hit Gregorio," Cruz said. Injured in the brief fight was Jose Garrido, who received a slight bullet wound on one of his elbows.
That fight over, they traveled toward Atate. Just before the camp, Reyes stopped the men and boys, who numbered about 15 or 16, and began planning the attack, Cruz said.
"He was telling us, assigned us to different places, to what place and what part of the camp, and then to kill the Japanese guarding there," Cruz said. Key to the attack was seizing the rifles of the guards after they had stacked them.
At the sound of a signal, with only Reyes armed with a gun, the men attacked the camp with sticks and crude clubs. "We fought them with our bare hands, but we killed them," Cruz said.
They managed to kill maybe eight guards but not before one of them shot at Reyes, Cruz said. "He had his rifle behind some boxes, and he shot Joe (Reyes)."
The shot missed Reyes. Unfortunately for the guard, at the time he was trying to shoot Reyes, the leader was hurriedly showing another man how to load and shoot a rifle so it could be used in the fight. "He was still behind the boxes but Joe just picked up the rifle he had and shot him. I think he shot him in the heart."
Torres said the attack on the guards at Atate was something they just had to do despite their fear. "We had never done anything before, until we thought they were going to kill us, kill us all - it's either them or us.
Only one Japanese guard survived, the civilian teacher of the village called "Wasi Sensei", Cruz said. He fled into the jungle.
After the fight, the Merizo men regrouped. Jesus Cruz Barcinas, a village leader, was in the jungle gathering food but hurried back to the camp when he heard shots. He was told that the reason for the attack was because the Japanese were thinking of killing all of the villagers there - thus the reason for the pit. "Sus (Barcinas) then asked for volunteers to go out to the ships, so we could get help for the people in the camps," Cruz said.
Cruz volunteered - for a very basic reason. "You know, in that time, you don't think about much - I just wanted to stay alive. If we didn't kill the Japanese, they were going to kill us."
Barcinas and Antonio L.G. Cruz had kept a canoe ready for such a situation for a year and a half. Though owned by Champaco, the boat was confiscated by the Japanese who gave it to Antonio so he could catch fish for them.
Always thinking ahead was Barcinas; he had anticipated a Japanese invasion of Guam in 1940 and had his children practice evacuating their home as though under attack. When Barcinas learned that the Japanese had given Cruz a boat, he told the man to take care of the canoe - it would be needed someday.
That day had arrived, but Barcinas and the volunteers still had to hike over hills and through jungle trails to reach the canoe. The boat was located at A'an, in the area where Naputi's Store is now, about 100 feet toward the Inarajan side of the village, Cruz said.
Torres said the attack at Atate ended about 5 p.m. on July 20, and it took the men until 1 a.m. to reach the shore.
The journey was like a bad dream - being chased in the dark by an unseen enemy. Torres said the experience that night was fearful. "Here we were, we had already killed some Japanese, and we didn't know how it would all end. There was a lot of trauma, and sometimes you don't want to think about it. I was scared the whole time."
Once at the coast, the men had another obstacle - a camp where the Japanese stayed in the village, about 100 feet from the canoe. To get to the boat, the men crawled on the ground, careful not to alert the 75 or so soldiers nearby, Cruz said.
Once at the boat, the men lifted it and took it to the shore, their task in evading the Japanese assisted by darkness. But their voyage to freedom was to be delayed. "Oh, it was a very low tide, we had to carry the canoe maybe two hundred feet out to the water," Cruz said.
He noted it was a big canoe - "it can carry maybe 15 men" - perhaps because of the size of its owner, the 6-foot, 7-inch Champaco.
Once in the channel, the men paddled furiously to Cocos Island, where they spent the night, waiting for the dawn so they could see the ships outside the Merizo lagoon.
Cruz said during the night - actually it was the morning of July 21 - the men kept busy. There was no time for sleep or dreams.
Four of the men went about the island checking for any Japanese presence and found none. The group also gathered coconuts to eat at sea.
Torres also noted that the boat was looked over. "We spent some time fixing the boat, fixing the outrigger. It had been unattended for a bit, and we had to make sure, see if it was sea-worthy."
Torres said that during the night, the men also watched something to the north. "We saw that there were these flashes of light, like lightning. We didn't know what they were, but now we know that it was the Navy (shelling Japanese positions in support of the Marines)."
A little after dawn, with the tide high, the men pushed off Cocos and their voyage to freedom continued.
They approached what appeared to be a destroyer, but their attention was captured by a plane. "When we started going out there, there was a plane behind us, and then it started going down, down, down, and I knew it was going to shoot us. So I took out my two feet and put them on the side of the canoe and when the plane is still coming, on top of us, I threw myself down and stayed under the canoe," Cruz said.
When the canoe got to within 50 feet of the ship, the vessel steamed off, sailing toward Orote Point. "Oh, that made me feel bad. But with what we did, we had made up our minds that we weren't going to go back, go back to Merizo again. We were going to continue, to go out in open ocean, regardless if they don't pick us up," Cruz said.
"We weren't going to turn back, nai, because the Japanese were going to kill us if we turn back to Merizo," he said.
There were other ships, though, plenty of other ships, the men said. Torres said it seemed that there were hundreds and hundreds of ships; Cruz watched the first ship sail away, but taking its place were ships of every size and shape. "That one went to Orote, but there's a lot of ships. You can almost walk on the ships and reach the harbor, the harbor in Sumay."
Determined, the men paddled toward another ship, and this time, the vessel approached. Once near the ship, its crew seemed to hesitate to pick them up, but then someone, probably an officer, issued an order and the men were allowed to climb onto a net and then aboard the vessel, the USS Wadsworth. It was about an hour and a half since they had left Cocos, Cruz said.
"It's hard to say how I felt," Cruz said. "But when I saw that ship coming, I guess I'm lucky I didn't have a heart attack - I was just so happy - and I knew that I was going to be free; I was going to be a free man."
On board, the crew of the Wadsworth was anxious to get information from their counterparts aboard the canoe. "When we got on the ship, they were asking us, 'Did you see the Marines?'," Torres said. "We said, 'What Marines?'. They told us that the Marines were landing." The men sailed aboard the Wadsworth and were soon transferred to the USS Clymer, a transport ship.
The men, who were under-nourished, were checked by Navy doctors, fed, given a hair cut, and issued dungarees. Sailing off Agat, the men stayed aboard for about four or five days, helping the Navy staff with information about the island, Japanese defenses and the areas were civilians were located.
On the 22nd, the Navy had picked up a second canoe and five more men from Merizo - Jesus Cruz Anderson, Tomas Tajalle, Felipe Santiago Cruz, Jesus Cruz Castro, and Joaquin Cruz Barcinas, who was the youngest brother of Jesus Barcinas. All, except Castro who joined them later, survived the massacre at Tinta.
Days later, after the two groups were taken ashore to the secure Agat beachhead, four more Merizo men on a canoe were rescued - Frank Anderson, his son John, Joe Mansapit, and Joe Quinene.
The four men from the second canoe had lived to tell about the massacre at Tinta, but those in Jesus Barcinas' group did not know anyone had survived the attack. "Sus Barcinas was shocked, because he knew his brother was at that cave ... in Tinta. He didn't know his brother was alive," Cruz said.
"He looked down and he saw his brother Joaquin on that small boat, you know, by the side of the flagship, he was just... "He didn't know that his brother was still alive. He was crying and when his brother got up top, they started hugging, crying."
Yes, the stuff dreams are made of.