The Private War of Pito Santos

This month I reread Island in Agony by Tony Palomo. I have actually read it many times, but decided to take a look at it again as I was writing my weekly columns for the Pacific Daily News about World War II in Guam, and that book had been my first, comprehensive and in-depth look at it when I was a graduate student. In contrast to books by Don Farrell or Robert Rogers which also cover to varying extends the Japanese occupation of Guam, Island in Agony, feels very Chamoru and is in most ways written for Chamorus. When you read the book, you can see Tony Palomo's voice clearly trying to sound like an average American newspaperman. But in how he frames the story and what he chooses to include, you can tell he is trying to write something that will tell the Chamoru side of the story, that will stand as a testament to the Chamoru experience.

Most chronicles of the war focus, as you might expect on the militaries involved. The great titans that clash over Guam. Not much attention is given to the mere mortals that are crushed beneath their feet on their island home below. The purpose of the Chamoru in most histories is to give texture and meaning to those titans. The Japanese are given a brutal hue, because of how they massacre the Chamorus and mistreat them in general. The Americans are giving a liberating luster because of how they save the suffering and starving Chamorus.

Tony Palomo's book doesn't challenge the overarching narrative political structure of the reality of Chamorus of his generation. He does not talk about decolonization or indigenous rights. But he does find ways to criticize it with varying levels of native humor and wit. While he does play the usual patriotic cards and sets up the triumphant ending of the book with two "liberations." One being from the Japanese, the other being from US Navy rule with the passage of an Organic Act for Guam.

This is where Palomo is very much of his generation. Their immediate concern was to rid the island of military rule over civilians, something that Chamorus had criticized since 1901, as being supposedly an anathema to what America was supposed to stand for. Especially after the rude awakening that they received when the Americans returned to expel the Japanese and began to take land from thousands of Chamorus, Chamorus were eager to find some semblance of civilized order. What they had known since 1898 was US military rule, which was passive, ignorant and could be heavy handed and very paternalistic and authoritarian. The Chamoru people welcomed Uncle Sam back to Guam with openly, newly developed patriotic arms, only to be slapped into consciousness, that their feelings were irrelevant in determining their treatment. So long as they were a military colony, the ideals and principles, the rights they could have would be limited.

But even in his triumphant ending, Palomo has moments of sobriety. He offers a reminder that even as things might appear to be improving, the realities, the racial and colonial realities still persisted. Throughout the book he regularly recounts instances of discrimination, racism and disrespect, often showcasing ways in which Chamorus overcame them or navigated them. When the Organic Act is passed in the closing pages of the book, Palomo includes quotes from the discussion in Congress, and makes clear that these new rights for Chamorus came with the caveat that America was making them no promise of inclusion. Statehood was not being promised and not in their future, despite them being made American citizens.

For many people they might skip over that party, to focus on the potential political party that was starting. But for Palomo, he filled the book with many such moments. He attempts to show that the Chamoru, despite what the colonizers have long said, isn't stupid. They knew they weren't being treated well, they knew America wasn't living up to its own previous ideals. They may have felt gratitude to the US, but patriotism was more problematic. In Chamoru the elders says, "I masångan gi hinemhom, taibali gi semnak." Which is a translation of a Spanish saying, which means "that which is said in the dark, has no value in the light." Chamorus had their own colonial variant, "I masångan gi sanlagu, taibali giya Guåhan." That which is said stateside, has no value in Guam.

But beyond these critiques, Palomo just finds ways to tell exciting and interesting stories, and not focus solely on those things that give Chamorus value in connection to others, their patriotism, their suffering. He recounts things in ways closer to the reality. There is a surprising amount of humor in a book about occupation, and this is not strange or wrong, but the truth. Chamorus did suffer, but they also told jokes and tried to make each other laugh in order to get by. Palomo's book is filled with stories like that, some short, some longer, that draw out the complicated experiences of Chamorus at the time.

One of my favorite stories from Island in Agony has to be this one about Pito Santos.

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Island in Agony
By Tony Palomo

Private War

Japanese soldiers normally traveled in groups of six or more, especially when they moved beyond the city limits, but for some unknown reason two Japanese journeyed to Socio, Dededo, some four miles from Agana, and were found washing clothes in a food container at a ranch owned by a Chamorro. 

When Pito Santos and Pedro Cruz Santos, cousins saw two unarmed soldiers at their friend’s ranch, they went after them and beat them up. This took place in late June, about two weeks after the Americans commenced bombarding the island. 

A few days later, two armed soldiers came to the ranch, and upon seeing Pedro, one of the soldiers grabbed the local man from the rear and the two Japanese began beating him up. 

Unknown to the Japanese was the fact that Pito was atop a coconut tree obtaining tuba, a fermented malt, from the young coconut stem. Pito was armed with a machete and a tuba knife. 

Pito quickly came down from the coconut tree and told the Japanese to cease beating up his cousin. 

“After all, we are all brothers,” Pito told the soldiers. 

When one of the Japanese loosened his hold on Pedro, the Chamorro quickly moved aside and grabbed a lance from the beam of a nearby shelter and plunged it into the back of the Japanese. The Japanese gave a gasping wail as he went down, mortally wounded.

Pedro then told Pito to kill the other Japanese, or he would. Pito pulled his machete and struck the disbelieving Japanese on the shoulder and across the back. He went down also, and died. 

The cousins then tied the hands and feet of the dead Japanese and brought a cow, which was tethered nearby, over. Their plan was to place the bodies of the dead on top of the cow’s hump, and to have the cow carry the bodies to a cave some 100 yards away. 

When they placed the bodies atop the hump of the cow, however, the animal wouldn’t keep still, and the bodies fell. The two men had to carry the bodies to the cave themselves. 

Unknown to Pito and Pedro, however, was the fact that the cave was being utilized by the Japanese as an ammunition storage area. Nevertheless, the two men dumped the bodies in the cave, covered them with dead coconut leaves, and then set the leaves on fire. 

In ten minutes, the whole place was aflame – bigger and brighter than the fires caused by the American bombardment from off-shore. 

Pito and Pedro proceeded to another friend’s ranch some 300 yards to the east. It was then about seven o’clock at night. They decided to start a fire, but this time to cook some meat and bananas. 

While they were cooking, however, bombardment from off-shore began and one of the bombs struck a dogdog tree. One of the branches fell and hit Pito on the back. At almost the same time, shrapnel struck him in the chest and on both legs.

Pedro was mortally wounded. A large shrapnel slashed his midsection from the back. 

Pito began vomiting blood. After about an hour, he forced himself to walk to a man-made cave where his sisters were hiding. He reached the cave at about two in the morning, some seven hours after he was hit. He advised his sisters to leave the area, and he himself went to a nearby ranch where he found a jar of “batsamu” – a type of medicine. Pito was able to cleanse his wounds with boiling water and then applied the medicine. He felt relatively better. 

Pito proceeded to Dededo, but when he reached the distract, Eloy Benavente, the district’s kumucho, told him the Japanese police were looking for him for questioning. When Pito reached the police field office, a man named Yoshida advised him to flee for his life. But Pito could not run. 

The Japanese grabbed him and tied up both his hands and feet. 

At about this time, however, American bombardment started again. Everyone fled from the field office, including Pito.

Pito managed to loosen the rope tying his feet, and although in pain, he ran like a wild deer to Manengon, some 15 miles away, his two hands still tied on his back

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