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War on Guam - "Yes, I Remember" by Nancy Toves Leon-Guerrero (used with written permission from the author)

Nancy Leon-Guerrero wrote this story while attending college at Mr. Mary University in Milwaukee, WI. 

The year 1941 was on its last month. There had been rumors of war, as I gathered from the conversations between my father and his friends from the Commercial Pacific Cable Company.

We lived at Sumay, the principal harbor of the little unfortified coral island of Guam. Few ships came in or went out. Most of our people were self-supporting, and there was peace and contentment on the island.

Guam is the southernmost and largest of the islands in the Mariana archipelago, a group of 15 islands located within approximately three hours of major Asian cities. Included are selected cities and their distances from Guam: Manila, Philippines, 1,597 miles 12,555 km) west Tokyo, Japan. 1,558 miles (2,493 km) south-southeast; Seoul, Korea, 1,992 miles (2,590 km) southeast; Taipei, Taiwan, 1,246 miles(2,077km) northwest; and, Hong Kong 2,026 miles (3,376 km) northwest.

Guam lies 13 degrees 48 minutes North latitude and 144 degrees 44 minutes East longitude . The island is the western most territory of the United States and 15 hours ahead of the Eastern Seaboard Time Zone. Hence, the popular slogan is often used: Guam, Where America's Day Begins.

One of the greatest devotions of our predominately Catholic population was, and still is, to the Blessed Virgin. December eighth, her feast-day, was a joyfully awaited occasion. There would be a procession in the capital, where the tiny ivory statue of Our Lady of Camarin, believed to have come to the island in a mysterious manner; would be carried on a float adorned with fresh flowers. Of course, we hoped to go.

December eighth was a beautiful day, with hardly a cloud in the sky. We were at breakfast. Being but four years old, I was screaming while stubbornly resisting my mother's efforts to put the detested yolk of a fried egg into my mouth. Suddenly I quieted down. Yes, those sounded like airplanes, all right. In those days, and on an island in the mid-Pacific, planes were a rare sight and therefore always attracted attention. Out we scrambled, and directly above us we could see the "shining birds." Noticing some objects falling from them, I exclaimed, "Look, Daddy! It's laying eggs!" The words were scarcely out of my mouth when we heard a tremendous explosion that rocked the ground beneath us. Some blocks away, the Standard Oil Company, directly hit by an "egg" was ablaze. The flames and smoke made the whole sky fearsomely dark. We were stunned.

Then came my father's voice-"Japs! It's the war!" I saw another bomb hit a build-ing some blocks away where a number of people had sought refuge. War. I knew then, even at four years of age, what it meant.

The next thing I knew we were in my dad's jitney on our way to our ranch at Almagosa Springs.

Typical of most tropical structures, our ranch house sat on a foundation of tree-trunk pegs, intended to keep the inhabitants high and dry. On the ranch we grew sugar cane, tapioca, corn, pineapple, and bananas. Coconuts, mangoes, papaya, breadfruit and avocados grew wild. The chickens and pigs thrived there. A short distance behind the house was a small river with a waterfall and a natural swim-ming pool. Tall graceful reeds in the marshes nearby gave added beauty to the place. There was another river down the mud road with a little wooden bridge. Shrimp was plentiful in both.

Directly south was a small cave, well hidden, insuring a certain amount of protection. In this we stayed with some American friends who had come with us, and a number of relatives who managed to find their way to us. Some men ventured outside from time to time to see if any planes were coming. It was night before we felt safe to go to the house. The Americans, who I later found out were my dad's employers and fellow-workers at the Cable Station, were to remain in the cave. From then on until the day they decided to surrender, it was we youngsters, the least likely suspects, who would carry supplies to them. As Dad put it, "If anyone should ask you what you are doing, say that you're going on a picnic." Knowing that discovery would mean death to our friends and to us, we did as we were told, and the subject was never discussed among ourselves or among strangers.

Two days of suspense and apprehension passed. On the third, a small division, fully armed, came up the road, their naked bayonets glittering in the sunlight. Lined up outside, each one of us was questioned as to the whereabouts of any Americans, any radio transmitters, any guns. Pale and frightened, my grandmother uttered prayer after prayer until the soldiers seemed convinced of our innocence. Searching the surrounding area, they were too preoccupied with the task of catching chickens and replenishing their food supply to discover the cave. But that was not all that happened. To this day I can see my mother, her face betraying her grief, after the Japanese had gone, taking her wedding ring with them.

The Japanese left us alone for a while, and there were happy days at home. Dad would take us into the jungle and search for a honey tree or just teach us birdcalls. I had the companionship of five older brothers. Charles was only two years older than I, so it was only natural that we often did things together. Our favorite pastime was bird hunting in the jungle with our slingshots. As I could never bring myself to shoot, we were content to trace the birds to their nests. If we were successful, we would take some of their eggs and let our pet chickens hatch them. Another game we liked to play was climbing trees to see who could go higher. I had the regrettable experience of paying for it with a fall when the topmost branch of a tall, young sapling refused to bear my weight.

The planting of crops, setting shrimp traps and playing records helped fill the empty days when Charles had to attend the Japanese school in the village. I always looked forward to his coming home so he could teach me Japanese songs and tell me stories about school.

My other brothers also had their interests. Victor was proud of his giant-sized red sugar canes. Bob had a pig, and Harry and Johnny cared for Teddy, our carabao. Teddy was big and strong, with tremendously long and wide horns. I think he must have liked me, because I usually rode sitting between those horns with absolutely no fear of harm.

Around our ranch area, we had neighbors who usually came to barter or share in the prize of a successful deer hunt. This latter was dangerous business, having been forbidden by the Japanese. The neighbors therefore took proper precautions against discovery while dividing their catch. Charles and I would be stationed down the road by the bridge to play. Meanwhile, Victor would stay by the mulberry bushes near the house. At a stranger's approach, we were to call Victor to come and play with us. This was the danger signal. At once, all traces of the animal would be removed, and some of the neighbors would hide in the attic, while others would escape through the kitchen door.

My mother learned something about bartering in the presence of a little child. Milk was scarce and she took pains to keep a few cans for me in a trunk. A neighbor came asking to trade something for milk, but my mother said she regretted having nothing to give. "Oh yes," I insisted, "I saw some in a trunk. Do you want me to show you?" Thank goodness, Mom managed to cover up.

Days went by and I lost track of time. One evening, I thought everyone looked anxious, and after supper I found out why. Right in our front yard, a large number of Japanese soldiers had formed a ring around a bonfire near which an officer and an interpreter were questioning my father. I stuck my head out the window and watched, wide-eyed. What were they doing to my father? Dad, with his Spanish temperament, began gesturing wildly. Overcome by impatience, the officer struck him several times and had him bound. At that instant, I screamed so loudly that a soldier ran over, pointed his bayonet at my throat, and threatened to quiet me down perman-ently. Terrified by my screams, someone rushed over and pulled me away from the window.

That was the last time I ever saw Dad. For months after, we attempted everything in our power to have him released, but all to no avail. The father I loved so much would live only in my memory.

Investigating the cause for his imprisonment, we learned that a certain neighbor had been trying to get chickens from us, which naturally my dad had refused to give. Food had become a scarcity. Thinking he would be well rewarded, the neighbor wove a fantastic story that my father had machine guns and a radio hidden away and was sending messages to America.

Harry, my oldest brother, was also questioned that night. To force a confession from him that would incriminate Dad, he was made to hold in his bare hands a tin can filled with hot coals. His hands raw, he still refused to admit what be knew was false. He was imprisoned for some months, but the scars took a long time to heal.

From then on, sorrow was our daily visitor. It was not long after that when the order came for us to move to the Fena valley area. No reasons were given. Not expecting to return, we tore down the house and took the building materials with us. With some relatives and friends, we established ourselves at a new location. Once more, there was comparative peace, but it was of short duration. The United States soon launched its offensive. Leaflets dropped from airplanes and read regardless of the death penalty gave new hope to our people.

It was here that we began hearing of the atrocities in the prisons and even in the towns and villages. Would America, our "Uncle Sam," come back to Guam to save us from them?

As yet, we felt safe. One morning, a number of my cousins and I went out looking for tropical nuts and berries. As we walked through a clearing, we saw a plane swooping down directly toward us. It strafed the area; we threw ourselves down between the stumps and logs. Looking back now, I wonder how we ever escaped death.

Japan soon saw its sun sinking in the west. The other islands had been retaken. Knowing defeat was inevitable, the Japs on this island were determined that the natives would never live to see their liberation. Our young men were taken to man their guns. My brother Johnny went and never returned. A survivor from his group told us that a missile from a ship hit them, but only wounded the boys. The Japanese guards immediately had them buried alive.

The rest of the people were forced to begin their death march. Destination-deeper into the valley to the stockades where a few hand grenades would finish them off. Many, thanks to America, still live, but they live to tell of the terrors experienced and the horrors witnessed.

July 21,1944, was our Liberation Day. The good news traveled fast. Trucks and jeeps picked up natives emerging from their hiding places and took them to the American camps. We were taken to Agat, to the hillside overlooking the ocean. Our home was a small tent and we were supplied with rations. Sickness and disease, however, were on every side. For some time, I stayed in the hospital where nurses and doctors tried their best to do something for me and the other patients. Soon, health returned and I went back to the tent with my mother and four brothers. One morning, I awoke to find myself alone. Mom was nowhere around, and the camp was practically deserted. I ran down the hill toward the hospital, afraid that my mother, too, would be taken from me. A great weight was lifted from my heart when there, by the building, I found them all, standing, and singing with joy-filled hearts, the "Star-Spangled Banner" which was waving proudly over another people it had freed from fear. Although but a child, I pledged my allegiance to it and to that which it symbolized.

Yes, I remember, and I always will.



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Last modified: September 18, 2012

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