A Holocaust on American Soil: Guam 1941-1944

By Bryan Mark Rigg

World War II

Few people know that the Japanese constructed seven concentration camps on American soil during World War II and imprisoned American nationals there. In fact, the Japanese fascist warmongers who occupied Guam for two years and nine months, slaughtered 10 percent of the population, raped most of the women on the island and conducted numerous war crimes. We in American need to never forget what happened to people who trusted us to protect them and who served in our military and paid their taxes. In order to understand this unknown chapter of American history, one needs to know the background of the United States involvement with Guam and how it all began.

Guam

The United States acquired Guam as a result of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Guam, the largest and most populous of the Mariana islands in the Micronesia in the North Pacific, was a convenient stop on the route from North America to the Asian continent, the Philippines and Japan. Coconut groves flourished under clear skies and aqua ocean waters lapped white sandy beaches that surrounded the island. Jungle growth covered the interior. Guam, and its sister island Saipan, “were big, rugged islands, dominated by steep peaks, yawning gorges, undulating tablelands,” fields of sugarcane, and thick vegetation. 

By 1930s, Guam was a coaling and supply station for ships crossing the Pacific, and later served as a stop for planes such as Pan American Airways clippers. It was populated by 22,000 indigenous Chamorro farmers and fishermen and their relatives, for whom family, church and a village lifestyle were vital. The first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff, U.S. Navy Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, described the people before the war: “They have little and want nothing. Living in little grass huts one story above the pigs and chickens; wearing what clothes they can find, or none at all, and subsisting on whatever fruit happens to grow near, they appear to be happy and contented beyond the usual lot of humans.” Most were Catholic, with a Protestant minority, and almost all were, simple, good-natured and kind people. Although not U.S. citizens during World War II, they had many of the rights citizens enjoyed. They spoke English, were permitted to travel to the U.S. mainland and were given U.S. identity documents. 

A number of Chamorro served in the military, and 12 died on ships during the attack on Pearl Harbor. A small U.S. government presence existed on Guam, which before WWII included 153 Marines, 271 sailors, five nurses, 134 civilian construction workers, 247 insular Guard members (Chamorros under Marine NCOs) and a few civilian administrators. The governor was a U.S. Navy captain. The garrison had a decommissioned oil storage ship, a lightly armed mine sweeper and two patrol boats.

In Asia, the attack on Hawaii happened on 8 December 1941 since Pearl Harbor lies over the International Date Line. On this date, Chamorros were celebrating the Feast of the Immaculate Conception as Japanese planes attacked. Panicked parishioners exclaimed “Asaina Yu’os! Santa Maria!” (“Lord God! Holy Mary!”). As the capital Agaña (Hagåtña) erupted in flames as bombs rained down, frightened people fled to the inland hills. By sunset, the city was empty. Two days later, 6,000 Japanese sloshed ashore and overwhelmed Guam’s garrison. The small, lightly-armed American detachment put up a defense, but in the end, it was “manifestly hopeless.” The most powerful weapon the U.S. had, the minesweeper USS Penguin, engaged planes with antiaircraft fire, but when its loss was certain, it was scuttled to prevent capture. When it went down, the only guns on the island larger than .30 caliber went to the ocean’s bottom. The garrison’s commander, U.S. Navy Capt. George J. McMillin surrendered on 10 December. The Japanese commander, Major General Tomitarō Horii, a seasoned veteran of the Sino-Japanese War, then commenced with the occupation. 

To hide his true intentions, Horii issued a proclamation that “welcomed” the 22,000 Chamorros to “The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” (Dai Tō Kyōei Ken) in its pursuit to do away with the “White Man” in Asia and create a Pan-Asian realm. He stated: 

“It is for the purpose of restoring liberty and rescuing the whole Asiatic people and creating the permanent peace in Asia. Thus, our intention is to establish the New Order in the World…You all good citizens need not worry anything under the regulations of our…authorities and my [authority] [sic] enjoy your daily life as we guarantee your lives and never distress nor plunder your property.”

These soon proved to be empty promises. 

Kwantung army troops who had occupied Manchuria garrisoned Guam. The Japanese seized farms and their rule entailed arrests, beatings, interrogations and torture. They forced civilians to grow crops, build fortifications, lay mines, dig caves and provide women for their pleasure. Those who refused were executed. 

Omiyajima

The Japanese occupiers changed Guam’s name to Omiyajima, Great Shrine Island, and the capital Agaña to Akashi, Red City, in honor of the rising sun, and they taught citizens Japanese culture. They also gave other towns and landmarks Japanese names, forced the population to learn them and predicted their new civilization would last ten thousand years (they would be off by a little more than 9,996 years). Japanese was taught and English was banned and those caught speaking it were severely punished.

Captured U.S. servicemen were sent to POW camps. Many died en route to Japan in “hell ships” in which prisoners were packed together for weeks in hulls without nourishment. Many went mad or starved to death. A doctor with a stash of morphine committed suicide. “[C]razed by thirst, [some] went berserk; they slashed at the throats and wrists of companions to suck blood.” Others licked and slurped up sewage from “open drains.” Many who survived the journey would not survive the camps. 

Approximately 14,000 Japanese troops took over government buildings and private homes on Guam. More than 2,000 residents were evicted from their residences and some were placed in concentration camps such as Manenggon in 1942. 

There were numerous reports of rape. In studying the Rape of Nanking, the Rape of Hong Kong and the Rape of Manila, and after going through numerous war crime affidavits on Guam with Park Ranger Kina Doreen Lewis, my study concluded that the vast majority of women and young girls on Guam were raped by Japanese soldiers. The average Japanese soldier often, in occupied lands, went “girl hunting” all the time. Often reports talked about violence and abuse, but did not use the term “rape,” although it was clear this was what happened. 

Since the garrison outnumbered the female population by at least 2:1 and given the penchant for IJA and IJN men to rape anybody they wanted, the women on Guam had no chance to go unscathed for the almost three years they suffered under Japanese rule.  According to several historians of the time period, like Kasahara Tokushi, “Rape is immeasurably traumatic experience for the females involved; it leaves lifelong emotional scars. Given the shame-inducing nature of this crime, victims naturally wish to keep it secret” especially for a Catholic community like Guam. 

The Chamorro People

“Comfort Women” were brought in to join the abused native girls—authorities established a brothel with Japanese, Korean and Chamorro women to be raped, sometimes numerous times a day. The Japanese also conducted medical experiments on civilians. The occupiers did all they could to demoralize, debase and destroy the society of the Chamorro people. As one IJA soldier claimed of his time in China, but it might as well as been from Guam: “The only skills I picked up after half a year in combat were how to rape and loot.”

Although possession of radios was forbidden, a number of Chamorros secretly had them. They picked up news from a station broadcasting from San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel. Despite the occupiers’ efforts, the people later would get word American forces were defeating the Japanese everywhere. At first, radio reports were horrible, but within six months, Guam’s citizens knew America was on the offensive.

Meanwhile, the occupiers wanted to increase agriculture to support a garrison of 30,000 troops. So forced labor increased. Food was seized from islanders who received back paltry rations. By early 1944, women were used to tend crops. Men were forced to construct tank traps, fortifications, and dummy fortifications, and transport food and ammunition. If they did not perform well, their masters beat and sometimes executed them. By Operation Stevedore, Japanese had massacred hundreds. In forced marches starting on 10 July 1944, such as the one to Manenggon concentration camp, some islanders were beaten to death. The Japanese moved 80 percent of the population to seven camps, areas of utter deprivation, and according to the Guam War Claims Review Commission, “there was very little food or medicine, no potable water, no sanitary facilities, and…only makeshift or temporary shelter from the torrential rains.”

Some Chamorros were ordered to dig graves before being beheaded. Edward L.G. Aguon watched soldiers execute four people. The soldiers tied them to a cotton tree. Then, they were slapped and beaten, the soldiers playing with them as a cat does a mouse. Thereafter, the executioners bayoneted them even after “it was obvious [they] were…dead.” “[T]he most painful thing I remember… [was] to see the looks on their faces when the final stab of the bayonet pierced their flesh; to hear their cries, as their last breath left their bodies.” Executions increased in mid-1944, and included teenagers discovered in the jungle looking for food; they were tied to trees and decapitated. The Japanese executed one man when they found out his son was a U.S. Sailor. Toward the end of Japanese rule on Guam, public executions became “frighteningly common.”

The Japanese imported Korean forced laborers to work next to Chamorro slaves. Many who failed to perform were whipped, beaten or slaughtered. Several, especially native children, died from malnutrition. The population decreased by 10 percent during the occupation, claiming 2,000 lives. Japanese authorities on the island promulgated that if America returned to Guam, it would find an island of rotting corpses full of “flies.” In the years they controlled Guam, they were indeed accomplishing this reality proving “Japanese civilization had come to Guam.”

 As the war spiraled down into defeat for the Japanese, their terrible behavior intensified. “As the Marianas-based Japanese prepared to defend the islands to the death, Chamorro lives became expendable. Atrocities increased in both frequency and ferocity.” This was especially the case for those Japanese who had been stationed in China who had, according to historian Don Farrell, “slaughtered Chinese peasants.” Once the population was placed in the concentration camps, hundreds died of disease and malnutrition, “in conditions of indescribable squalor.” The natives anxiously awaited the Americans’ return and hoped they would kill every one of the “yellow devils.”

The Americans returned on July 21, 1944 and liberated Guam in a battle that lasted until and August 10 and brought an end to one of the worse human rights violations against Americans committed by a foreign power—a small holocaust on American soil.

For more information, visit bryanmarkrigg.com.

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