When the navy ordered me to Guam last winter, I was less than enthusiastic about the prospect. It certainly didn’t help that an officer I worked with who had spent some time in Guam in the 1960s referred to the North Pacific island—the southernmost and largest of the Mariana Islands—as “the armpit of the world.” I spent most of the 20 hours it took me to travel there in a state of gloom and doom.
But all that went away when I stepped out onto the beautiful white sand beach the next morning and saw an intriguing hunk of concrete directly ahead. Once I recognized a gun port, I knew what I was looking at: it was a Japanese pillbox, positioned so that its occupant could take aim at American troops advancing from shore.
As the son of an engineering officer in the merchant marine who served in both theaters of World War II, had four ships shot out from under him, and loved to tell war stories, I grew up feeling surrounded by history. That’s the way I felt when I stood in front of that pillbox.
More than 60 years ago, death and destruction were all over this beautiful beach. It began with the surprise Japanese invasion of the strategically located island on December 8, 1941, one hour after the attack on Pearl Harbor (there is a significant time zone difference), which overran Guam’s meager defensive forces in only two days. For the next two and a half years, the native Chamorro population was subjected to beatings, forced labor, executions, brainwashing, and—near the end of the Japanese occupation—internment in concentration camps. Then, on July 21, 1944, 55,000 Americans landed on Asan and Agat beaches to wrest the American territory away from its occupiers. By August 10, after an intense and deadly struggle, the Americans regained control of the island; it soon became the command post for their Western Pacific operations.
Stories I’d heard as a child about tanks and guns rusting away in the jungle came back to me and, inspired by the pillbox on the beach, I became determined then to locate as many other artifacts as I could. I hit some map shops, talked to locals, and soon realized there was much to see. My major quandary at that point was how to work my job around artifact hunting. I decided I could sleep when I got home.
Convincing myself I couldn’t get too lost on a 30-mile-long island, I drove down the Marine Corps Highway to the American invasion site at Asan Beach on the island’s west coast—one of seven locations of Guam’s War in the Pacific National Historical Park. There I examined a defensive cave carved about 40 feet into a rocky cliff, from which Japanese forces launched counterattacks against the Americans.
Photos mounted on placards in the park show how the beach appeared on the morning of the July invasion, when preinvasion bombardment had rendered the entire area a desolate landscape, spiked with the trunks of broken palm trees.
I next headed a little farther south toward the village of Piti, partway up Nimitz Hill. Just above the village, on a hillside overgrown with dense jungle foliage, lie the remains of three Japanese coastal defense guns. Although I knew to look for the guns there, finding them in the quiet jungle setting still felt like a discovery. The weapons—Japanese-made 140mm Vickers-type Model 3 guns, called “Piti guns” by the locals—were never fired. The Japanese had used Chamorro slave laborers to haul the guns, which weigh thousands of pounds each, up the steep hillside. But they weren’t yet operational by the time of the American invasion—something the sight of the open and rusted breeches made me glad of.
About two miles farther up Nimitz Hill is Asan Bay Overlook, one of the better-maintained and more contemporary memorials on the island. This serene, windblown site offers a commanding view of the assault beach. From here Japanese commanders launched a large but ultimately unsuccessful banzai attack early the morning of July 26 in a last-ditch effort to repel the Americans. While I was there, several busloads of Japanese tourists arrived and departed. I briefly wondered why they’d come until I realized they, like me, were paying respects to their slain soldiers.
One of the most moving memorials I came across was dedicated to another group of fallen warriors: the Doberman pinschers that served alongside marines in the liberation of Guam. Sixty dogs entered Guam with the 3rd Marine Division; headstones arranged in a semicircle mark the burial sites of the 25 dogs that died there. These animals were used to flush Japanese troops from their caves, pillboxes, and dugout positions, and served as sentries as well. Dogs accompanied marines into combat throughout the Pacific, and no marine unit with a dog was ever ambushed or its position infiltrated by the Japanese. The War Dog Memorial is located at the U.S. Naval Base; civilian visitors must be accompanied by a military sponsor.
Just outside the entrance to the naval base is the headquarters of the War in the Pacific National Historical Park. And in front of that, resting on keel blocks, is a rare sight: a Japanese Type C midget submarine, possibly the only surviving one of its type. The 78-foot-long sub ran aground in August 1944, was captured, and was displayed on the base until last spring, when the navy donated it to the National Park Service. Outfitted with two torpedoes and crewed by only two men, it was a formidable weapon. Submarines have been a professional focus of mine for more than 30 years, so I found this especially thrilling.
But the highlight of my visit came at the end of a long and very muddy trek through a savanna on the east side of the island. For more than two miles, my colleagues and I hiked along deeply rutted red clay roads, which were fiercely sticky from a persistent downpour. Every hundred yards or so, we would come across the strange spectacle of yet another abandoned shoe left in the grip of the muddy road.
But when we finally reached the Tank Farm in Yona, it was worth the trip. There, the remains of two Sherman tanks and three amtracs used for Allied target practice have been rusting away since the end of the war. The vehicles were of limited utility during the battle for Guam because, I wasn’t surprised to learn, the sticky red clay soil was so difficult to negotiate. Being able to examine the old vehicles up close and in a natural setting was a moving experience that made me gladly overlook the large blue spiders that seemed to share my affinity for the tanks.
Something with wider appeal to the average tourist is the park at Talofofo Falls. Here, gondolas carry tourists over a series of waterfalls, the occasional pig meanders about, and a monorail system offers grand jungle views. Here is where the last Japanese holdout of the war, a sergeant named Shoichi Yokoi, chose to hunker down and hide until local farmers found and captured him in 1972. He went back to Japan a hero, married—and returned to Guam for his honeymoon.
The latter, at least, is something I understand, because having once been a reluctant traveler to Guam, I’m now hoping the navy will send me back.
When You Go
Guam, the westernmost territory of the United States, is 3,300 miles west of Hawaii and 1,500 miles south of Japan. Air travelers will fly into Guam’s centrally located Won Pat International Airport; car rental is recommended.
Where to Stay and Eat
The center of tourism on the island is the city of Tumon; many large hotel chains offer accommodations on the mile-and-a-half-long beach on Tumon Bay. Thuy’s Café (671-477-9595), in the nearby capital city of Hagatna, is a warm and friendly mom-and-pop establishment with wonderful Vietnamese and Thai food.
To sample native cuisine and culture, visit the Wednesday night market at Chamarro Village in Hagatna, where vendors offer plates of barbecue topped with a local hot sauce called finadene; lumpia, vegetable egg rolls dipped in garlic sauce; and ahu, shredded coconut boiled in sugar water.
What Else to See
Diving is spectacular around Guam, which is located near the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean in the world. The clear, warm water is home to healthy coral reefs and other vibrant marine life, as well an array of wrecks, including the Tokai Maru, a Japanese freighter torpedoed by the submarine USS Snapper in 1943, which came to rest beside the SMS Cormoran, a German auxiliary cruiser scuttled in 1917—the only place in the world where shipwrecks from two world wars are known to be touching.