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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.

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