The day paradise was lost

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 April, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 April, 1998, 12:00am

It was just another balmy summer day on December 8, 1941, when 10-year-old Frank Manlbusan heard the slow drone of aircraft break the early-morning silence. Moments later the ground shook and he heard explosions in nearby Apra Harbour.

War had come to his island paradise of Guam as Japanese bombers from nearby Saipan dumped their deadly loads upon the unsuspecting Chamorros natives and a handful of American servicemen based in the area.

More than a half-century later the images remain fresh in Mr Manlbusan's mind as do the following two and a half years of the Japanese occupation and the triumphant return of the Americans.

Guam was the scene of the most bitter fighting of the World War II in the Pacific. Only 2,000 of a Japanese garrison on Guam of 20,000 survived the battle which began on July 21, 1944, and ended 21 days later. When it was over, 1,300 American servicemen were dead and another 6,000 injured.

The legacy of that bloody conflict still lingers not just in the form of rusting hulks in the waters around Guam which attract thousands of diving enthusiasts each year, but in the minds and hearts of Chamorros like Mr Manlbusan.

Surprisingly, Mr Manlbusan is not bitter about those dark days in the 1940s and now makes himself pocket money as a tour guide with Discover Guam.

His life has gone full circle in the intervening years since the war. After spending 32 years in America he is back home enjoying the easygoing lifestyle while tending his rose garden.

His candour when recalling the war years and his detailed knowledge of the area and events that occurred is a rare experience and in marked contrast to the average 'guided tour'.

'The Japanese had no real quarrel with us [the Chamorros natives] and after they took our names, ages and addresses we were basically left to continue our lives as normal,' Mr Manlbusan recalls.

'After all, the Japanese had been on Saipan since World War I and elsewhere through Micronesia.' Only Guam, an American protectorate since 1898 and a strategically located destination with a natural deep-water harbour, interrupted Japan's influence in the region.

It was therefore natural that as Pearl Harbour in Hawaii was being bombed on December 7, so was Guam across the dateline on December 8. The bombing on Guam continued for the next three days before the inevitable invasion by 5,000 crack troops took place on December 10.

Resistance from the 250 American navy and army personnel was minor; and by that afternoon the 22,000 Chamorros were under the yoke of the Japanese Imperial Army. 'All the American servicemen and foreign-born nationals were imprisoned in the cathedral at Agana [the island's capital],' Mr Manlbusan recalls.

'Later the prisoners were taken to Japan where they spent the next three and a half years.' Standing on Nimitz Hill overlooking Apra Harbour, Mr Manlbusan points to a host of sites which were scenes of bloody battles.

'The Americans landed to the north of Apra Harbour at Asan Beach and to the south at Agat Beach. The fighting was very heavy all around this area.

'Luckily the Japanese had moved all the Chamorros to a concentration camp inland so we were spared the bombing which took place before the invasion. The American bombers completely destroyed Agana. Life was hard in the camp and we were often short of food but at least we were away from the fighting.' The United States Government has not forgotten the sacrifices made on the palm-fringed beaches of Guam. The National Parks Service has spent millions of dollars building monuments of which the War in the Pacific Museum is the centrepiece. Located on the beach near one of the many invasion points it boasts poignant memorabilia plus a mini-movie theatre which shows war footage of Guam and elsewhere in the Pacific.

Many people may find re-living the bloody past distasteful, but Mr Manlbusan says many veterans of the invasion have returned with their families and friends to pay their respects to their fallen comrades.

Hundreds of servicemen returned to Guam for the 50th anniversary of the invasion in 1994 and the US Navy put together a special exhibition of its own housed at its base on the Orote Peninsula.

Not a regular stop-off point on the tourist trail, the Marianas Military Museum has remained open and survives on US grant money and public donations.

Run by archaeologist Jennings Bunn, it features an amazing array of artefacts from both sides of the conflict. Unlike the main museum, the Marianas Military Museum offers a more intimate insight into the conflict. Mr Bunn is a veritable fount of information.

'Only last week I came across a rare Japanese sniper's rifle and it still works,' he says enthusiastically.

'Originally the museum was just set up for the 50th-anniversary celebrations, but we have managed to keep it open and improve it since. Now we want to expand it.

'We've boxes of exhibits stored away which should be on display. Negotiations are under way to set up a private association to oversee the running of the museum.

'If that happens then we should be able to put more exhibits on show,' Mr Bunn says.

A drive around the US Navy Base, which is home to about 10,000 servicemen and women, reveals a number of monuments, many of which were built by the handful of Japanese who were taken prisoner.

They include a special commemorative statue to the tracker dogs used by the marines to flush out Japanese troops who had escaped inland.

Even though Guam was declared 'secured' 21 days after the July 21 invasion, Japanese troops continued to fight right through until the surrender was signed on September 2, 1945. All the German Shepherds and Dobermans who died 'in the line of duty' during the mopping-up operations are remembered on a special plaque.

Mr Manlbusan's four-hour Island Discovery-World War II Tour is not cheap at US$65 (HK$500) but his special insights and engaging patter make it unusual aside from the more conventional tourist activities.

Continental Micronesia Airlines fly twice a week to Guam via Saipan on Mondays and Fridays. An economy return ticket is $4,290. A direct service to Guam will be introduced on Wednesdays from April 15