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Governor of Guam 1949-1953

Carlton Skinner (1913 – 2004) was the governor of Guam at a historical crossroad. It was a time when civilian rule and American citizenship was finally granted to Guam and its people through the 1950 Organic Act of Guam after both issues had been pursued through numerous petitions beginning in 1902. Skinner noted in his memoirs that “the road to its passage was filled with obstacles and delays not unusual for a measure of principle which did not directly affect the constituents of the members of the US Congress.”

Guam’s recovery from World War II that continued during Skinner’s time in office would also catapult the island into changes, both physically and consciousness-wise.

Early life

Before his service in the military, Skinner worked as a prewar correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and United Press International. After the war, Skinner was a Public Relations Director for the Interior Department and a special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior before he was appointed Governor of Guam. He was a native of Palo Alto, California, born 8 April 1913, and attended Wesleyan University and the University of California, Los Angeles.

He and his first wife Jeanne Rowe had three children: Franz, Andrea, and Barbara along with a Dalmatian when the family lived on Guam – Princess Lilu’okalani (named after the last reigning monarch of the Kingdom of Hawai’i who was overthrown in a coup by a committee of businessmen on 17 January 1893) – which, through considerable effort, he endeavored to breed with another Dalmatian at the presidential palace in Manila.

Post World War II

Following the near devastation of Guam after the American invasion against Japanese occupiers on 21 July 1944, the island’s rehabilitation and the meeting of basic human needs were coupled with the priorities of the US military as it prepared to invade Japan and then, following the war’s end, solidifying its strategic hold on Guam.

Land became a contentious issue, contrary to persistent ideas that Chamorros, in their already proven loyalty to the American flag, were willing to give up their land simply out of gratitude for having been freed – and at great sacrifice through the lives of American soldiers – from the brutal Japanese regime. The issue became particularly contentious when naval officials began condemning Chamorro land for the Navy and Air Force’s recreational purposes. Significant parts of condemned land were not put into use and, in some cases, continue to sit idle. An appeal process, if taken far enough by a land owner at the time of Skinner’s governorship, involved appealing Superior Court of Guam decisions to the secretary of the navy in Washington D.C. – a trip that would have been prohibitively expensive and thus constituting really no appeal rights at all.

Governor of Guam

President Harry Truman appointed Carlton Skinner as governor of Guam on 17 September 1949 after Skinner had already completed a draft of the Organic Act of Guam in 1948. Skinner replaced Vice Admiral Charles A. Pownall as the island was being begrudgingly transferred by the US Navy to the Department of the Interior and the final draft of the Organic Act was beginning to take form. During this nine month transitional period, Typhoon Allyn hit the island in November 1949, causing great devastation, including the leveling of most Quonset huts that functioned as government buildings, schools, warehouses, and even homes. While the American Red Cross responded after Skinner had flown to Washington D.C. seeking disaster relief for Guam, the Office of Emergency Management refused to help because Guam was “not part of the United States” and as such, the Office had no authority to respond.

Skinner was flabbergasted at the “irresponsibility of such a reply” and emphasized that “this response had a salutary effect in making the new Guam government realize that it must be self-reliant. It had to stop its former instinctive dependence on the occasional benevolence of the US government. Even psychologically, it had to accept that with its more mature political status [by way of the Organic Act] would come the obligation to make its own decisions and provide for itself. From this stemmed a whole series of actions and programs, large and small.”

In 1952, for example, Governor Skinner helped initiate the Quonset hut Territorial College of Guam in the village of Mongmong, a two-year teacher training school under the auspices of the Department of Education which became the University of Guam in 1968.

Guam’s Organic Act

The process of drafting the Organic Act included a special Congressional hearing on Guam in November 1949 led by Congressman John Miles, a former governor of New Mexico. The visiting congressional committee noted that “about 100 witnesses testified, including the community leaders and all members of the Guam Congress, and all were enthusiastically in favor of the bill.” Skinner was reappointed governor by President Truman on 21 July 1950, the sixth anniversary of the US marine invasion against Japanese forces. The day before the Organic Act was signed, however, indicate the reasons why a simple chronology of Skinner’s three years in office would be an inappropriate approach.

On 30 July 1950 Skinner signed a quitclaim deed that transferred lands that were previously confiscated and condemned lands – largely belonging to Chamorro families – to the US government and thus placed safely under its control before the Organic Act took effect the next day. These approximately 49,600 acres or 36 percent of the island’s land mass represented land losses for approximately 1,350 land owners. These lands had often been acquired through extensive, seemingly indiscriminate, arbitrary seizures and condemnation processes. Historical estimates of the compensation given to Chamorros for their land have been as low as six percent of the land’s appraised value.

While Skinner was instrumental in ushering in civilian rule for Guam a study of history shows that he was also involved in shaping Guam policies in many other ways. Among them are Congressional perspectives on Guam’s tenuous status with the United States. As historian Don Farrell has noted, some federal laws are “still arbitrarily applied or not applied to Guam, and Guam is considered either foreign or domestic at the whim of Congress.”

The overall theme of Skinner’s perspectives on his time as governor is the integral nature of democracy itself and, under its granting to the island of Guam, the brotherhood of an extended American independence and democracy to the island. But as Robert Underwood has also noted, the history of Chamorro efforts to gain political rights is itself “antithetical to colonial perspectives” while suggesting “moments of intertwining between Native and colonial perspectives in ways that complicate important and necessary efforts to distinguish them.”

These political rights were sometimes considered by anti-self governance advocates – particularly tenacious officials of the US Navy – to be worthy of sacrifice for the sake of Guam’s infrastructure and economic development. Underwood has also observed that “unreturned love is standard fare in Guam political arguments” as is an “unrequited affection.” A narrative sense of the “loyalty” of the Chamorro people toward the United States has been used to “maintain a colonial narrative of history” – a phenomenon quite evident in Governor Skinner’s own 1997 memoir, After Three Centuries: Representative Democracy and Civilian Government for Guam.

Referring to himself throughout the book simply as “Skinner,” Governor Skinner traces many of the challenges he faced. His term essentially ended when Rear Admiral Ernest W. Litch, whose “friction” with Skinner, particularly over Skinner’s attempt to get the navy to allocate more electric power from its plant to Guam communities, prompted Litch to criticize Skinner to President-elect Dwight Eisenhower when the President stopped on Guam. Skinner was not on Guam at the time and had not known about the President’s travel plans.

Skinner places a particular emphasis on the process leading to Congressional approval of the Organic Act as well as its provisions for “self-government” by way of an American democratic system of governance. But he makes no mention of the Guam Congress Walkout of 1949 that was widely covered by the US media and caused embarrassment for the Truman administration. The Walkout not only challenged the idealistic rhetoric of democracy by the US government when the Congress tested its actual powers in subpoenaing a witness who was, however, protected by Governor Pownall but also reflected the mass of unresolved naval governing issues culminating in the Walkout.

Skinner includes the Organic Act itself as well as the full text of his supportive testimony before Congress in the book. He considered the Organic Act to have embodied the essential elements as Abraham Lincoln expressed them: “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” He includes separate chapters that also extoll the “Industrious and Intelligent” nature of the “People of Guam,” and Guam’s “Record of Loyalty to US.”

The establishment of The Organic Act of Guam was nevertheless a significant event, given the decades-long rule of the island by individual commanders whose authority was essentially total. The Guam Congress, established by Governor Roy C. Smith in 1917, served theoretically as a means for Guam leaders to meet and express their concerns and recommendations to the naval governor of their time. Some governors however ignored the Guam Congress’ attempts to influence decisions affecting their island. The Organic Act of Guam changed this condition through leaders elected by the people they were meant to serve.

But as critics of the Organic Act and of the United States’ overall influence on Guam have noted, the Organic Act of Guam was not the product of the people of Guam but rather a US Congressional creation. These issues, along with contemporary perspectives on issues of Chamorro self-determination based upon current and historical wrongs, all make Skinner perhaps the most important Governor up to this point in Guam’s history.

His legacy cannot be separated from these problems or from contemporary issues related to how people feel – feelings that have markedly changed but also diversified over the decades since Skinner’s term – from a more accepting notion of American attachment to more questioning ideas and stances about the Guam’s still unresolved political status. While some remain content with Guam’s status quo relationship with the United States, Chamorro activists, political leaders, and people in general have, over the past few decades, become more vocal about the right of the Chamorro people, within the context of their centuries’ long control by foreign powers, to determine their own political future. Nearly sixty years after he left office on February 19, 1953, Skinner’s identity and legacy are aglow, traced, and defined holistically and individually by each of these issues.

Skinner began his memoirs by recalling his role in having “successfully pioneered in a previous major program of equality of opportunity and elimination of segregation” as Coast Guard commander of the USS Sea Cloud, “the first completely integrated naval vessel crew [with 173 members, 54 of whom were black] in the history of the US Navy and Coast Guard.” Skinner believed that this “pioneering experiment” had influenced President Truman to appoint Skinner as the first civilian governor of Guam and the person who would be tasked with implementing the Organic Act. Skinner credits the success of this program with having led to the “complete racial integration of the American Armed Forces” by the time he became governor. His proposal to integrate the crew of the USS Sea Cloud (“colored and white – officers, petty officers and enlisted men, serving side-by-side”) came after his eventually successful effort to overcome a Navy and Coast Guard policy of allowing African Americans to only be enlisted as servants to officers (a lowly status that Chamorro enlistees also endured for years) so as to enable a black mess attendant to be promoted to a Motor Machinist’s Mate rank for his high mechanical abilities.

Skinner based his proposed “test” on the idea that not only were “competent personnel” being lost through segregation but that the policy and thus the lack of opportunity for black seamen was manifestly unfair. Skinner also made a point of taking black officers from the ship to Navy Officer clubs, initially prompting “consternation at first [although] there were no incidents as the new officers behaved just like the former all-white contingents.” The crew of the USS Sea Cloud was credited with helping to sink German submarine off the US east coast in June 1943. Skinner quotes one enlisted black crewman – a combat artist – as recalling in an interview after the war that his experience on the USS Sea Cloud constituted the “the best democracy I’ve ever known.”

Although the USS Sea Cloud was decommissioned because of diesel engine problems after reporting weather conditions for bombing raids over Europe for a year, Skinner’s “experiment” continued with the 200 man crew of a patrol frigate, the USS Hoquiam based in the Aleutian Islands. The Hoquiam itself was ultimately offered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Joseph Stalin as part of an incentive to persuade Russia to enter the war against Japan. Skinner, with his integrated crew, spent twelve weeks training a 222 member Russian crew and “set[tting] an example for the Russian Navy.”

Skinner stressed that this experiment of “non-discrimination worked well for Guamanians after the adoption of the Organic Act when they quickly qualified for and filled positions of leadership in military, professional, educational and business organizations.” Before the implementation of the Organic Act, Chamorro workers had been earning as little as fifty percent of what their mainland counterparts earned. Local teachers, for example, earned at least 25 percent less than temporary teachers from the US mainland who were often spouses of naval personnel and officers.

Skinner frequently extolled the loyalty of the Chamorros during the Japanese invasion (there was not “a single case of treason, betrayal of America or even comfort for the enemy by the native inhabitants,” in contrast to enemy support examples from the Philippines, Indonesia and Norway), as justification for the Organic Act. He also considered the Organic Act to be representative of American democracy and synonymous with “self government” for the island, which if contrasted with Guam’s centuries of colonial history, is closer to the truth than not.

However, its ingrained limitations are reflected not only in the US Congress’ capacity to consider Guam to be either an international or domestic entity in accordance with respective laws or their political foundations but the Tenth Amendment (reserving constitutional powers for the states that are not granted to the federal government) and the first line of the Fourteenth Amendment that would have limited Congressional power over Guam, were not and still are not applicable to the island. The Ninth Circuit Court has affirmed the limited self-rule that the Organic Act brought to Guam by affirming the colonial nature of Guam’s status with the US government in several cases. And although the Organic Act continues to essentially function as the island’s constitution, it is a constitution created and approved by the federal government without the voted consent of the people of Guam.

But in the context of the time and from the majority of historical documentation reflecting local sentiment, the Organic Act of Guam was seen as a very significant move away from the more than 300 years of Spanish rule and more than fifty years of US military rule. The argument is still often made that the Organic Act provides a satisfactory blend of self-government as well as an acceptable, closer relationship with the US government. Whatever political and social perspectives have ensued since Skinner’s intimate involvement in the creation, passage, and implementation of the Organic Act, Skinner’s contributions and the local perspectives toward them need to be understood in the context of a Guam in which only six years had passed since the devastating effort to defeat the Japanese occupiers of the island.

Skinner clearly not only believed in the transformational force of self-government on Guam through the Organic Act, he also believed in the island’s future, despite the economically restrictive military security clearance order that required visitors to obtain a security clearance before they could visit Guam. This clearance requirement was removed by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. In a speech before the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce on 5 July 1951 entitled “Guam – The Hong Kong of the Future,” Skinner outlined what he considered to be enormous advantages and opportunities for US businesses to invest in Guam, a place where they could “not be taken hostage and then have to be ransomed.”

He compared Guam’s new found self-governing powers to reflect the broader ending of colonialism across the globe. He reflected:

The colonialism which was symbolized by the white men’s clubs to which no citizen of the country was admitted is gone. With it are gone the special privileges, the automatic high rank and the “gracious” living.

He envisioned a number of industries on Guam that would return a profitable margin for investors including a yarn making industry, embroidery, ceramics and china, canned tuna, bamboo products, glassware, copra processing, and oil refining. Fabrications of these products on Guam could be sent to the United States duty free, thus justifying a comparison with Hong Kong. He noted the agricultural focus of Guam’s economy before the war which had “almost completely changed the island,” transforming this rural life into one inundated with American goods and processed foods. “The best agricultural areas,” he observed “are under concrete landing strips or are covered by warehouses and other installations.” Subsequently the people of Guam wanted to “create an economy which will make their island self-sustaining.”

In his farewell address to the Guam Legislature on 12 January 1953, Skinner expressed confidence that “men who wield authority senior to ours in the national government are devoted to liberty and democracy and to maintaining and respecting the rights of all of their countrymen no matter how remote or how new to their brotherhood.”

He warned however that “if we do not respect our authority to rule ourselves…in a responsible manner…we will not keep our present rights and privileges.” The “attack” upon such rights would be “subtle,” starting with “a campaign to discredit” not only the legislature but the judicial branch as well and possibly even the office of the Governor. Although Skinner does not specify who would lead such a subtle “attack,” it was well known that several officials of the Navy were not supportive of control of Guam by the Interior Department or of its ultimate self-governing status. “The aim,” Skinner further warned, “will be to frighten and intimidate, so that Legislators will lack the courage to speak out for the rights of the people.”

Post Guam

After leaving Guam, Skinner became a chief financial officer for American President Lines, Colt Industries and Fairbanks Morse as well as helped to initiate and run Air Micronesia. He was appointed by Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to serve on the South Pacific Commission (now the Secretariat of the Pacific Community), a regional, intergovernmental organization that focuses on Pacific development in a wide range of social, economic and scientific endeavors.

In 1967 he married French anthropologist Solange Petit, his second wife, who was also working for the South Pacific Commission. When he finally settled in San Francisco in the late 1960s, Skinner established the management and financial consulting firm of Skinner & Co. and acquired a yacht which he named YARK (“You Are Right Kommander”) and raced in association with the St. Francis Yacht Club.

After he died on 22 June 2004 in Boston at the age of 91, his widow reflected that Skinner was “very bright and had a fantastic memory like a slot machine. It was like you pushed a button and the memory came out.” Petit recalled that Skinner had given a speech in Guam in 2000 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Organic Act.

He said all he did all he did back then because he wanted to liberate all the energy there. It was what he wanted to do for everyone – give them the freedom to liberate all their energy. Right up until he passed away, he was still giving good advice.

By Nicholas J. Goetzfridt, PhD

For further reading

Fagan, Kevin. “Carlton Skinner – Broke Racial Barriers in Navy.” San Francisco Chronicle, 29 August 2004.

Farrell, Don A. The Pictorial History of Guam: The Sacrifice, 1919-1943. Saipan: Micronesian Productions, 1991.

Goetzfridt, Nicholas J. Guahån: A Bibliographic History. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011.

Hattori, Anne Perez. “Righting Civil Wrongs: The Guam Congress Walkout of 1949.” In Kinalamten Pulitikåt: Siñenten I Chamorro (Issues in Guam’s Political Development: The Chamorro Perspective). The Hale’-ta Series. Hagåtña: Political Status Education Coordinating Commission, 1996.

Skinner, Carlton. After Three Centuries. Representative Democracy and Civilian Government for Guam. San Francisco: Macduff Press, 1997.

Underwood, Robert A. “Afterword: Guam in the 20th Century: Lessons for Us in the New Millennium.” In A Campaign for Political Rights on the Island of Guam, 1899 to 1950. By Penelope Bordallo Hofschneider. Saipan: CNMI Division of Historic Preservation, 2001.