View more photos for the Governor Charles Alan Pownall entry here.

Last appointed military governor of Guam

Governor Charles A. Pownall (1887 – 1975) served as naval Governor of Guam from 30 May 1946 to 27 September 1949. In the aftermath of World War II and the Japanese Occupation, he was the first postwar US governor and also the island’s last appointed naval governor.

Born on 4 October 1887, Pownall grew up in Atglen, Pennsylvania. He entered the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland after high school and graduated in 1910. Pownall was commissioned as an ensign, serving aboard the battleships USS Missisippi, Missouri, Ammen and Reid. He was awarded the Navy Cross for his distinguished service during World War I.

In the 1920s through 1940s, Pownall commanded several naval vessels, including the destroyer USS John D. Ford and the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. He completed his training as an aviator in 1927. During World War II, he served in the Pacific theater on the USS Yorktown and saw action in the Gilbert Islands. He was awarded the Navy Distinguished Service medal after the Gilbert Islands campaign in 1943, but was replaced at the end of February 1944 for “overcautiousness” and a perceived “lack of aggressiveness”during his service in the Marshall Islands campaign. He was ordered back to the US to lead the Naval Air Training Command in Pensacola, Florida, where he received a Legion of Merit award for his service.

Returned to the Pacific in 1945

Pownall returned to the Pacific in 1945 as Commander Naval Forces Marianas (COMNAVMAR) before his appointment as Governor of Guam on 30 May 1946. In his inaugural speech he emphasized the need to re-energize Guam and encouraged everyone to work together as a team. 

After the recapture of Guam in 1944, the island was transformed into a massive base complex from which the US continued its fight against the Japanese. A military government was put in place during the buildup that brought in thousands of personnel to fight the war as well as to begin the reconstruction of the island and the building of military installations and facilities.

Much of the landscape had been damaged or destroyed during the heavy bombing to retake the island and thousands of Guam’s residents were displaced and homeless. Many were relocated to new or expanded temporary villages constructed by the military but large tracts of land also were taken over by the military as part of the war effort. Only about one-third of the land in Guam remained in CHamoru hands.

When the Japanese finally surrendered in 1945, the demobilization of military forces in Guam began almost immediately. The number of military personnel dropped from 250,000 to less than 50,000 within a few months. Quonset huts that had been erected to house troops and other personnel, equipment and weapons were left behind, along with surplus vehicles and 55-gallon oil drums. Much of the land itself was practically devoid of topsoil and useless for agriculture. Some land was returned to original owners by 1946, but other prime areas for farming and fishing were not, and stayed under military control. Few local landowners felt they had been justly compensated for the lands that were taken from them, but the general feeling at the time was of gratitude that Guåhan had been liberated from Japanese rule.

Beginning of a Naval government

With the war over, the military government ceased operations on 30 May 1946 and the naval government was reinstated. Rear Admiral Pownall was appointed by President Harry S. Truman as Governor of Guam and given extensive administrative power over all aspects of civilian and military affairs. Pownall was the first admiral to be appointed governor, as all previous naval governors had ranked no higher than captain.

One of Pownall’s first objectives was to promote a new identity for the CHamoru people. Informal polls were conducted to see which of several options—Guamian, Guamese, among others—was most favored. This renaming was meant to usher in a new era for the people of Guåhan but also, more importantly, to separate and distinguish CHamorus who resided on Guåhan from those in Saipan, the latter having been loyal to the Japanese forces during the war. The Northern Marianas had been under Japanese control since 1914.

The Navy, and CHamorus themselves, took on this new identity in both casual and formal settings as well as in official documentation. Pownall also oversaw approval of the newly created Guam Seal and the addition of a red border on the Guam Flag in honor of those who had died during the war.

The Department of the Navy, though, had announced that the naval government was temporary until civil government could be properly instituted. Admiral R. A. Spruance wrote in 1948, in what became known as the Spruance Paper, that the naval government was an interim government tasked with the physical restoration of damaged property and facilities, development of policies for health and sanitation and economic growth, and the “early establishment of self-governing communities.” 

Pownall, as a high-ranking naval officer, not only had control over the military personnel and civilians of the Mariana Islands, but also oversaw the entire group of former Japanese territories in Micronesia, including the Caroline and Marshall Islands. In essence, he was more powerful than any pre-war governor had been.

Post war brought big changes

The US Navy’s War Crimes Tribunal Program (1944-1949) also took place during Governor Pownall’s term. His responsibilities as admiral often took precedence over his role as governor and so he was assisted in his gubernatorial duties by a civil administrator appointed by the Navy. This was the first time such a position was set up to help oversee the different government departments.

CHamoru civilians also took up administrative positions throughout the naval government and its 12 departments and agencies, including in areas of public works, education, health and the judiciary. The reinstated Guam Congress, which had been disbanded at the start of the Japanese Occupation, and the new village commissioners were to act as liaisons between the naval government and the civilian population. 

Pownall had expressed his intention to ask the Navy Department to grant the Guam Congress some law-making powers, which were granted in August 1947. These powers were issued in a proclamation by Acting Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan called the Interim Organic Act.

Through the Interim Organic Act, the Guam Congress could enact changes to existing Guam laws and override the Governor’s veto powers with a two-thirds vote in each of the two houses, with final approval by the Secretary of the Navy. The Guam Congress could also approve the Navy’s budget. Pownall met regularly with members of the Congress to discuss various issues affecting the island. However, land claims became some of the most complicated, contentious, and significant issues facing the people of Guåhan at this time—and also provided the ultimate test of the authority of the Guam Congress within the hierarchy of the naval administration.

By 1948, the military had continued its land appropriation through condemnation proceedings, including beaches and farmlands. Many of these land acquisitions were not intended for base development but mostly for recreational use exclusively for military personnel and their dependents. The seemingly arbitrary way in which land was taken and the restrictions on use and access became major confrontations between the Guam Congress and Governor Pownall.

The issue of citizenship for the people of Guåhan figured prominently in relations with the naval government, as it had been numerous times before the war. However, this time it was seen as a solution to protect the people and their lands from arbitrary and unjust takeover by the naval government. Pownall believed that these land takings for recreational use were vital for the well-being of the military personnel under his command, but his decisions seemed to show he had less regard for the well-being of Guåhan civilians—i.e., CHamoru—population. Indeed, for many supporters of CHamoru self-government, the conflict over land pointed out the uncertainties, inadequacies and injustices of life under continued military rule and the naval governor. The issue became a showdown between the Guam Congress and Pownall that would define his term as the last military governor of Guam.

In 1946, the first postwar election of the Guam Congress took place. Although Pownall spoke encouragingly about the Guam Congress and self-government for the CHamoru people, he knew there was discontent among the CHamorus and other advocates of self-determination about the authoritarian powers of the navy governor and the mere advisory role of the Guam Congress.

Land takings by the military

That same year, the Navy set up the Land and Claims Commission to deal specifically with land issues. In 1948 the Secretary of the Navy issued a proclamation that seemed to expand the powers of the Guam Congress to participate in decision-making for the people of Guåhan and lauded the demonstrated desire of the CHamoru people to be American citizens. However, as the Land and Claims Commission carried out its work to determine compensation for military land takings, it became clear that any expanded powers for the Guam Congress were illusory and that the Commission’s procedures for condemning lands were discriminatory and did not adhere to any calls for consideration of CHamoru landowners’ rights.

Because disputed land case decisions were arbitrated by a navy appointed judge in the Guam court, and appeals were made to the secretary of the Navy, the whole process clearly favored military interests. Pownall’s response was to oppose what he called the meddling of the Guam Congress in land affairs.

The Guam Congress made even louder appeals for American citizenship and sent a petition to the US Congress in 1949 to bring attention to the issue. In March, the Guam Congress Walkout took place after a dispute with Governor Pownall.

Earlier, when the Guam Congress wanted to pass legislation that would grant them subpoena powers, Pownall vetoed it. A Civil Service employee with the Navy was called in to testify before one of the councils of the Guam Congress. He refused the subpoena, citing Pownall’s veto, and Pownall supported his decision. In the first major protest against a military governor, the members of the Guam Congress walked out of session en masse. Pownall called them back into session, and dismissed the assemblymen when they refused. Pownall then appointed new members which the assembly refused to acknowledge. 

The news of the walkout brought national attention to Guam’s situation under military rule and their struggle for self-determination. Pownall maintained that he had not restrained the assembly’s legislative authority, but his remarks seemed to show he did not appreciate that the walkout was more than just an issue over a subpoena and that addressing citizenship and a half century of American colonial rule was the real issue at stake. 

Guam’s rule transferred to Interior

As discussions were taking place in the White House about dealing with Guåhan, Governor Pownall announced his retirement in June 1949. In September 1949, President Truman issued Executive Order 10077 officially transferring the administration of Guam from the Department of the Navy to the Department of the Interior. A new civil government was to be established through an Organic Act, and the first civilian governor, Carlton Skinner, was appointed in July 1950.

Governor Pownall officially retired from his position as naval governor by 1 September 1949, “grandly depart[ing] Apra Harbor on the USAT General Butner beneath a farewell flyover by B-29s and navy aircraft.” Three years later he retired, ending a 39-year military career, with the rank of Vice-Admiral. Other awards he received while in active service include the Navy Commendation Medal, the British Distinguished Service Order for the Re-Conquest of the Gilbert Islands and two Presidential Unit Citations.

Although his term as Governor of Guåhan ended amid  intense scrutiny and criticism of his inflexibility and impatience, he had fulfilled his military duty. A 25-year resident of suburban La Jolla, Pownall died in San Diego, California and was buried alongside his wife, Mary Chenoweth Pownall. They had one daughter, Louisa.

By Dominica Tolentino

For further reading

Budge, Kent G. “Pownall, Charles Alan (1887-1975).” In The Pacific War Online Encyclopedia, 2016.

Camacho, Keith L. Sacred Men: Law, Torture, and Retribution in Guam. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2019.

Carano, Paul, and Pedro C. Sanchez. A Complete History of Guam. Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle, Co., 1964.

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.

–––. “Guardians of Our Soil: Indigenous Responses to Post-World War II Military Land Appropriation on Guam.” In Farms, Firms, and Runways: Perspectives on U.S. Military Bases in the Western Pacific. Edited by L. Eve Armentrout. Chicago: Imprint Publications, 2001.

Rogers, Robert. Destiny’s Landfall: A History of Guam. Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 1995.

Sanchez, Pedro C. Guahan Guam: The History of Our Island. Hagåtña: Sanchez Publishing House, 1987.