Fight to survive – and liberate themselves

So near, yet so far. In July 1944, the ships of the US Navy could be seen off the coast of Merizo, almost as close as the waves rushing over the reefs that fringe the southern village. For Juan Atoigue Cruz, just 16 years old then, those ships were the stuff of dreams.

“I would think about, make this idea for myself, for me to swim out to the ships, maybe go out there in the dark. Then I’d think, they’d never see me in the dark if I swam out..,” he said in an interview in 1994. At that time in the occupation, Cruz was a slave laborer for the Japanese troops in Merizo preparing defenses against an American invasion force.

Little did he know that his wish to be aboard one of the ships would come true. On 21 July 1944, led by Jesus Barcinas, Cruz would be in a canoe paddling to one of the Navy ships off Merizo. With them were Jose Mata Torres, Juan Meno Garrido, Joaquin Manalisay, and Antonio LG Cruz. The men were escaping from Japanese soldiers who were were brutalizing CHamorus as the American forces prepared to retake the island.

Merizo was not spared its share of tragedy. On 15 July at Tinta, 13 men and three women were massacred by Japanese soldiers; 14 people survived but only because soldiers who were tasked to kill the wounded were caught in a heavy downpour in the hilly area and they decided to return to their encampment. They were chosen for death because they were former members of the Insular Guard Force, or considered pro-American or rebellious to the Japanese. A day later at Faha, 30 Merizo villagers were massacred by Japanese soldiers using grenades, machine guns and bayonets. There were no survivors.

The Faha victims, Cruz said, were chosen solely because of their physical size. He remembers one of them quite well: Vicente Acfalle Champaco, who was 6-foot, 7-inches tall or more. “They called him ‘Carabao’,” he said. Champaco was the owner of the canoe that would take Cruz, Torres, and other Merizo men to freedom.

Forced to march

Meanwhile thousands of villagers were ordered to march to Manenggon where the Japanese were incarcerating CHamorus to prevent them from assisting US forces. In Merizo, people gathered their belongings and the Japanese made them leave food and other items at Tintinghanom.

After about three days’ march, villagers were encamped for the night a Atate, up the Geus river valley. Torres, Cruz and other boys earlier that day were sent back to Merizo to forage farms for chickens, pigs and vegetables; whatever they found, they were to bring them to Atate.

Meanwhile, Jose Soriano Reyes and other men were ordered to go to Tintinghanom to also retrieve some food for the people at Atate. But at Atate was a large pit that villagers were earlier forced to dig.

“My God, it was big – 50 feet by 50 feet square. I was forced to work there one day and I helped dig some of that hole.”

Juan Cruz

Reyes, who had heard through the grapevine the massacres at Tinta and Faha, was convinced that the pit was for the Merizo people now at Atate. He recruited about five men, some of whom were very scared, to attack their guards at Tintinghanom.

Revolt: Guards killed, weapons taken

Despite being unarmed, they succeeded in killing the guards and taking their weapons. Shortly afterward, arriving at Tintinghanom were Cruz, Torres and other boys carrying food from the village’s farms.

“When we arrived there, we saw a guard they had killed, killed by Joe Reyes, and then Joe shot and killed the one guarding us. He was big man, that guard.”

Jose Torres

Killed by the same shot was 16-year old Gregorio Santiago.

“The bullet that hit the Japanese went right through him and hit Gregorio,.”

Juan Cruz

Injured in the brief fight was Jose Garrido, who received a slight bullet wound on one of his elbows. The fight over, they traveled toward Atate. Just before the camp, Reyes stopped the men and boys, who numbered about 15 or 16, and began planning the attack, Cruz said.

Reyes assigned the men to different parts of the camp, telling them to kill the Japanese guards. Key to the attack was seizing the rifles of the guards after they had stacked them. At the sound of the signal, with only Reyes armed with a gun, the men attacked the camp with sticks and crude clubs.

“We fought them with our bare hands, but we killed them.”

Juan Cruz

They managed to kill maybe eight guards but not before one of them shot at Reyes. He had his rifle behind some boxes and he shot Joe Reyes, though the shot missed him. Unfortunately for the guard, at the time he was trying to shoot Reyes, the leader was hurriedly showing another man how to load and shoot a rifle so it could be used in the fight.

“He was still behind the boxes but Joe just picked up the rifle he had and shot him. I think he shot him in the heart.”

Juan Cruz

Torres said the attack on the guards at Atate was something they just had to do despite their fear.

“We had never done anything before, until we thought they were going to kill us, kill us all – it’s either them or us.”

Jose Torres

Only one Japanese guard survived, the civilian teacher of the village called “Wasi Sensei.” He fled into the jungle.

After the fight, the Merizo men regrouped. Jesus Cruz Barcinas, a village leader, was in the jungle gathering food but hurried back to the camp when he heard shots. He was told that the reason for the attack was because the Japanese were thinking of killing all the villagers there – thus the reason for the pit. Jesus Barcinas then asked for volunteers to go out to the ships, so we could get help for the people in the camps, Cruz said.

Cruz volunteered – for a very basic reason.

“You know, in that time, you don’t think about much – I just wanted to stay alive. If we didn’t kill the Japanese, they were going to kill us.”

Juan Cruz

Barcinas and Antonio LG Cruz had kept a canoe ready for such a situation for a year and half. Though owned by Champaco, the boat was confiscated by the Japanese who gave it to Antonio so he could catch fish for them.

Always thinking ahead was Barcinas; he had anticipated a Japanese invasion of Guam in 1940 and had his children practice evacuating their home as though under attack. When Barcinas learned that the Japanese had given Cruz a boat, he told the man to take care of the canoe – it would be needed someday.

That day had arrived, but Barcinas and the volunteers still had to hike over hills and through jungle trails to reach the canoe. The boat was located at A’an about 100 feet toward the Inarajan side of the village, Cruz said.

Torres said the attack at Atate ended about 5 pm on 20 July, and it took the men until 1 am to reach the shore.

The journey was like a bad dream – being chased in the dark by an unseen enemy. Torres said the experience that night was fearful.

“Here we were, we had already killed some Japanese, and we  didn’t know how it would all end. There was a lot of trauma, and sometimes you don’t want to think about it. I was scared the whole time.”

Jose Torres

Once at the coast, the men had another obstacle – a camp where the Japanese stayed in the village, about 100 feet from the canoe. To get the boat, the men crawled on the ground, careful not to alert the 75 or so soldiers nearby.

Out to sea on a canoe

Once at the boat, the men lifted it and took it to the shore, their task in evading the Japanese assisted by darkness. But their voyage to freedom was to be delayed. It was very low tide so they had to carry the canoe maybe 200 feet out to the water.

He noted it was a big canoe – it could carry maybe 15 men – perhaps because of the size of its owner, the 6-foot, 7-inch Champaco.

Once in the channel, the men paddled furiously to Cocos Island, where they spent the night, waiting for the dawn so they could see the ships outside the Merizo lagoon.

Cruz said during the night – actually it was the morning of 21 July – the men kept busy. There was no time for sleep or dreams. Four of the men went about the island checking for any Japanese presence and found none. The group also gathered coconuts to eat at sea. Torres also noted that the boat was looked over. They spent some time fixing the boat, fixing the outrigger. It had been unattended for a bit, and we had to make sure, see if it was sea-worthy.

Torres said that during the night, the men also watched something to the north. It was the Navy (shelling Japanese positions in support of the Marines). A little after dawn, with the tide high, the men pushed off Cocos.

They approached what appeared to be a destroyer, but their attention was captured by a plane.

“When we started going out there, there was a plane behind us, and then it started going down, down, down, and I knew it was going to shoot us. So I took out my two feet and put them on the side of the canoe and when the plane is still coming, on top of us, I threw myself down and stayed under the canoe.”

Jose Torres

When the canoe got to within 50 feet of the ship, the vessel steamed off, sailing toward Orote Point. Cruz said it was depressing but they had already made up their minds not to go back to Merizo, even if they were not picked up by the Navy.

“We weren’t going to turn back, nai, because the Japanese were going to kill us if we turn back to Merizo.”

Juan Cruz

Ships of all shapes and sizes

There were other ships, though, plenty of other ships, the men said. Torres said it seemed that they were hundreds and hundreds of ships; Cruz watched the first ship sail away, but taking its place were ships of every size and shape. “That one went to Orote, but there’s a lot of ships. You can almost walk on the ships and reach the harbor, the harbor of Sumay.”

Determined, the men paddled toward another ship, and this time, the vessel approached. Once near the ship, its crew seemed to hesitate to pick them up, but then someone, probably an officer, issued an order and the men were allowed to climb onto a net and then aboard the vessel, the USS Wadsworth. It was about an hour and a half since they had left Cocos, Cruz said.

“When I saw that ship coming, I guess I’m lucky I didn’t have a heart attack. I was just so happy – and I knew that I was going to be free; I was going to be a free man.”

Juan Cruz

On board, the crew of the Wadsworth was anxious to get information from their counterparts aboard the canoe. “When we got on the ship, they were asking us, ‘Did you see the Marines?” Torres said. “We said, ‘What Marines?’ They told us that the Marines were landing.”

Fed, given haircuts and new clothes

The men sailed aboard the Wadsworth and were soon transferred to the USS Clymer, a transport ship. The men, who were undernourished, were checked by Navy doctors, fed, given a haircut, and issued dungarees. Sailing off Agat, then men stayed aboard for about four or five days, helping the Navy staff with information about the island, Japanese defenses and the areas were civilians were located.

On the 22nd, the Navy had picked up a second canoe and five more men from Merizo – Jesus Cruz Anderson, Tomas Tajalle, Felipe Santiago Cruz, Jesus Cruz Castro, and Joaquin Cruz Barcinas, who was the youngest brother of Jesus Barcinas. All, except Castro who joined them later, survived the massacre at Tinta.

Days later, after the two groups were taken ashore to the secure Agat beachhead, four more Merizo men on a canoe were rescued – Frank Anderson, his son John, Joe Mansapit, and Joe Quinene. The four men from the second canoe had lived to tell about the massacre at Tinta, but those in Jesus Barcinas’ group did not know  anyone had survived the attack.

“Sus Barcinas was shocked, because he knew his brother was at the cave … in Tinta. He didn’t know his brother was alive.He looked down and saw his brother was still alive. He was crying and when his brother got up top, they started hugging, crying.”

Juan Cruz

Yes, the stuff dreams are made of.

By Paul J. Borja

Reprinted with permission from “Liberation: Guam Remembers – A Golden Salute for the 50th anniversary of the Liberation of Guamfirst printed in 1994.