WWII: Religious Life during the Japanese Occupation
Sustaining faith and institutions
From a religious perspective, World War II in Guam, or I Tiempon Chapoñes as Chamorros/CHamorus referred to it, was traumatic for a number of reasons. The Japanese invasion and occupation of the island was the most jarring and traumatic event in recent Guam history. As such, the events tested the faith of CHamorus in their God or Si Yu’us. It also drastically challenged CHamorus faith in the United States. The war also disrupted routines such as going to mass, weddings, baptisms and other religious rites.
Place of religion in CHamoru life
The CHamoru-Spanish War of the 17th century was in large part started because of Spanish attempts to reorganize CHamoru villages and life, with the Catholic Church at their center. These changes were passively resisted for decades even after the Spanish were victorious and CHamorus from all over the Mariana Islands were forced to resettle in Guam. However, by the beginning of the 20th century, a Catholic rhythm of life (feast days, Masses, etc.) was accepted and even enjoyed by CHamorus. The Church had a role in educating children, in perpetuating the CHamoru language, and provided a calendar for the structure and ritual support for CHamoru social life. Catholic priests were highly influential in both village and family politics.
World War II upset this familiar flow of life for CHamorus. The easy everyday access to churches and priests that CHamorus enjoyed prior to World War II, was interrupted. Therefore the religious gatherings and rituals such as Masses, rosaries, funerals and weddings (misa, lisåyu, måtai and fandanggo), which helped CHamorus maintain their kinship ties and faith, but also just relax and enjoy life, became extremely difficult under Japanese occupation.
First attack falls on Feast Day
In the telling of the CHamoru war experience, religion always takes a central place early in the story, the most significant reason being the timing of the war’s start in Guam. The first attacks from Japanese forces, tragically, fell on the most holy and festive of CHamoru Catholic holidays, 8 December 1941, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, where CHamorus celebrate the patroness of the island, Santa Marian Kamalen.
The island was in full preparation for the day’s celebration, which included hundreds of novenas or nobenas and the island’s largest fiesta and procession or lukao through capital city of Hagåtña. News arrived just before dawn in the Naval Governor’s office that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. At eight in the morning, planes were spotted flying low over the island. By now rumors were circulating around the island that the United States might be at war. CHamorus, not yet alerted by the Naval Government officially about the attack in Hawai’i, were left to wonder whether these planes were Japanese or American. The answer came a few minutes later when Japanese bombs struck targets in Sumai and Piti.
In Hagåtña, news of the bombing in the southern part of the island reached the community while a solemn mass was taking place in the Cathedral. As news spread amongst the congregation Bishop Miguel Olano asked a CHamoru woman what was happening. “Gera, gera (war, war), Señor Obispo.” The Bishop, prior to finishing the mass, advised all present that they should evacuate the city as soon as they could and then gave them all his blessing.
Throughout the day, as Japanese forces hit more targets around the island, CHamorus fled in large numbers out of the larger villages such as Hagåtña and Sumai into the surrounding countryside, into the safety of their family farm land (låncho siha or gualo siha). By the next day as bombing continued, Hagåtña was already a ghost town. In the early hours of 10 December, just two days after the first bombs fell, more than 6,000 Japanese troops hit the beaches and soon occupied the island.
Shock of Japanese occupation
With the invasion a success, the Japanese quickly went about the occupation of Guam. The statements of the Japanese in controlling and administering Guam were little different than that of the United States. The Japanese authorities told the CHamorus that they had seized Guam, “for the purpose of restoring liberty and rescuing the whole Asiatic people and creating the permanent peace in Asia. Thus our intention is to establish the New Order of the World.”
The reality of the Japanese occupation, however, ensured that what was promised was never ever felt or heard by CHamorus. The invasion of the Japanese went beyond the simple occupation of Guam, but was felt as a series of violent and brutal shocks that threatened to tear away from CHamorus their families, their homes, the lives. All CHamorus were required to obtain passes, which they referred to as lisensian ga’lågu (dog licenses), from the authorities in order to move around the island. All cameras, cars and radios were confiscated.
All 2,000 of the residents of Sumai were evicted from their homes. Japanese soldiers and officers were given the right take and stay in whatever home they chose, and on more than one occasion expelled a CHamoru family from their home in the midst of a meal. The violence of the initial invasion continued albeit in smaller everyday forms, CHamorus could be beaten or slapped by Japanese soldiers for almost any offense or misunderstanding.
Churches seized by Japanese
The physical and mental crisis that CHamorus found themselves in was only exasperated and made even more unbearable by the ways in which the war upset the religious life of CHamorus, and made receiving the most basic religious services difficult.
All government and public facilities were seized by the Japanese, including all the island’s churches or gumå’yu’us siha. All across Guam these centers of worship and social cohesion were quickly and disrespectfully transformed into commander centers or storehouses for the Japanese authorities. The Cathedral in Hagåtña was transformed into a prison for American civilians and later became a center for the distribution of Japanese propaganda and a dance and entertainment hall. The first floor of the Baptist Church in Hagåtña was turned into a storehouse of food for Japanese soldiers, while the second floor became a Shinto Shrine. The seizing of these spaces by the Japanese, combined with the fleeing of most CHamorus from villages onto their ranch houses or låncho siha, meant that the religious and social landscape of the island, of which the church was a central part, was being stretched to the limits.
Spanish and American clergy taken prisoner
Early in the occupation, as part of their effort to erase all traces of America from Guam, the Japanese prohibited the use of the English language and imprisoned and later transferred all American citizens to Japan, both military and civilian. These prisoners of war included all of the American Catholic priests on the island, as well as Spanish Bishop Miguel Angel Olano Urteaga. By the middle of January 1942, there remained only three religious leaders left in Guam, to serve the faith and religious needs of more than 22,000 CHamorus.
Two priests, one pastor remain
For the more than 21,000 Catholics, two priests remained, both of them fairly young. The elder of the two was Father or Pale’ Jesus Baza Duenas, who had been ordained in 1939, only the second CHamoru to be ordained as a Catholic priest. The younger of the two was Father Oscar Lujan Calvo, known to CHamorus as Pale’ Scot, who had been ordained only a few months before the start of the war.
To the small, but dedicated, group of CHamoru Baptists in Guam Reverend Joaquin Flores Sablan. Sablan, who had been ordained in Indiana in 1935, became their sole religious leader. In actuality, Sablan had been the sole formal leader of the church for several years, but had informally been supported by the Navy Chaplains on the island, which were transferred along with the American priests to Japan in 1942.
All three of these CHamorus worked heroically during the war to navigate the new political order on the island. Transportation between villages was also difficult as nearly all families were displaced onto ranches. As CHamorus struggled to maintain a sense of religious normalcy, the disruptions of war made these celebrations difficult. Families waiting for baptisms, christenings, marriage ceremonies and last rites either waited in vain, or were forced to wait months before the ritual could be performed. As there were no regular schedules for religious services during the war, most families turned to holding private ceremonies, within the home and with just the family.
Pale’ Duenas, being the older of the two Catholic priests, became the technical leader of the island’s Catholic. The two decided that in order to best serve the island’s Catholics, while also maintaining as little contact with the Japanese as possible, they should divide the island in two, with Pale’ Dueñas serving the southern half of the island, and Pale’ Scot taking the northern half.
A typical week for Pale’ Scot would start with his leaving his parent’s ranch in Maite on Monday morning. Then over the next five days he would travel around the northern half of the island, from Chalan Pago to Yigo, and from Hagåtña to Piti, by bicycle, by bull cart or by kalesa, and visit numerous make shift chapels he had helped build, to say mass and confer sacraments. One of Pale’ Scot’s most intense war experiences came early on during the occupation, when he was required to give the last rites to Alfred Leon Guerrero Flores and Francisco Borja Won Pat, two CHamorus who were to be executed by the Japanese for allegedly looting and conspiring with the Americans. The men were lined up before a firing squad and their charges read. Pale’ Scot was then allowed to emerge from the crowd of CHamorus who had been forced to watch, and said a quick prayer for the souls of the two men. As the men were cut down, Flores’ mother screamed out:
Adios lahi-hu! Ya Si Yu’us ga’chong-mu!
(Goodbye my son! God is your friend!)
Pale’ Duenas returned to his pre-war parish of Inalåhan where he administered to the needs of the island’s southern villages. To accomplish this task Duenas made use of borrowed cars, carabao carts or karetan karabao, bicycles and horseback. For CHamorus who saw him rush around the island, stopping to deliver fiery sermons and then rush off on his horse, the priest either evoked an exuberance and energy and was referred to as chispas, or because of his horse and tough rugged exterior, they called him the “Lone Ranger.”
Early on, both in interactions with the Japanese and with CHamorus, Pale’ Duenas emerged as a fierce advocate of the religious and human rights of the CHamoru people. In one instance the Japanese governor told these three religious leaders that, since the war effort may eventually force CHamorus to starve, they should discourage CHamorus from celebrating fiestas for their patron saint days and other events. Although both Sablan and Calvo quietly accepted this order from the Japanese administration, Duenas rejected it, saying that the CHamorus believed that it was in times of hardship most of all that they should show their love and devotion to their patron saints in order to receive assistance. According to Reverend Sablan the governor became so furious that he thought the governor might use his Samurai sword on Duenas’ neck. Duenas survived this brush with death, but it nonetheless foreshadowed his ultimate end later in the war.
Protestants seen as faith of the enemy
Although the congregation of Reverend Sablan was significantly smaller than that of Pale’ Duenas and Pale’ Scot, he nonetheless labored furiously as well to maintain the faith of the island’s Baptists. His work was compounded however, by the fact that the Japanese authorities recognized Catholicism as the native religion of Guam, and therefore his faith was that of the enemy, the “American religion.”
At one point Reverend Sablan was ordered by the Japanese to conduct a census of all the CHamoru Baptists on island, and list their name, age and village. Although he feared that this list would later be used to rid the island of the American influence that he and his faith represented, Sablan nonetheless complied. All of the Baptist families on island, save for one, permitted themselves to be listed, proving their willingness to die for their faith.
After being initially told to compile the list, the list was never mentioned again, although throughout the time of the Japanese or I Tiempon Chapoñes, Sablan did encounter regular physical and verbal abuse from Japanese officials and soldiers for his religion. During one meeting with the Japanese Governor Homura he was told that the Japanese had come to erase from the island all traces of America and that included Sablan and his followers.
Japanese Catholic priests brought in
The Japanese, recognizing the importance of religion the lives of CHamorus, did a number of things in order to smooth the transition from American to Japanese rule. First, they required each of the three remaining spiritual leaders to attend monthly meetings with the Japanese authorities. The stated goal of these meetings was to keep the new government informed about the religious needs and activities of the CHamorus and get a sense of community sentiment.
The actual intent of these meeting however, was to help use the power and position of the church in CHamoru life, to help aid in solidifying the place of Japan in CHamoru life and their control over Guam. During these meetings, the three spiritual leaders were given orders and restrictions as to the content and form of their religious interactions with the CHamoru population.
All religious services had to begin with a ceremonial bow to the Emperor of Japan, and had to be conducted in CHamoru, never English. Sermons were allowed to be given in both Catholic and Baptist churches, but the content had to be approved ahead of time, and both in their official sermons and everyday interactions with CHamorus, these leaders were required to tell their followers that the Japanese were winning the war against the United States.
In November of 1942, the most concerted effort to win the hearts and the minds of CHamorus came through the arrival of two Catholic Japanese priests, Monsignor Dominic Fukahori and Father Petero Komatsu. Prior to leaving Japan for Guam, Monsignor Fukahori had met with Bishop Olano who was in exile in Tokyo. Olano sent with the Monsignor a letter which officially named Pale’ Duenas as Pro-Vicar and the island’s spiritual leader. In the letter he also charged Duenas to “defend CHamorus in their encounters with the Japanese government.”
The Monsignor reopened Santa Cruz church in Hagåtña and placed the Blessed Sacraments there after they had been removed from the Cathedral. He, along with Father Komatsu, held regular masses, and performed all the rituals a priest was responsible for, even marrying several couples during the war. However, the CHamoru people never warmed up to these priests. Monsignor Fukahori made it clear to most CHamorus through his sermons that his intent was to propagandize the people. In sermons the Monsignor praised the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere which Japan was attempting to build during World War II and extol the glories of the Emperor. Naturally these exclamations would be accompanied by statements that Japan was decisively winning the war.
To most CHamorus, and even to the CHamoru Catholic priests, these men were spies and not to be trusted. The mixture of propaganda and religion led to a potentially violent confrontation between Monsignor Fukahori and Pale’ Duenas. While the CHamoru priest was away from his parish in Inalåhan, Fukahori and Komatsu held a public meeting there. They worked to convince the people of the village that Japan had already won the war, and that if the CHamorus would cooperate with the new regime then Japan would bring peace and prosperity to the island. Upon learning about this mixture of religion and national propaganda, Duenas wrote a very damning and accusatory letter to Fukahori. In this letter Duenas all but accused the two Japanese priests of being spies, and condemned them for their actions on behalf of the Japanese military, quoting Pope Benedict XV and his edict that it is improper for a priest serving in a foreign country to preach the greatness of his own country.
Monsignor Fukahori, taken aback by the letter and its scathing tone, showed it to Pale’ Scot. Pale’ Scot, fearing that violent repercussions would be taken against his fellow priest if the authorities knew of this letter asked Fukahori what he planned to do with the letter. Fukahori responded that he would keep the letter to himself and later destroyed it, saying “after all, Father Duenas is still a brother priest.”
Father Jesus Duenas tortured and killed
As American military forces worked their way across the Pacific, and by 1944 were poised to invade the Marianas, the Japanese military began to fortify itself in Guam in preparation for the inevitable assault. It was this period from the spring to the summer of 1944 that CHamorus in Guam endured the harshest of circumstances.
As Americans bombs began to fall, a series of massacres would take place throughout the island, the largest in Yigo, Merizo and Fena. Throughout the war, CHamorus had been forced to work in the fields to help feed the Japanese troops, but now were conscripted to help carry supplies and munitions and build defenses for the Japanese. Even Reverend Sablan, who had been earlier exempt from such tasks as a religious leader, was forced to help fortify the island.
Among the war victims was Pale’ Duenas. He had been an irritating thorn in the side of the Japanese regime in Guam throughout the war, regularly telling people to disobey orders from the Japanese which conflicted with their spiritual beliefs and religious obligations, and also regularly fighting with the Japanese authorities over their mistreatment of CHamorus. During one incident, Duenas was warned by one of the Japanese priests that he should restrict his activities to tending to the religious needs of the CHamorus alone. His audacious response was that he only answered to God and the Japanese are not God. At one point the authorities made plans to exile him to Rota over his persistent disregard for their rule. Monsignor Fukahori prevented this from taking place, claiming that such a move would further worsen the relationship between the new government and the CHamoru population.
As American bombs were destroying the island, Pale’ Duenas was arrested by the Japanese, with his nephew Edward Duenas. They were then brought before the people of Inalåhan, and beaten and tortured. After being tolerated for the entire war period, speculation about the reasons for his sudden arrest varied. Most claim however that he, along with dozens of other CHamorus, became victims of Japanese frustration over their inability to capture the lone American Navy radioman alive on the island, George Tweed. Pale’ Duenas, along with perhaps hundreds of other CHamorus, assisted Tweed during in the war, feeding him, clothing him and hiding him from the Japanese, and eventually enduring beatings and torture to protect his whereabouts. Ironically, while Duenas was being tortured by the Japanese and awaiting his execution, Tweed was being rescued by an American ship.
CHamorus took pride and strength in the fact that despite his torture Pale’ Duenas never revealed Tweed’s whereabouts, nor cried out for mercy. After being taken to Ta’i, Mangilao to await execution along with a number of other CHamorus, there was a chance for Duenas to escape. Joaquin Limtiaco was the last recorded person to see Pale’ Duenas alive and speak to him, and offered to help him. Duenas however, fearing for the lives of his nephew and his family, stated that the Japanese knew they couldn’t prove their charges against him.
After telling Limtiaco to go and look after his own family, Pale’ Duenas’ last words were:
God will look after me. I have done no wrong.
Pale’ Duenas, along with his nephew, Edward Duenas, Juan Unpingco Pangelinan and another unknown man were all behead at dawn on July 11, 1944.
War ends, but with more death
The fact that CHamorus were victims of a war not of their own choosing, and that they were caught in the middle of a clash between superpowers, was never clearer than in the deaths of Jose Delgado and his family. In the final weeks of Japanese occupation, Jose and two women, one of whom was his daughter, were praying the rosary or lisåyu in a makeshift shelter they had made in an area that is now the village Agana Heights.
As they prayed, a fight between American planes and Japanese anti-aircraft guns broke out, and a missile was sent directly into the shelter, killing all three. It was not known then and it is not known to this day whether they were killed by the Americans or the Japanese.
For further reading
Artero y Saez, Pascual. “An Autobiography.” Unpublished manuscript translated from Spanish to English in 1970. Mangilao: Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam, 1948.
Bevacqua, Michael Lujan. “‘These may or may not be Americans…’: The Patriotic Myth and the Hijacking of Chamorro History on Guam.” MA thesis, University of Guam, 2004.
Cespedes, Crecensia S. America to the Rescue: A Scrapbook: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Liberation of Guam. Self-published, Visalia, 1994.
Guam War Survivors. “Home.” Last modified 27 June 2021.
I Manfåyi: Who’s Who in Chamorro History. Vol. 1. The Hale’-ta Series. Hagåtña: Political Status Education and Coordinating Commission, 1995.
Leon Guerrero, Jesus Sablan. Jésus in Little America: An Autobiographical Account of the Founding of the Bank of Guam and History in the Making. Yona: JLG Publishing, 1998.
Olano y Urtega, Miguel Angel, OFM Cap. Diary of a Bishop: Since the Invasion of Guam – World War II. Manila: University of Santo Tomas Press, 1949.
Palomo, Tony. An Island in Agony. Self-published, 1984.
Palomo, Tony, and Paul J. Borja, eds. Liberation-Guam Remembers: A Golden Salute for the 50th anniversary of the Liberation of Guam. Maite: Graphic Center, 1994.
Sablan, Joaquin F. My Mental Odyssey: Memoirs of the First Guamanian Protestant Minister. Poplar Bluff: Stinson Press, 1990.