The darkest of journeys

Most people would find it hard to believe that there can be any positive aspect of war. What is hardly ever discovered is that, along with the negativity, there is positivity that develops and lives on long after war ends.

Such positivity is found in the very essence of those that have survived the hardships and horrors of war. Rose Duenas Diaz (1936 – ) is a woman whose inner beauty is a result of her witness to such tragedy. World War II helped to shape a woman filled with love and generosity.

Five-year-old Diaz knew that she loved God very much, and that faith in God was most important thing in life. What Diaz did not know was that a horrific experience awaited her. She did not know yet that her faith in God was strong enough to guide her through the darkest of journeys, and help her emerge more positive and loving than before.

The sound of bombs shook the hearts of the parishioners of the Agana Cathedral of Guam. They had all gathered to pray to Santa Marian Kamalen. Yet, they were all told to go home by the priest. He advised them to pack their things and find shelter at their ranches immediately.

Walked to their ranch in Toto

Diaz and her family headed home, and quickly gathered their belongings. Then they walked all the way from their home in Hagåtña to the family ranch in Toto. Both sides of Diaz’s family was staying at the ranch together. There were two houses, but one was unoccupied. However, shelter in the houses didn’t feel safe. The family dug a large hole, where they all hid for a while until they felt safe enough to come out into the open.

The Duenas family passed most of the time praying every day, but, like most activity, they had to do so in secret. Any time that they cooked, or did any anything outside, they had to be sure that Japanese soldiers were not around. If soldiers were near, all fires for cooking were put out, all evidence of activity was cleared, and everyone hid. The family survived by trading items with neighbors for food and other supplies.

Diaz’s family had a different experience from most of the other families due to her father’s multiple skills. Jose Cruz Duenas was a jack-of-all-trades, able to craft many things, including shoes. The Japanese soldiers decided to use him to make their shoes, and other items. With this occupation, Jose was not forced to work on the runway in Tiyan, like most of the island’s men and boys were.

One day, a Japanese soldier stole a leather medical bag from a fellow soldier, and brought the bag to Duenas. The soldier asked him to make shoes with the leather. When Jose was caught with the bag by other Japanese soldiers, he was arrested and tied to a tree. The soldiers beat him in an effort to make him confess, but Duenas denied that he stole the bag. He explained that the bag was brought to him.

The soldiers tried harder to force a confession by tying one of Diaz’s sisters to another tree, threatening to beat her, too. When Duenas still did not confess, the soldiers picked up their bayonets, and threatened to cut his throat. Before they could execute Duenas, a soldier came to report that the thief had been found. Duenas and his daughter were both freed.

Manenggon march was brutal

When the Americans came to liberate the island, Diaz and her family were forced to trek to Manenggon with all of their neighbors. They walked for two days. Diaz and her siblings took turns carrying belongings, and their baby brother. Most items were carried on wooden poles, with the ends held on the shoulders of two people. Diaz began experiencing hunger and exhaustion for the first time.

They finally arrived at the camp where they were forced to create shelter from whatever materials they could find, scavenge for food, and use the river as their only source of water. They still had to keep all activity secret, and were unable to make noise. The camp was a prison, and all Diaz and the others could do was wait to be rescued. Finally, the island’s prayers were answered; Guam was liberated by the US from the Japanese occupation. All the families were free to rebuild their lives.

Tainted liquor killed two family members

Still, Diaz’s personal tragedy had not yet ended. Diaz’s father celebrated the end of the war with some coworkers by drinking a certain liquor. Diaz’s father had even brought some of the liquor to share with Diaz’s auntie. However, the liquor caused Diaz’s aunt to pass away just a few hours after drinking it. Shortly after, Diaz’s father passed away as well. Still, a third tragedy ensued when Diaz’s grandfather, who had been ill for a while, passed away on the same day as his son. The family was left distraught.

Diaz’s mother, Maria Pangelinan Guzman Duenas, insisted that her husband and father-in-law both be honored by being buried in coffins. During war time, the usual custom was to wrap a body in a rug for burial. However, Diaz’s mother felt that her husband deserved to be buried in a coffin since he had built so many for other people during his life, and his father deserved the same. Maria’s wishes were honored.

Life after Jose’s death was hard but humbling for Diaz. Before long, both of Diaz’s older siblings left home. Her brother Francisco joined the military, and her sister Agnes married. Diaz was left as the oldest of the siblings, and the main help for her mother. Diaz learned strength from Maria during this time. Her mother never faltered under the pressure of her heartache and loss. Diaz went to school at the Academy of Our Lady of Guam High School, while helping her mother raise her siblings. Diaz also worked at a part-time job with a local business to help with the finances. With about a year left in school, Diaz ended up meeting the love of her life, Luis Camacho Diaz.

Love and children made for a happy life

Diaz was at work when she saw Luis walk in through the front door, stunning her instantly. She recognized the car he was driving as one that belonged to a local priest. Diaz wondered who this boy was. She met him briefly, and carried on with her shift. When she arrived home after work, she was surprised to find that Luis was waiting on her front porch with her cousin, and one of her sisters. Diaz was shocked to learn that Luis had asked her cousin to introduce him to a girl, and Diaz was the chosen one.

Luis left soon after their meeting to head back to Hawai’i, while he waited for Diaz to finish both school and help her mom raise her siblings. He wrote her letters throughout his absence. Diaz ignored most of the letters as she enjoyed her final year of school. When she finally read one of his letters, it asked her if she loved Luis. Diaz knew that she did. Luis waited one more year for Diaz before he finally married her on 4 January 1958.

Diaz continued her education and earned a degree that is equivalent to a Master’s degree today. She made her living as a teacher, loving every moment of it. Diaz continued to spend her free time volunteering for many services. She shared so much of her love with the community, and wanted to begin focusing her love on her family.

Diaz had always wanted a big family. Unfortunately, she was unable to have any biological children. Yet, she and Luis’ hearts were so full of love that they adopted seven children throughout their marriage, and would have loved even more. Together they raised Magdalena, Marina, Nora, Genie, Glenn, Renee, and Julianne. Diaz raised her children to be full of love for God and for others. She taught them to be helpful to those in need, and to try to be positive about life. She encouraged her children to study well, and watched them all grow up to be educated. Her family continues to grow today, and Diaz is able to witness her legacy of education continue.

Diaz retired after her husband passed away in 1991. She decided to just relax. She began traveling a little to see family. In 1992, she went to the Olympics to support her son, Glenn’s, swimming competition. In 1997, she began teaching in Tinian and Saipan. Her contract ended after four years, and Diaz returned home.

Diaz remains a woman of strength. Her passion for her faith, for service, for education, and for her family lives on. Diaz believes that people must always have faith; she believes that we should always look forward, away from the negative past; she believes that helping others brings fulfillment and happiness.

Diaz is proud of her people and their ability to forgive, and welcome the Japanese today. Diaz understands that we are all humans and that we make mistakes. Therefore, we should forgive instead of holding grudges.

Editor’s note: Reprinted and adapted, with permission, from Guam War Survivors Memorial Foundation by Pia Weisenberger.