Hid from the bombings in a hole in Toto

Agnes “Neng” Guzman Duenas Perez (1930 – 2022) was 11 years when the war broke out in Guam. Perez is the oldest of the eight children of Jose Duenas (Familian Pepero) and Maria Pangelinan Guzman. Her family had been living in the San Antonio District of Hagåtña on the day of the attack. She recalled being at the Catholic Mass to celebrate Santa Marian Kamalen‘s feast day when she saw the Japanese planes and heard the bomb explosions. 

I ran home with my brother, and my mother already heard that the Japanese were bombing. When my father returned home from work, he said to grab whatever we had and we started packing. My brother David was only six months old and my mother wrapped the baby and I carried him as we walked up the hill to our ranch in Toto, where my grandfather and uncle were. We were hidden in a deep hole under a large mango tree while our parents watched the Japanese invasion into Hagåtña from the hill.

Agnes Duenas Perez

The Pepero Ranch had two houses, which were built before the war by Perez’s grandfather. Her family moved into the one that was vacant. The ranch was often a refuge for those passing by. Perez recalled one person who was slashed by a Japanese bayonet being treated by her aunt, Amanda Pangelinan Guzman, who was a nurse.

Perez joined other children forced to clear the jungle at Tiyan for a Japanese landing field. She slipped and fell against a sharp rock while working that left a large scar on her leg.

Her family made shoes

Perez’s father, a man of all trades, was allowed to work from his ranch making shoes.

He cut down trees to make wooden shoes (swakos); and from whoever killed cows, he took the skin and dried it; made the shoes; and traded it for food, meat and vegetables. I helped him make the shoes.

A year into the Japanese occupation, Perez vividly remembered the cruelty that befell her father. Known for his skill as a shoemaker, a Japanese officer gave him a leather sachet that had been used as a medicine bag and asked him to make shoes out of it. He cut the leather and was preparing to make the shoes when he was accused of stealing the sachet and was arrested.

He denied stealing the bag and refused to name the Japanese officer who had given it to him. Thus he was tied to a lemmai (breadfruit) tree and beaten. Perez was also tied to a tree opposite her father as a tactic to force him to talk. He didn’t and was beaten again. Unable to find out anything about the sachet, the officials eventually released Perez without injury. Her father was also let go.

Depended on relatives, neighbors, and friends to survive

During the occupation, many families had to be resourceful and depend on relatives, neighbors, and friends to survive the devastation and cruelty of war. Perez’s father did not farm, but his trade helped them get food. Perez recalled walking to Tiyan to get milk for her baby sister Emily, who was born in 1942.

I had little brothers and sisters that needed milk, you know. My uncle was giving us milk. That is how we fed our children. Whatever we had, even when we had a little chicken, we would make kado’ (soup). We would all help.

Taotaomo’na spirits

The family was very religious and continued to pray the rosary and novenas daily. As allowed, they attended Mass on Sundays. Although Christian, the family had a strong respect for the ancient spirits (taotaomo’na), and Perez shared two stories that involved her two siblings. Rosita was at an event in Nimitz Hill and was touched by the spirit and fell into a coma for 30 days. She was awakened after being given CHamoru medicine by a suruhana. Also, her brother David as a toddler wandered away from a family gathering in Toto. The family searched everywhere in vain. He was found asleep on the stairs outside the church the following morning. The family concluded that he was favored and kidnapped by the spirits but returned unharmed.

The hardest part of the war for Perez’s family came at the end of the occupation beginning with the march to Manenggon in 1944. That morning, Perez’s mother made titiyas for the march, while her father and uncle built carrying poles for hanging provisions for the two-day trek. It was hard for the family, which consisted of Perez’s parents, grandfather, uncle and seven siblings. Perez was 14 years old, and she and Francisco helped carry their two youngest siblings who were still toddlers.

Perez recalled being slapped by Japanese guards when she slowed down or stopped to rest. Upon arriving at Manenggon, her father and uncle quickly built a shelter made of bamboo and coconut leaves. Her mother boiled the river water to avoid dysentery, except in the few times that she was told to kill the fire.

When the Americans eventually liberated the island, nearly all of the families walked out of the camp to a transport area. However, Perez’s family stayed behind a while until a truck was available to transport her grandfather, who was ill and could not walk. Not too long after, Perez’s grandfather died, followed by the biggest tragedy of the war for Perez –– the death of her father.

Poisoned whiskey

Somebody had given him and some other men homemade whiskey from one of the ships. They drank the whiskey to celebrate the end of the war. Perez’s mother’s sister also drank a small glass of the whiskey to help heal her diarrhea. The whiskey was poisonous, and by the next day, all who had drunk it were dead. Perez’s father and grandfather, who had died from his illness on the same day his son was poisoned, were wrapped in blankets and buried.

This deeply disturbed Perez, and she expressed to her relatives that it wasn’t right that her father had been making coffins for people to be buried in during the war, and yet he was buried in a blanket. Thus, her uncle had two coffins made for Perez’s father and grandfather, and they were reburied at the same time. 

By the end of the war, Perez was a young woman with a maturity and strength that was forced upon her by the experiences of that time. Learning from her mother, she was vigilant over her siblings, and acquired excellent cooking and sewing skills. The threat of being beaten or killed gave her the courage to overcome adversity. Additionally, she learned from her aunt and nurse, Amanda Guzman Shelton, who taught Perez basic life saving methods.

Perez was married to Mauru Perez in 1947 and had 11 children. She used her skills to help support her family by sewing for others and cooking at a school cafeteria. As her children got older, she joined her Auntie Amanda in providing nursing services to homebound senior citizens, and later helped to establish community centers. Perez served the community and retired as a community center manager.

She was later married to Juan Reyes Unpingco.

Agnes Duenas Perez passed away on 9 September 2022.

Editor’s note: Reprinted and adapted, with permission, from Guam War Survivors Memorial Foundation by Marilyn Constance Aflague.