A tale best told together

Vicente (“Ben”) Gogue Arceo and Jesusa (“Susie”) Reyes Arceo are no strangers to the senior citizen community on Guam.  They are part of a musical group that provides dance music to entertain Guam’s manåmko at the senior centers.  But to know them is to know that they do not do things apart; thus, their memories of World War II will be told together in this tale of survival.

Vicente’s story

Vicente (1931 – 2022) is the firstborn child of Amelia Taimanglo Gogue and Jose Castro Arceo (Familian Deo) from Ordot.  He was just 10 years old when the bombs fell on Guam on 8 December 1941.

I was so scared and I grabbed my father’s hand.

Vicente “Ben” Arceo

The family sought shelter in a cave behind their house, which would eventually become their home for most of the war.   

Vicente’s childhood was put aside when the Japanese ordered him to join a work crew at the Tiyan air strip.  He remembers his uncle, Francisco Fegurgur, being the other family member who worked with him at the airfield.

This became his daily routine from sunrise until sunset, but it was tolerable because he was able to bring food and water from home. He was allowed a rest period at work, and at the end of each day, he was allowed to go home.  His parents were resourceful in their cave dwelling, catching rain water and cooking over a camp fire to feed their family, which included Vicente’s younger siblings, Juana, Maria, Carmen, Pedro and Jose.

He recalled that his dad had a spear and used it to catch fish.  They also were able to gather breadfruit, coconut, taro, yam, corn, green beans and bananas. At a nearby river, the family did their best without the conveniences of soap and shampoo to clean themselves and wash their clothing whenever possible.  Unfortunately, to use the bathroom, there was nowhere else but behind the cover of a bush.  It was difficult, but tolerable.

In 1943, the CHamorus began to get accustomed to life under the Japanese regime.  Schools reopened requiring children to learn the Japanese language and customs. Arceo recalled receiving a distinguishing mark on his ear.  Students were branded so that the Japanese teachers could tell if they were supposed to be in school.

It just felt like an ant bite. The Japanese also vaccinated us in four spots on the arm. When you see the mark, you know that the child attended Japanese school. 

Arceo’s most painful memories of war started when he was reassigned to Tai, Mangilao.  It was there that young Vicente witnessed the beheadings of three CHamoru men.  Horrified, he learned very quickly to become invisible, keeping his head down, cleaning around the headquarters and doing whatever he was told to do.  He learned how to avoid the Japanese and stay out of their way by hiding and using a different trail to get around.  His mantra was:

To survive, I must be obedient to the Japanese. That’s the only way.

That mantra spared him any punishment during his ordeal at Tai, which he endured until May 1944, when the Japanese gave the final order to herd all the CHamoru people to Manenggon.  

That march to Manenggon almost proved to be the breaking point for young Vicente’s resilience, particularly when he witnessed a young mother and child being pushed out of the line and down into the river.

No one could help them because the Japanese ordered everyone to keep moving.

Helpless, Vicente trudged onward with his family.  It was this last ordered journey that spawned Vicente’s worst memory about hunger and thirst.

We had nothing to eat and had to drink water that filled the tracks made by the karabao on the muddy ground.

And his tale ends somberly with a strong affirmation of truth;

If anybody is willing to know about the war, we are willing to share our knowledge. We did not hear this from our parents.  We were actually there.

Jesusa’s Story

Impotånte este na estoria, estorian put i geran Guam. Ma ataka i tano’-ta, nu i tropan i rising sun. I CHamoru manmasåpet, man ma aña yan manmapuno’ ni manailayi na taotao, hålom liyang yan bokkongo.

These are words that Jesusa sings in her song entitled “Geran Guam,” which stresses the importance of telling Guam’s war story. 

Jesusa (1932 – 2023) is the fourth child of Francisca Cepeda Baza (Familian Enda) and Vicente Guevara Reyes. They were living in Hagåtña with their seven children when the bombs exploded on 8 December.  Ten-year-old Jesusa had received her First Holy Communion that day and the procession for the Feast of Santa Marian Kamalen had just ended at the Cathedral.   

When they bombed Guam, we were in the church. I saw the people scatter in different directions in fear.

Jesusa “Susie” Arceo

The family home was nearby, so her father had them pack clothes and all the food they could carry to the family ranch in Ordot. Her grandmother, Maria Cepeda Baza, and uncle, Jose Cepeda Baza, travelled with them. The women wove coconut leaves to create a temporary shelter for the family and there was ample food to sustain them at the ranch.

As her father was a farmer they did have a food supply, but a short week later, Japanese soldiers arrived and ordered Vicente to kill the livestock and pick vegetables for them, leaving the family with almost nothing. 

My parents built an oven out of stones, We would pick breadfruit and whatever we could find for food.  My mother baked the breadfruit and put it in a can to preserve it. Tun Jose Blas and his family lived next to us and helped picked the corn, so we shared with them.

Working for the Japanese earned them a fistful of rice per day, and of whatever was rationed out, a portion was kept for safekeeping and leftovers were shared with family and neighbors.

The river was not only a food source, it also kept them clean.  They washed clothes and bathed in the river.  They lacked soap and shampoo, but Jesusa remembers that she would run her fingers through her hair like a comb and used the pugua (betelnut) husk to brush her teeth.

Medicine was scarce unless one walked to Hagåtña to see the Japanese doctor, so traditional remedies like the pa’pago’ which thrived at that time, were used to cure certain ailments. 

We went to church every day at a little chapel in Chalan Pago during the war. We always prayed together as a family.

Belief in ancestral spirits also figured prominently in their lives. Jesusa recalled how the taotåomo’na helped her father plow the field for planting crops.

He never got tired. There were five big men helping him, he would say. He can see them, but we could not. 

Jesusa said her father could carry a huge drum of water without breaking a sweat.

He said it was the taotåomo’na carrying most of the weight.

Prayers and cultural traditions played a central role among the people.

We continued to enjoy our traditions even with the Japanese here. During Christmas, we would all get together and say the Nobenan Niño.

Jesusa has a very vivid memory of 31 December 1942.  Her father said that for her birthday, she could accompany him to take her mother to the hospital in Hagåtña because she was ready to give birth.  Together, they helped her onto the karabao cart and carefully travelled down San Ramon Hill toward the hospital.  At the base of the hill, Japanese soldiers forced them, including her very pregnant mother, to get out of the cart and bow to them.

They made her bow low, which caused her to give birth to a baby boy right after they hoisted her back onto the cart.  When they made it to the hospital, the doctor discovered that Jesusa’s mother had been carrying twins, and there was another baby that needed to be delivered immediately or else both her mother and the baby would die. A baby girl was delivered, but sadly, she died just minutes after her birth. Her twin brother, who had been born in the cart, also did not survive, and died the next day.  The babies were named Jesus and Ana.  

In early 1943, Jesusa remembers her family celebrating a belated Christmas with their neighbors at the ranch — traditional CHamoru food was laid out on banana leaves, which were used like plates and they ate with their fingers, drinking water from coconut shells. 

Like Vicente, Jesusa looked older than her age and was ordered to work with the women.  She was assigned to harvest crops in Tai, but she followed her father to pick corn.  While picking mangos not too far away from the corn field, two Japanese soldiers overcame her and tried to hold her down on the ground.  Realizing their intent, she fought them and screamed for her father.  When they let her go, she got up and ran away as fast as she could toward her father.

It was then that she realized that the skin on her right knee was torn and hanging and she was bleeding profusely.  She believes it was from the metal on the ground where they held her down. The injury left a visible scar to imprint the incident forever in her memory.  

Because she had to be treated by the doctor for her injury, she had missed two days of school at the Japanese school in Sinajana.  While walking past the school to go for treatment, the Japanese teacher yelled at her and called her over.  Because she did not understand Japanese, Maria Guevara, the teacher’s assistant, translated that the teacher said that even if she was dying, she still had to come to school.  Then Jesusa was slapped on the face four times, but Maria warned her not to cry or else she would be slapped again.  She never missed school after that.

By 1944, the fear began to escalate with more frequent incidents unsettling the people.  Jesusa witnessed an atrocity on her way to Hagåtña to sell eggs one day.  She watched as her father’s brother, Jesus Reyes, was being punished.  The Japanese blinded him and poured gasoline on his face.

The family left the ranch in Ordot and sought shelter in a tunnel at Asinan near Lonfit River  but left in fear when they were ordered to move out or be killed.  Fear escalated their misery when they were forced to march to Manenggon in the middle of the night with nothing but the clothes on their backs.  Her grandmother was filled with the fear that they would be killed.  She cried and did not want to go, so Jesusa’s father had to carry her. The journey proved to be too much for her beloved grandmother, who died as they crossed the swollen river to Manenggon.

Fear drowned out their hunger and thirst, and numbed her to the blank stare of a dead man lying near their makeshift shelter of woven coconut leaves. Jesusa and her siblings followed their parents blindly, stunned by their surroundings, drinking water from the ground wherever there were karabao tracks, and using the bathroom where they stood.

When the Americans landed, the young and able-bodied travelled to Hågat toward the Marines’ camp. But Jesusa’s parents remained in Manenggon because her mother was in labor again and could not travel.  When she saw her parents again weeks later at the Hågat concentration camp, she was saddened to hear that her mother had given birth to a second set of twins, both girls, but they died shortly after birth. 

Their Story

Vicente and Jesusa didn’t know one another before the war, but they both lived through it and their survival has made them stronger as individuals and as a very special couple.  After the war, Vicente met Jesusa when they were students at the Ordot-Chalan Pago Elementary School, a makeshift canvas shelter.

Vicente and Jesusa married at San Juan Bautista Church in Ordot on 16 September 1950 and together they had 11 children: Vicente, Amelia, Andrew, Francisco, Teresita, Frances, Juanita, Diana, Susan, David and Paul. 

Editor’s note: Reprinted and adapted, with permission, from Guam War Survivors Memorial Foundation by Christine Dimla Lizama.