Painful memories abide

Memories about the Japanese occupation remain a vivid part of Concepcion Castro Camacho’s (1932 – ) past. Her story depicts one of flight and survival in the jungles of northern Guam. It is one rife with painful memories of beatings, extreme hunger and thirst for days on end, and of constant fear of the Japanese patrols scouring the jungle. It was a traumatizing experience for a young CHamoru girl, but at age 83, Camacho was ready to share her story.

 “I want people to know. I will never forget it. How could I?” 

Concepcion Castro Camacho

Camacho was born to Francisco Rivera Castro and Ana Leon Guerrero Castro. She affiliates herself with Familian Santiago, which is her father’s family. She was the eighth of nine children – Tomas, Engracia, Gregorio, Maria, Margarita, Julia, Francisco,Conception and the youngest, Santiago. Her brother Gregorio had joined the Navy before the war so he was not on Guam when the Japanese took over.

When the Japanese commanded that CHamorus relocate to Machananao, Yigo, Francisco gathered his family to comply with the order. His oldest son, Tomas, and Tomas’ wife, Rosa, had just had a baby and they travelled with the family. 

Unfortunately, the ordeal was too difficult for baby, Annie Candaso Castro, and she died before they reached Machananao. Even more painful was that Camacho’s mother, Ana, succumbed to tuberculosis just one month later, leaving Francisco to care for the family alone.

“There was no medical facility and no medicine. There was nothing.”

The older children did their best to help Francisco, especially with the younger ones though Camacho said she herself, wasn’t much of a baby sitter.

Everyone had to work in the camp though, according to Camacho.

“All the men left early in the morning to work some place outside of the camp, but all the women, even girls as young as 10 years of age had to work. I had to work, too.” 

The women were told to clear a field with nothing but their bare hands. They had no tools and we were given nothing to work with. It was grueling work, with no food, water or rest. It took about two or three days and the Japanese commander became increasingly agitated, demanding and cruel.

Accused of stealing

Declaring that something was missing, the Taicho or commander, ordered the women to line up. The oldest women and the youngest girls were called forward and beaten with a stout bamboo stick.

“I felt so sorry for the oldest lady chosen to go first. They hit her very hard on the bottom of the back, like on the spine – three times!”

Soon it was Camacho’s turn and the punishment was the same – three hard whacks across the base of the spine.

“It was so painful and I didn’t even know how to sit down afterwards because it hurt so much. It is still hard to talk about it.”  

Camacho said that the Taicho accused the women of stealing equipment, so he punished the oldest women and the youngest girls to make everybody suffer. She said he was a mean man, as she unconsciously rubbed her legs and leaned on her walker. She still has back pain and believes it all came from that beating.

Into the jungle rather than a concentration camp

When the war started tipping in favor of the Americans the Japanese began to panic. The CHamorus were ordered to move from one camp to another. This worried Camacho’s father and he shared his fear with his brother-in-law, Ignacio Laguana Perez, himself a Navy man. Fearful for his family’s safety, Francisco chose to lead them into the jungle instead of obeying the Japanese. They dodged Japanese troops who were also fleeing northward to avoid capture by the Americans.

The family sought refuge deep in the jungle and hid by the cliffline, where they remained for days before they moved to more level ground.

“I was afraid that a crab would bite me because they like to hide in the rocks. I was glad that we moved to a better place.”

That place was nearer to her uncle’s ranch, where the older boys could go get water and whatever fruits they could find. Food and water was limited to whatever her brothers could scrounge from the ranch, and only whenever they could sneak in and out.

Camacho has no recollection of her older siblings cooking over a fire or washing clothes. At best, she can remember her sisters hanging some clothing on the bushes nearby. They stayed safe from the elements because they carried a tarp with them and made a tent to keep them dry. There was too much fear of the Japanese to think about playing or running around. But this was war, so all she remembers is having to hide. She recalled sleeping on fadang (a native cycad) leaves at night. 

Francisco kept the family focused and they prayed the rosary every night. During the day, her older sisters would climb high up the nunu (banyan) tree to see where the soldiers were fighting. Camacho said she climbed, too, but not as high because her sisters warned her to stay close to the ground so she wouldn’t fall.

Discovered by the Japanese

The family’s greatest challenge happened just before the American takeover. Camacho said that her father instructed his sons, Tomas and Francisco, Jr., along with Engracia’s husband, Inas, to go look for the American soldiers. They came up to a Japanese soldier walking alone. Startled, the soldier swung his sword toward Tomas and missed, but they turned and ran away. During their absence, though, a Japanese patrol discovered the Castro family’s hiding place.

“I wanted to run the other way, but my sister told me to just stand still.”

Luckily, Maria spoke some Japanese, which she learned at the Hagåtña Japanese school. The high ranking Japanese officer leading the patrol was a good man. He listened to Maria and took pity on the family, leaving them alone, but taking Francisco as their guide to show them good hiding places.

The boys returned to the camp shortly after with six American soldiers. Four soldiers remained with the family while two went for reinforcements. Within minutes, two more Japanese soldiers walked into the camp, but the Marines shot them dead. More Marines came and after Francisco returned back to the camp unharmed, they escorted the family to safety in Anigua.

Camacho’s first experience with American rations was an unforgettable moment, she said.

“They gave me candy, but I threw up when I ate it! I even had a hard time eating food. Maybe my stomach was not used to all that food.”

Camacho also recalls receiving medical attention for bleeding gums, probably resulting from her poor diet while in the jungle.

Made a home in Sinajana

After the war, the family settled in Sinajana, where Camacho stayed. She married David C. Camacho and together they raised six children –  Elaine, David, John, Frank, Barbara, and Patricia. These days, Camacho remains homebound with her children caring for her.

“I’m getting old already. Only Francisco and Santiago are still alive, along with my sisters Margarita (in Hawai’i) and Julia (in North Carolina). I hope that they tell our story, too, especially the older ones.”

Reprinted and adapted, with permission, from Guam War Survivors Memorial Foundation by Christine Dimla Lizama.