Memories of the war are just a blur

The sun rose bright and brilliant, the same way it had every Monday before then. Airplane-shaped silhouettes flew across the blue sky, making shadows behind fluffy white clouds. The ocean water flowed deep and teal into the Hagåtña river, washing under Grace Sablan Viegas’s (1933 – 2020) house as it normally did during high tide. She loved to watch the water come in and out with the tide. As the sun rose and the tide flowed, this particular Monday morning turned into one of tragedy.

Like a slash in the canvas of this beautiful day, loud sounds from down south boomed all the way to Hagåtña. Eight-year-old Viegas and her family heard the blasts as the radio began to announce that Sumai was being bombed by Japanese planes. All but one of Viegas’s family members were in the house. Johnny, her oldest brother, was missing. Viegas’s mother sent her father out to look for the ten-year-old boy. Viegas, her mother, and her five younger siblings waited at home for what must have seemed like hours before their father returned, alone. Johnny could not be found anywhere in the area.

After much panic and worry, Johnny finally returned home, claiming that he had been curious about the sounds. He had gone to find out what they were coming from — possibly his last moment of innocent curiosity.

The days since the bombings blurred together in the mind of young Viegas. News of the attack and the United States’ struggle to keep control over the island created panic and a sense of urgency to seek shelter. The Sablan family was planning to head to her great-grandfather’s ranch in Yigo. A couple days had already passed since she first heard the bombings, but Viegas felt like everything had happened within the same day.

Before long, Japanese soldiers were all around.

E. Grace Sablan Viegas

The fate of the island changed when news of the US surrender spread throughout the island. Eventually, soldiers made their way into Viegas’s house. They told the family to leave right away; the house was being claimed for the Japanese army. Viegas’s mother gathered what belongings she could as they were rushed out. She had no choice but to leave all of her lovely ifit furniture behind. Viegas’s heart ached as she watched Japanese soldiers chop her mother’s piano to pieces with a hatchet. She thought about the foyer bench, which was her favorite piece of furniture. She did not know what would become of this lovely piece of ifit.

Outside of the house, Viegas’s Uncle Ge waited in a car with his family. The car was already crowded when Viegas, her family and some belongings were squeezed in. All the young children were seated inside the car. Viegas sat on the lap of one of the other children, but she hardly noticed whom as she watched her family struggle to climb on top of the car. Some people held on to the car’s sides, standing on the running board. A couple of people laid on the hood, clinging to the sides and each other. Some adults even sat atop the roof.

Whoever could handle riding like this made the journey to Mount Santa Rosa in Yigo with the car. The rest of the family and belongings were brought up by Viegas’s father on his horse-cart. The packed vehicle headed to Auntie Chai’s house next, where even more family members found spots in and on the car.

Our house in Hagåtña was destroyed and all our things were left behind.

Viegas sat cramped in the car and prayed for God to keep her and her family safe. She kept visualizing the Japanese soldiers destroying everything in her house. Viegas thought about her favorite dress that her mother had given her. Her dress was orange with lovely orange flowers all over. Viegas thought her dress was the prettiest she had ever seen.

Moved to Yigo pineapple farm

Viegas believed that God truly watched over her family as they arrived safely to her great-grandfather’s ranch on Mount Santa Rosa. Her great-grandfather was the only person who lived on the mountain at the time. Growing up, Viegas always heard her great-grandfather claim that the whole mountain was his. She saw endless rows of pineapples that covered the mountain. The pineapple plants would always poke her and her siblings when they picked weeds for their great-grandfather.

There were also coffee and cocoa plants, chickens, pigs, and other farm animals and crops at the ranch. Viegas had been coming up to this ranch her whole life as part of normal daily activity, helping her great-grandfather prepare his crops to be taken to the market on his carabao. She felt sad that now she was coming up to the ranch in order to escape an unfamiliar danger.

When we got to Mount Santa Rosa, my great-grandfather and some of the men built a small house.

Viegas’s great-grandfather’s ranch house was too small for everyone to fit in. The eight-year-old girl and the other children watched and helped, when they could, as the adults got to work to build a house. Bamboo was used for the floor, which the men cut and constructed while the manåmko wove coconut palms for the roof. The posts were made from thick trees that were found in the jungle.

The construction took about a week to complete. In the meantime, sleeping arrangements were not so comfortable. Men slept outside, usually under the house on mats, since the house sat on stilts. Women and children slept inside the house, although the space was cramped. They had no electricity or running water. Water was retrieved from either a river or a natural well using large bamboo as containers. She and her family lived like this for a short while until they moved to a different location.

The family moved to an area named De Leons, where a bigger place called a sadigåni was built. The new house had a dining room and kitchen, with an area beside the kitchen that had shelves for hens to lay eggs. The stove was constructed of large rocks set on tin with a fire, on which pots and pans were placed. Viegas’s father did some farming and raised farm animals in order to support the family during the war. One day, after Viegas’s father had gathered eggs, he was met by Japanese soldiers, who were waiting for him at the front door of his house. They demanded the eggs, saying “tamago.”

Unbeknownst to the Japanese soldiers, Viegas’s father had hidden four eggs to give to his wife in order to make egg soup. The Japanese soldiers eventually found out about the hidden eggs and became angry. They saw that he was wearing a US Navy shirt, and questioned him about where he got the shirt. Viegas’s father explained that he was wearing a Navy uniform, which was given to him by his nephew, who was in the Navy.

That did not satisfy the soldiers. They threatened to behead Viegas’s father with a bayonet because they did not like that he had family in the US service. Her mother pleaded with them and gave them the four eggs. After that incident, Viegas felt as though the Japanese were everywhere and were always watching. They seemed to know everything.

They took out their bayonet to behead my father.

Viegas’s father had taro, bananas, yams, papayas and other fruits and vegetables in his garden, but his hard labor was not always to the benefit of his family. Sometimes he would be able to harvest without the Japanese soldiers knowing, but usually they would know exactly when to come and collect the crops. They would follow him to harvest the crops in order to make sure that he did not put any on the side to hide from them.

One day, Viegas’s father and uncles slaughtered a cow, but that too was taken away by the Japanese soldiers. They only left her family the hooves and head. Viegas’s mother used the head to make broth, and threw the bone away when the flavor was gone. The broth was eaten with dumplings made from federico nut flour.

Viegas’s father gathered the poisonous federico nut from the jungle. He cut up the meat of the nut and soak it in water for 21 days (changing the water twice a week) to remove the poison. Then the meat was rinsed and dried in the sun in order to be stored and ground into flour. Viegas’s mother made tatiyas with this flour. Viegas and her siblings would feed the chickens and other animals the tatiyas through the cracks of the floor of their house. Their mother was excited to see that her children liked the tatiyas, not knowing that they actually were not eating it at all. They did not mind eating the federico cakes that their mother would make, though, because they were sweetened by sap collected from coconut flower shoots. Viegas always went to bed hungry despite the great effort of her parents.

The Japanese soldiers took a lot from Viegas and her family. One day, they even forced Viegas to remove the Santa Claus pants she was wearing as a type of jumpsuit that her mother cut holes in for her arms. The soldiers did not like that the red and white pants were an American symbol. When they took her clothes, Viegas was left bare-naked. Eventually, Viegas and her family were forced to move away from their makeshift home to a place far less comfortable.

Families became close during the Japanese occupation

Viegas and her family liked to climb the mango trees up north together, when they would visit her great-grandfather. They liked to watch the American and Japanese planes fly by. One time, they were caught by the Japanese soldiers doing this. They had said they were picking mangoes when the soldiers asked what they were doing. However, there were no mangoes to be picked. Viegas and her family were told to get down from the tree. That was the end of being on the mountain.

The mountain residents were told to come with them. They told us not to bring anything because we are coming back. We were taken down to Yigo (across from Marine Drive) and we were detained there. We did not have anything but the clothes on our backs.

Soon Viegas’s family discovered that they would not be returning to their homes on the mountain. Only the men were allowed to go back up to retrieve belongings, but they had to return to the camp in two hours. They were kept there for two weeks before they were told that trucks would be coming to take them down south, but the trucks never came. Then, one evening they were forced to begin a march down south at around 7 pm. They trekked all night and into the next day as the rain fell constantly.

Viegas carried her baby brother on her back, struggling to give him water to drink when he cried. No one was allowed to stop walking, so she had to hold a kettle of water over her shoulder to allow her brother to drink until he stopped crying. At first, Viegas was separated from her family, and marched with her Auntie Lucia’s family. Eventually, they were able to catch up with her parents and siblings.

Viegas watched her grandfather collapse on the ground and die as they marched.

The Japanese soldiers kicked my grandfather to the side and told us ‘kora’ (hurry).

Viegas’s father and uncles tried to stop and bury their father, but they were not allowed to. At a later time, Viegas’s father and uncles were able to sneak away and bury their father until they could come back for his body. They were distraught when they were unable to give him a Christian burial after the war, because they could not find his original grave.

The herd of people finally arrived at the concentration camp in Manenggon after three days. Viegas and some other kids wasted no time exploring. They hid behind bushes and watched as Japanese soldiers lined up men and women, and began beheading them. The horror of the scene made the kids decide to return to camp before the soldiers saw them. They were afraid to tell their parents where they went when they returned, but their parents insisted that telling them was important. Viegas and the other children admitted that they had watched the beheadings. Their parents scolded them, telling them never to do that again, because the soldiers would harm their family.

Prayed with Reverend Sablan

Viegas stayed at the concentration camp for several days, but she felt like she had been there for a whole year. The camp residents lived in teepees made from weaved palm leaves leaned against trees. Viegas sat in silence every day, just praying to God never to leave her family. Sometimes, her family would sneak over to the next teepee where their Baptist preacher, Rev. Joaquin Sablan, stayed, and they had little prayer services. They had to keep these services secret from the soldiers, though.

There were plenty of restrictions at the camp. The people could only have fires during certain times of the day, because the Japanese soldiers were afraid that the Americans would see the smoke. There could be no noise, either; the kids could not play; and people could barely talk to each other. The only source of water was the river that ran through the hills. The people at the camp would use the water for bathing, washing clothes, drinking, and even relieving themselves. Viegas felt that God must have really been with them during this time, because no one in her family got sick while at the camp.

We ate lots of coconuts and whatever we could find around the camp.

Every day Viegas felt hungry, her little belly never having enough food in it. People ate what they could find, like duk duk crabs, breadfruit and bananas from the jungle. The Japanese issued a cup of rice and a can of milk to Viegas’s parents in order to feed their small children. Her mother would boil the rice with lots of water then add milk to feed the family. Her family also got rice that Rev. Sablan shared from a 55-gallon container, which they had to keep secret, too. No one was allowed to leave the camp, except for the men who had to work for the soldiers. This was how they were able to bring fruits and crabs from the jungle.

One night, as a cool breeze rolled over the hills and through the camp, Viegas sat in silence, just waiting for the next day to arrive. She was constantly praying to God to help her keep her strength and never abandon her family. Viegas saw that her father and uncles were sneaking out into the jungle for food. Viegas stayed back at the camp with her siblings and mother, doing nothing but praying, trying to calm the dread in their hearts. After a while, Viegas’s father and uncles returned, but they did not return with food from the jungle.

What they brought was more than what any amount of food could provide. Accompanying Viegas’s father was a US Marine. Viegas looked into her father’s hands as he held out a silver dollar, a can of pork-and-beans, a can of corned beef, candies and Wrigley’s chewing gum.

Viegas’s father told her mother to cook rice, because the war was over. Her mother insisted that he was wrong, and was worried that Japanese soldiers would hear him and punish them. After some convincing, Viegas’s mother finally understood that the war was actually over. US Marines began coming into the camp as the women began cooking. When the rice was ready, everyone rationed the food and ate hot rice with beans, pork and beans straight from the can. Viegas could not believe how delicious the food tasted. She had not had a full belly since the war began two-and-a-half years before. Viegas finally felt happy and relaxed; the wait was over.

The people were so glad that we were liberated from the atrocities of the Japanese.

The Marines escorted the people from the camp to Hågat after everyone had filled their stomachs. On the way, they saw lots of dead Japanese soldiers on the hills. Viegas watched as some people took out their frustrations and anger on the bodies, by spitting on or kicking them. Despite these violent acts, Viegas clearly saw that everyone was very happy to be free.

After a final trek across their scarred and torn island the people arrived at a US military camp in Hågat. There were plenty of tents for the families to live in. Each family was issued a huge tray and kettle so that they could collect food. Viegas and Johnny, since they were the oldest, went three times a day to the galley to get food and water for their family. There was also a community sink and shower to clean themselves and do laundry.

Viegas’s family’s tent was located right next to the prison where Japanese soldiers were kept. Every day, her brother Johnny would spit on the soldiers. The 10-year-old’s anger toward them was so great. Yet, little did he know that one day he would marry a Japanese woman when he was stationed by the US military in Japan.

The people stayed at the camp for two months until they were finally able to begin rebuilding the lives stolen from them. Viegas’s family moved to Sinajana, where the military had built houses. Viegas’s parents continued their jobs as teachers, while she and her siblings continued school. Viegas and her siblings grew up and began families of their own, both in the mainland, and in a war-free Guam.

Viegas is now an elder with many self-taught skills, such as crocheting, sewing and cooking. She is enjoying her life on Mount Santa Rosa in Yigo, the same place where she once fled to for shelter.

She just hopes that no one else has to experience what she went through. She wants people to understand that we should be grateful for what we have. We should not waste food or belongings, because she knows that others are starving like she once was.

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