War Survivor: Helena James Aflague Crisostomo
She arrived a few months early, the size of her mother’s palm, but survived and flourished decades to live a blessed and fulfilled life.
Helena (Helen) James Aflague (1923 – 2021) was born to Eugenia Taitano Flores (Familian Queto/Cabesa) and Inocencio Santos Aflague (Familian Sueno). She had five sisters and seven brothers.
She was of Irish and CHamoru descent. Her grandfather, Joseph Henry James, was born in 1869 to John James and Eillen Oldcox from Dublin, Ireland. Her grandmother, Dolores Flores, was born in 1882 to Jose Taitano Flores (Familian Queto/Cabesa) and Josefa Aguon Quintanilla from Hagåtña, Guam. The James couple married in 1899 in Palau and had eight children (Eugenia, David, William, Lily, Joseph, Daisy, Pedro and Frank).
Eugenia, the eldest child, was kidnapped by an unknown Palauan when she was 4 years old. Distraught, Mr. James threatened to kill the whole village and his daughter was returned unharmed. However, Mrs. James feared for the safety of the children and convinced her husband to leave Palau. Subsequently, a schooner, the Joseph James, specially built for the journey, sailed to Guam with the couple, their four children, Captain David O’Keefe, a Palauan and a Chinese sailor. The journey ended at the shores of Guam in June 1905.
A successful businessman of modest means, Mr. James invested $40,000 in his wife’s homeland to buy land and build their home in the northern village of Dededo. He grew to love the CHamorus and donated a portion of his huge estate to build the first public school where he taught for seven years. Additionally, he erected the first water tower in Dededo. A generous man, Mr. James passed away in 1920.
The eldest daughter, Eugenia, married Inocencio Santos Aflague (Familian Sueno) born to Jose Castro Aflague and Vicenta Borja Santos from Asan, Guam. The couple bore 13 children (Mary, Wilfredo, Helena, Alexandro, Lawrence, Joseph, Bertha, Victoria, Eugenie, Inocencio, Raymond, David and Mary).
Her father was a seismographer
Before the war, the Aflagues’ were safe and comfortable in her home in Hagåtña where the Academy of Our Lady High School and the DNA Building are now located. She described her home as a spacious four-bedroom structure of Napa wood and tin. Her father worked for Naval Governor George McMillan as the first CHamoru seismographer at the Governor’s palace, spending many days and nights there monitoring the earthquake activities in the Pacific Rim.
Crisostomo went to school but could not continue beyond the 4th grade due to frequent fainting spells. Her activities were limited and she was confined mostly inside the house under the constant watch of her mother and a nurse assistant. However, she was allowed to attended mass and be a member of the Sodalities of the Blessed Virgin Mary (sodality). She spent many weekends at her parents’ ranch in the Cho’ate Valley (between Sinajana and Ordot) situated on hectares of land bountiful with vegetables, plants and livestock maintained by a crew of hired laborers. Her father had a good business sense and provided the military food galley with fresh chicken eggs in exchange for uneaten food (slop) for the livestock at the ranch. The ranch business was quite successful before the war.
On 8 December 1941, Crisostomo and her siblings were attending Catholic Mass with Crisostomo in her “sodality” dress of blue and white (the religious colors for Mother Mary); her sisters in white as angels; and her brothers in red and white as altar boys. The Mass was interrupted by the announcement that the Imperial Japanese Army had landed in Sumai.
Quickly, Bishop Miguel Olano instructed the congregation to flee to safety. Crisostomo grabbed her three sisters and met her father and brothers outside the church. Her father instructed his children to run straight to the ranch. Her parents and younger siblings arrived at the ranch later in the day.
The next day, her father reported to work, but the Governor was not at the Palace. After checking the seismograph and securing the office, he quickly proceeded to head home but was stopped by Bishop Olano who asked him what he’d heard from the Governor. He told the Bishop he had no report since the Governor was not at the Palace.
Crisostomo vividly recalls that her father had told her that he had asked the Bishop what would happen to the Santa Marian Kamalen statue. The Bishop told him that he could take the statue to his ranch for safety. Since the statue was perched high above his reach, he was not able to take it, so he went to the ranch for help. The next day on 10 December, her father returned to Hagåtña with his brother and nephew and the statue was carefully taken from the church to the ranch.
Crisostomo’s mother was surprised when her husband brought it to the ranch. Immediately, she prepared an altar covered with white linen and hibiscus from the garden. While at the ranch, Crisostomo was tasked by her mother to keep the statue safe in a separate bedroom. Crisostomo said her mother told her that my only job was to take care of the statue. She kept her young siblings respectful and quiet around the statue. With no candle wax at that time, Crisostomo kept the vigil light (made from a jar of coconut oil and cloth wick) glowing throughout day and night.
The rosary was faithfully prayed in the morning by her family and in the evening joined by relatives and visitors who happened to be passing by the ranch. Crisostomo still vividly remembers the statue. How she dusted the statue and combed the hair daily. She said the statue had a blue and white gown and was adorned with a small gold crown, necklace, and earrings crafted by her father’s cousin, Vicente Aflague (Familian Katson), the only CHamoru goldsmith on the island at the time.
Six weeks later, in late January 1942, the statue was returned to the convento so a Catholic Mass could be prayed; however, the Cathedral was still full of Americans and clergy that were detained and waiting to be sent to the internment camps in Japan. Crisostomo remembers that day. She said she carefully covered the statue and held it close to her chest during the bumpy ride in a jeepney to Hagåtña. Tearfully, Crisostomo said that was the last time she and her family saw the statue during the occupation.
As in any war, Crisostomo’s family endured hardship. As a young woman of 17 years, her parents hid her from the eyes of the Japanese soldiers so she would not be enslaved as a “comfort woman.” Many times, the Japanese soldiers would come to the ranch for vegetables and livestock, and Crisostomo would be hidden in a crib under piles of pillows and blankets. She said it was difficult, because at times she had to remain still and quiet for hours, sweating profusely in the crib.
When she was outside and heard her younger brothers yell “Japanese,” that was the signal for her to run and hide in the jungle and bury herself under tree branches or grass. The fear of being taken as a sex slave was only calmed by her prayer to Santa Marian Kamalen, who she believed kept her and her family safe during the occupation.
She did not go to the labor fields as other CHamorus did, but instead she and her mother were permitted to stay at home to care for the young children. However, they were forced to produce one gallon each of coconut oil per week. This was a hard process as it took 30 coconuts or more per day that required grating, squeezing, cooking, cooling and pouring into containers. In 1943, Crisostomo and her mother were both pregnant and it was extremely difficult to make the weekly quota. To avoid harsh punishment, the children and the men had to help gather and grate the coconuts.
When the Japanese invaded the island and came into Hagåtña, they discovered the seismograph in the Palace and ordered Crisostomo’s father to return to his work. Additionally, Jose Crisostomo, Crisostomo’s fiancé, was also forced to work at the Palace.
Although engaged, Crisostomo did not marry Jose Perez Crisostomo until 21 February 1942 over the objections of her father, who wanted them to marry after the war. Crisostomo feared that because she was an unmarried young woman, the chances of her being discovered and made into a “comfort woman” were greater and that was the compelling reason to be married. Therefore, Crisostomo and Jose were married by Father Oscar Calvo at the San Antonio Chapel in a remote part of the Hagåtña jungle.
Crisostomo’s husband came from humble beginnings and was not able to provide his bride the lifestyle she was accustomed to. Crisostomo remembered:
“When we first married, we didn’t have anything. We were so poor that we had to stay at the ranch and live off my parents. Jose was forced to work for the Japanese without pay.”Helena Aflague Crisostomo
Crisostomo said that the baby clothes and bedding for their first child, Frankie, were handed down from her sister, Mary, who had a child seven months older than her baby.
As a married woman, Crisostomo was no longer desirable to the Japanese soldiers, but her fear continued. Since her first son had fair skin, hair and eyes, he appeared to be American. Therefore, Crisostomo was frequently restrained and interrogated about where her American husband was hiding. During these times, Jose was at work and there was no one to vouch for her son’s ethnicity.
Worried that one day her son would be harmed, she sought the advice of a relative who worked for the Japanese as an interpreter. He told her to cross her hands (as if handcuffed) and say, “American Japan” to signify that her husband is a prisoner in Japan. This helped to stop the harassment.
Although strong in heart and mind, Crisostomo was frail in health. She was subjected to sudden illness. Near the end of the war, a pig was slaughtered and a portion was reserved for a neighbor’s funeral, which was delivered by Jose and Helen. Upon coming back from the short trek, Crisostomo complained that she did not feel well. She was taken to Dr. Ramon Sablan, the only CHamoru doctor, who diagnosed her of having pneumonia. She fell into a coma and was placed in a bull cart and left under a large ficus (nunu) tree that was believed to have magical and healing powers.
Joined the march to Manenggon
After five days, Crisostomo awoke to the news that the Americans were close to liberating the island. As a result, the Japanese ordered the march of all CHamorus to Manenggon. She still was too sick to walk, so she rode the bull cart with the young children. When they arrived at Manenggon, like other CHamorus, her father and uncles pitched a shelter from coconut leaves and ate whatever food was brought or hunted. She witnessed many die or get sick. When the Marines came to the Manenggon Concentration Camp, many trekked to Nimitz Hill and ended at Pigo Cemetery where food galleys were set up to feed the islanders.
Many CHamorus got dysentery and got very sick, some even dying. Even though the family was starving, Crisostomo’s father was very wise and told them to eat very little and drink just the boiled water. This prevented the gorging, dysentery and eventual death. The family survived in good health, and later they all returned to the safety of their ranch.
Crisostomo shared her saddest moment of the war which she described as the burial of American soldiers in a common area at the back side of the Pigo Cemetery. Crisostomo said she saw truckloads of bodies wrapped in green blankets dumped on the ground. Their boots were taken off and left on the field for those who were in need of shoes. Thereafter, the bodies were wrapped tightly and put in shallow graves.. With tears and a shaky voice, Crisostomo recalled:
“These young men sacrificed their lives for me and my son. They are dead, we are alive.”
Crisostomo said she was not interested in getting any war claim payment as the Americans made the ultimate sacrifice.
Crisostomo’s memories of the war, however, are not all sad. When asked about her happy memories, she replied:
“My marriage to Jose Crisostomo and the birth of my son, Frankie, in 1943 were the happiest.”
She also shared how her family would spend the evenings at the ranch singing.
“My father knew all the songs. Just name the song, he knew it, and taught us many songs.”
Many of these songs were sung for many years after the war during family events.
After the war, the family moved back to Hagåtña. Jose started a silversmith business and made Guam seals and police badges, and Helen was a homemaker. Helen and Jose had six more children (Betty Ann, Daisy, Lee Ann, Orlean, Barbara and Inocencio). Unlike the first year of their marriage, after the war, Jose became a solid provider for his family. Before the war, Jose was a federal employee and he remained on the payroll during the war. He was awarded $7,000. This small fortune was used to build the first family home in Anigua.
Jose worked and retired from the Government of Guam after 30 years of service. After the Aflague family ranch was sold, Crisostomo received a handsome share of the sale, and she and Jose bought the second house in Hyundai Subdivision in Toto, Guam. Having a nice house meant very little, so they sold the house and left to the States traveling and living near their children. Jose passed away in 1991 and Crisostomo returned to Guam.
A legacy of music
The Aflague legacy is music. Crisostomo said. Before and after the war, there was always music and merriment in the house. Each had a talent, whether voice or instrument. The siblings who remained on Guam after the war kept close family ties. Crisostomo remembers her parents telling her to love each other before loving someone else.
“We never argued. We all got along.”
After the war, the tradition of getting together was never broken. Crisostomo said that every Sunday, all the siblings on Guam went to the ranch for coffee and breakfast, normally spending the whole day with each other singing and dancing. She said they remained musical. All were singers and some played the piano, guitar, and banjo. Her siblings always sang their mother’s favorite song, “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” Crisostomo’s mother, Eugenia, died at the age of 99.
Crisostomo remained close to her siblings throughout her life. She and her sisters went to many events together. The morning breakfast was a tradition, held on Saturdays at her daughter Orlean’s house in Agana Heights. In the Aflague family, one is either singing, dancing or playing an instrument. Crisostomo continued to sing and listen to the classical favorites from the 1940s. She had a large collection of albums, and said that she often went into record shops while in the States to buy a variety of classic artist’s albums. Her father’s legacy of music has been passed on to Crisostomo’s children, especially her girls, who love to sing.
Crisostomo was blessed with a long life. She was a miracle baby, born prematurely, and survived several medical procedures. As she looked back at her life, she always believed that family comes first. Crisostomo was a housewife all her life and the sacrifices she made were to give all her children a good life.
“I’ve taught them how to talk, how to laugh, how to walk; what’s right, what’s wrong.”
Crisostomo’s father gave her the love for music and her mother gave her the love for family. Crisostomo, too, passed these legacies on to her children in addition to being respectful and honest.
Reprinted and adapted, with permission, from Guam War Survivors Memorial Foundation by Marilyn Constance Aflague.