War Survivor: Irene Perez Ploke Sgambelluri
Daughter of an American
Tired and hungry were the words Irene Perez Ploke Sgambelluri (1931 – ) used to describe how she felt every day during the war. She was only 10 years old at the onset of the war and instantly, her life was forever changed.
In 1941, Irene’s family lived in Agat. Her father John F. Ploke and her mother Beatrice Duenas Taitano Perez, had four children including Irene. Danny was 12 years old, Irene was 10, Pauline was nine, and Genevieve was only eight months old. Mr. Ploke was a Pharmacist Mate First Class in the US Navy and was assigned to Agat to tend to people in need of medical treatment.
On 8 December 1941, the Plokes were having breakfast when they heard the sound of planes flying over the island, and saw black objects dropping from them. Minutes later, her grandfather, Atanacio Taitano Perez, called to tell them that the United States and Japan were at war.
Family had refused to leave Guam
Unlike many Chamoru families who did not expect the Japanese invasion, Sgambelluri’s family was aware of it before it occurred. The US military had warned her family to leave the island, but her mother had refused. She had wanted to remain with her parents, because they were old. In the midst of the bombing, Sgambelluri’s grandfather sent his driver to help transport her family to Hagåtña, where he lived, so that they could all be together. Sgambelluri’s family traveled light, only carrying some clothing and documents.
Once they arrived in Hagåtña, they realized that they could not stay there, and found shelter at a ranch in Adacao, Mangilao belonging to their grandmother’s brother, Gregorio Duenas. They did not have the opportunity to rest overnight because they had to move quickly to Adacao. They stayed at the ranch for about three days, where they and the Duenas family slept on guafak floor mats. They ate chicken, rice and eggs at the ranch.
During this time, Sgambelluri’s father had to hide in the jungle from the Japanese. Because he was an American in the Navy, he was wanted by the Japanese. Eventually a Japanese interpreter and two Japanese soldiers came looking for him at the ranch. They told Sgambelluri’s mother that he had to surrender or their family would be killed, and so her mother sent Sgambelluri to search for him.
Father taken prisoner of war
Once she found her father, she shared the news with him. He removed his shirt, tied it to a stick, and surrendered while holding Sgambelluri’s hand.
“I will never forget that day. I did not know this then, but my father’s fate was that of a prisoner of war.”Irene Sgambelluri
Sgambelluri’s father was taken to Hagåtña and imprisoned in a building next to the Cathedral Basilica with other American men. Days later while taking coffee to her father, Sgambelluri and her family discovered that all the men, including her father, were transferred to Zentsuji Prisoner of War camp in Osaka, Japan.
“We never had a chance to say goodbye. And we feared we would never see him again.”
After Sgambelluri’s father was taken to Japan, her family went back to Hagåtña and stayed at her grandfather’s home. They were not there long as the Japanese forced them to move out so they could use the home for their living quarters.
“We then found an abandoned house across the street and stayed there. The house had two beds — one reserved for my grandparents and the other for my baby sister. The rest of us slept on floor mats.”
Sgambelluri’s grandfather became the head of household since her father was gone, and made all the decisions for their care.
“But, we worried every day about our father. We worried of his life and how he was being treated.”
Every day the family would wake up and gather food (mostly corn and sweet potatoes) from Sgambelluri’s uncle Frank Perez’ ranch in Tiyan. They also ate whatever leftover food they had from before the invasion. Food was scarce, and a local family was tasked with distributing and rationing rice. Their diet consisted mostly of sweet potatoes — chicken, eggs, and meat were a luxury.
In order to feed all of them, Sgambelluri’s mother would re-boil chicken for days, giving the better parts to Sgambelluri’s grandparents and baby sister. The rest of the family shared whatever was left. At nights, Sgambelluri could hear her mother and aunt discussing how they were going to feed their family. Each day was spent searching for food. Each day was all about survival.
At some point, Sgambelluri was forced to attend Japanese school and learn to read and write in Japanese. She had Chamoru teachers and one Japanese teacher. The Japanese teacher was very cruel. Because Sgambelluri’s father was in the United States Navy and Sgambelluri and her siblings were fair skinned, the teacher treated them differently.
“He would slap my brother, pull my hair, and we were always given more work. We were treated harshly as compared to our classmates.”
Most of the children were required to gather wild mushrooms and papaya, cook, and then deliver the meals to their Japanese teacher’s home. They were also required to go to the ocean and gather sea cucumbers to slice and dry for him. At times, Sgambelluri and her classmates were put in a truck and taken to a field where they planted vegetables and corn.
“We worked so hard and we were always hungry. We would go to the field without food or water.”
Sgambelluri also remembers making shoes out of wood with rubber-tire straps. She and her siblings had only had one good pair of shoes and wanted to save their good shoes for when the Americans returned.
“Looking back, this truly shows that us children never lost hope. Also, interestingly—by the end of the war—most of us outgrew our shoes.”
Sgambelluri’s family had managed to get by with what little clothing they had. They did not have new clothes during the war years. When they needed new clothing, her grandmother would remove the covers from the rattan chairs and sew them into clothes for the kids.
“We had an old washing machine, and after it broke down, we washed by hand. We bought our soap at the Macias Store in Hagåtña.”
Sgambelluri was 13 years old when the Americans finally returned. She recalls seeing their planes fly over Guam.
“We were all overjoyed and incredibly relieved to see the Americans were coming. But we also feared for our lives, because the bombing began yet again.”
Family wounded by American bombing
During the bombing, Sgambelluri’s family became separated at one point. She remembers running with some family members and finding shelter under the Hagåtña Bridge. While she was there, she cried and prayed for the bombing to stop. Sgambelluri’s grandfather and cousin, David Perez, hid in a Japanese bunker and were both wounded by the bombing.
“My grandfather’s eye was torn from its socket, and my cousin was hit by shrapnel.”
The bombing continued and many homes and buildings were destroyed. The Susanna Hospital was damaged. In all the confusion and terror, Sgambelluri said she will never forget how she encountered a kind Japanese corpsman, who treated her grandfather’s damaged eye.
“He ran into the destroyed hospital, found medication, and applied it to my grandfather’s eye. He helped us and told us to run and hide.”
Sgambelluri’s family left Hagåtña by way of San Ramon Hill. Trucks packed with Japanese soldiers passed, and the soldiers hollered at them, demanding that they get off the road.
Eventually, the family found shelter along the road in Sinajana and rested. They spent several days there until Japanese soldiers demanded that they join the many people who were walking southward.
“We were blessed to encounter help during the walk. In fact, we met a family who saw we needed help with our injured grandfather, cousin, and baby sister. They offered to carry my grandfather and look after us. This family was Mr. and Mrs. Tomas Ooka from Sinajana. They were a godsend.”
Sgambelluri’s family walked for two days in heavy rain while Japanese soldiers stood by. They were only able to rest at night on the side of the road. They finally reached Manenggon, which had been turned into a Japanese concentration camp. The camp was so crowded that Sgambelluri’s family could only sleep sitting up.
“We bathed, washed clothes, and drank all from the same river. It is a wonder we did not get sick.”
Every free moment was spent praying the rosary, Sgambelluri shared. The camp had little food. Mr. Ooka rationed whatever food he had brought and shared it with Sgambelluri’s family. Japanese guards surrounded and occupied the camp and rumors spread that they were going to start killing people.
“I was so scared that my life would end at the camp, but thankfully, I was spared.”
Within days, American soldiers emerged from the jungle. They rescued the people at the camp and took Sgambelluri’s family through Mount Tenjo back to Hagåtña.
“The walk was very difficult, as we had to climb through the hills in the heavy rain and we saw many dead soldiers along the way. Upon reaching the top of Mt. Tenjo, the Americans transported us in military trucks to a staging area located at Pigo Cemetery, where the soldiers gave us shelter and food.”
Father survived and came home
Shortly after they were liberated, Sgambelluri’s father returned home from Japan.
“My family and I were so grateful he survived, but it was clear he had suffered immensely. We could hardly recognize him. He had lost so much weight. He was almost skin and bones.”
Although Sgambelluri’s memories of the war are painful, she said there were also many kind acts.
“With time, prayer, family support, and by sharing our stories, many survivors like me have moved on, forgiven, and found peace. From my war experience, I would like to pass on that we still survived despite our sufferings of hunger and hardship with compassion, patience, tolerance, understanding and love.”
Reprinted and adapted, with permission, from Guam War Survivors Memorial Foundation by Victoria-Lola M. Leon Guerrero.