Moved to the ranch with cousins

At the onset of the Japanese invasion of Guam during World War II, Jose “Joe” Alvarez (1931 – 2021), a 10-year-old boy, and his family were alarmed and unprepared. They quickly left their home in Hagåtña on foot and made their way to his uncle’s ranch in Mangilao, where they lived for majority of the war.

Alvarez’s daily routine consisted of waking up at 6 am each day of the week and going with other boys and men to Tiyan – currently the Guam International Airport – where they worked for the Japanese, picking up rocks in an effort to clear the land for a runway. 

Alvarez’s workday on the runway would end around 5 pm. Then he would work with his family at their Mangilao ranch until there was no more sunlight. On nights when the moon was full and bright, they would continue working for hours. Once darkness gave way, they ate and then slept. Maintaining the family ranch was crucial to the family’s survival, because they lived off what was planted on their land. Every day,  seven days per week, for about two-to-three hours a day, the family tended to the land.

Reciprocity was key to survival

Compassion and respect for fellow CHamorus was significant during this period, Alvarez recalled. If there was a surplus of food—poultry, corn, sweet potatoes, taro, breadfruit, or bananas—from his family’s farm, they would share it with their neighbors. From this, a system of reciprocity was built between his family and his neighbors whereby everyone took care of everyone else. Despite this, Alvarez’s daily thoughts and feelings revolved around fear of the Japanese, who at the time held total control. 

Alvarez’s family comprised of his mother, father, a younger brother, Larry, and an older sister, Maria (“Kit”). His mother and father’s siblings also lived with them. Alvarez confided in Larry, who was five years old at the time, and may have been too young to fully comprehend the effects of war. He would talk to him about the ranch and his experiences with the Japanese, and he discuss his worries about the future.

They lived in an A-framed, thatched-roof home, where the women slept inside and the men slept outside. They only had a few pieces of clothing, and shoes were made from rubber tubing. Their day-to-day interactions were very involved, and everyone had a role to play, especially when it came to doing chores around the ranch such as farming or fishing. 

During social interactions, children were separated from the adults, primarily during adult conversations where children were not allowed to interrupt. There was no time to make friends, so Alvarez and his cousins became very close. Although they lived on separate ranches, Alvarez’s cousins planted the same plants and vegetables at their farms.

The family discussed daily events and their chores on the farm, and they made jokes to lighten each other’s spirits. However, they also had serious conversations about the Japanese, about when the Americans might return, and about those from the community who had been killed. The war brought Alvarez’s family closer, and the practice of helping one another was strengthened. 

Unable to attend church

Although he lived in a Catholic household, Alvarez and his family were unable to attend church during the war, because the Japanese did not allow Masses. If people were caught attending Mass, they would be punished. Priests were also not seen because that, too, was forbidden. However, every evening at six, Alvarez’s family would pray the rosary. The women mainly carried out this practice, while the men were still working the field because the land needed constant attention. Alvarez would always pray and ask God to save him and his family.

Alvarez firmly believed God saw the CHamorus suffering. Based on early teachings from his mother and father, he continues to emphasize the importance of believing in God. He said his family never had problems with shortages of food from their land. And remarkably, there were no typhoons during this time either to destroy their crops. The land Alvarez and his family lived on was very fertile. Pesticides and fertilizers were not needed, as there were few insects or bugs feeding on the plants or vegetables. Although the Japanese would confiscate dozens of eggs from the family ranch, they still had a surplus of poultry and never grew hungry. 

Alvarez also believed in the existence of the taotaomo’na, and had a few experiences with them during the war. One night as he was walking past the jungle, he saw a big black figure, which he believed was a large dog or cat, but when he tried to throw something at it, it suddenly disappeared. On another night, he felt the presence of the taotaomo’na while walking home. Another time, at dusk, he thought he saw a person wearing a white t-shirt, but the figure suddenly disappeared. 

Aches, pain and little medicine

Before the war broke out on Guam, Alvarez had access to medicine at the Naval Hospital when needed. However, there was little modern medicine once the war began. Suruhanus were utilized as well as traditional medicinal knowledge that was passed down within his family. Fortunately, Alvarez and his family did not experience any serious illnesses during the war beyond minor headaches, stomachaches, and common colds.

Although Alvarez mainly used modern medicine during his life, he preferred traditional medicine using natural herbs such as gagau leaves, papulu roots, or coconut oil when treating minor body aches and pains.  

Lessons and legacy

By the time the Americans liberated Guam, approximately 1,800 US servicemen were killed. Alvarez, therefore, felt inspired to repay them for their sacrifice by joining the US Air Force when he came of age. 

Four major lessons Alvarez learned from the war are: respect yourself and others; work hard as you can’t get something for nothing; save as much money as possible and always be humble.

Here’s a saying from his father that he lived by:

No matter how much money you have, [or] how good looking you are, if you don’t have respect, then you’re nothing.

The lessons Alvarez learned during the war helped shape his legacy, which he and his wife, Maria (“Tita”) Alvarez, have shared with their nine children – Patricia, Joseph (“Joey”), Anthony, Mariann, George, Petrina, Johnny, Robert (“Bobby”), and Patrick.

Editor’s note: Reprinted and adapted, with permission, from Guam War Survivors Memorial Foundation by Angela Marie Leon Guerrero Moylan.