War Survivor: Justo Leon Guerrero
Emotional toll of war
As a young teenager, Justo Torre Leon Guerrero (1928 – ) experienced the ravages of war. Escaping the harsh torture that his older brother endured at the hands of the Japanese, the emotional toll was no less harsh and affected him for the rest of his life. Choices he made in later life were a direct result of the war.
Like many survivors, he kept his wartime experiences to himself – it wasn’t until 2005 that he finally told his story to family members. The strength and fortitude required of a youngster during this challenging time is hard to imagine today.
Leon Guerrero was just 12 years-old at the beginning of the Japanese occupation. At this impressionable age he was pressed into labor. Driving the family bull cart to deliver water and supplies to Japanese outposts in Northern Guam. It was from this experience, working 10 hours a day, that he first learned of the realities of war.
Witnessed Japanese fired upon by Americans
One particularly memorable experience occurred one day, while delivering supplies to Tarague. He saw an American plane firing on a column of Japanese soldiers on the road to Tarague. Continuing down to his assigned area he was met with the remnants of the group – a horrifying site – the survivors carrying the injured and dead. He was told to drop off the supplies and get out of there. Shaken, he departed as fast as he could.
Translated for the Japanese…reluctantly
On other occasions he was tasked to serve as a translator for Japanese officers who toured the ranches of Northern Guam. This put him in a difficult position as the families did not want the Japanese officials to visit them and blamed Leon Guerrero for bringing them to their house. He didn’t have a choice in that instance, but did when it came to translating.
In some cases if he translated exactly what the families told him it would have angered the officials. He had to think on his feet and crafted responses that appeased the officials. Eventually they stopped asking him to accompany them.
American plane crash landed near his home
But the crash landing of an American plane near the family property in Machananao had the biggest impact on his life. Leon Guerrero was about 14 at the time. He and his older brother Juan were collecting wood and loading it into the bull cart when they saw three American planes in the sky.
One of the planes was obviously in distress. The engine sputtering, it came crashing down and stopped when it hit a coconut tree. It landed not far from where they were standing. His brother Juan and his uncle, Jose Leon Guerrero Cruz rushed over to the wreckage and helped the pilot out. Leon Guerrero rushed over too, disobeying his brother’s instructions to stay put.
Leon Guerrero recalls the pilot was conscious and bleeding from a deep gash over his ear. Juan and Jose helped him out of the plane and stood him on the wing. The pilot handed his gloves to Jose and an ID bracelet he had been wearing to Juan. Leon Guerrero asked to see the bracelet and read, “Lt. JG Hamilton.”
It was when he was returning the bracelet to Juan that the Japanese soldiers arrived. They took the pilot away and later came back for Jose. It wasn’t until the next day that they collected his brother Juan. Leon Guerrero, perhaps because he looked younger than his age, was not taken. They later learned that Jose and the pilot were executed.
His brother was tortured
Leon Guerrero’s brother was taken to Hagåtña and tortured. He most certainly would have been killed if it weren’t for the policeman from Machananao who saw him beaten and bleeding and kneeling in the sun. Somehow the policeman was able to secure his release and he was taken home.
Before he recovered from his injuries, Juan was taken along with other men in the community. They were tasked to repair the landing strip in Tiyan that was being bombed regularly by the Americans. It was back breaking work repairing the landing strip and Juan soon became unable to work. Fearing that he would be killed, Leon Guerrero’s father hatched a plan to rescue Juan from the camp.
He took the family’s best cow and traveled from Machananao through back roads to Tiyan. Luckily he evaded capture. Once there, an uncle who was in the camp gave a signal that the guards that patrolled the area were on a smoke break. The two of them loaded Juan onto the cow and his father made his way safely back to their Machananao ranch. The family kept Juan in hiding for the rest of the war. Fortunately the tent where Juan normally slept at the work camp was bombed the same night as his rescue so the Japanese did not look for him thinking he had died in the blast.
These events significantly impacted Leon Guerrero who was very close to his older brother, Juan. Riddled with survivors guilt Leon Guerrero thought that the bracelet he returned to his brother was the cause of his torture. He carried this with him for years.
When the Americans returned Juan was offered significant monetary compensation for his part in trying to save the American pilot. He refused the money saying he was grateful to have survived and have a job and a vehicle. Leon Guerrero never forgot that.
Worked for Coca-Cola after the war and then joined the Air Force
Leon Guerrero worked for the Coca-Cola bottling plant as an accountant after the war. With the proceeds from his first paycheck he bought himself a watch. This he said, was to make sure he was on time for work. The brand of the watch he bought was “Hamilton.” This was in memory of the pilot that had crash landed in Machananao.
In 1951 Leon Guerrero joined the United States Air Force. Later, reflecting on his decision to join he said his choice to serve was motivated by seeing the graves of all the American soldiers buried in Anigua – those that gave their life liberating Guam from the Japanese. He served a long career eventually retiring from active duty service and civil service with the Air Force.