War Survivor: Lillian Tenorio Dimla
I am a proud CHamoru too
Lillian Pangelinan Tenorio Dimla (1934 – ) never shared the memories of her childhood…with anyone. As a young girl, she never knew much about grown-up matters, because Dimla was raised in an era when children didn’t question their elders.
Now, as an elder herself, Dimla wants to document her memories while she still can for the benefit of her children, but it is not an easy story to recall after all these years, especially with an upbringing of unquestionable acceptance of her parents’ word.
The series of stories now being told by survivors of the war, however, has emboldened Dimla to share her story – from her birth in peaceful Saipan and travels to Yap, to the war ravaged time on Guam and post-war Guam. This is her story.
Dimla is a CHamoru from Saipan born to Calisto Pangelinan Tenorio and Luise Sablan Pangelinan Tenorio. Dimla said that her family came from Saipan, but their roots are from Guam. She has extensive genealogical data to tie in relationships to her many family lines on Guam. Her siblings include Cynthia, Diego, Eliza, and Thomas. The Tenorio family lived in Saipan prior to the war, and after a year-long sabbatical in Yap, they returned to Guam where they, too, lived through and survived the atrocities of World War II.
Memories of life in Saipan
Dimla remembers a tranquil life on Saipan. She was an obedient and helpful child.
“My earliest recall of Saipan was around 1939 when I was about five years old. I remember looking at a picture in an album where my cousin, Maria Tenorio, was pushing a carriage with a baby in it. Nåna said that the baby was me.”Lillian Tenorio Dimla
That album and all the pictures of her past are long gone now, lost during WWII.
“All I have are my memories. Tatan Mariano (her mother’s father) would often take me to the ranch on a horse and buggy. We would pick fruits and vegetables.”
There was one fruit she particularly loved and knew as “makupa,” which Dimla described as a cross between a pear and an apple. It was pulpy, juicy and sweet, she reminisced, adding that she never found that fruit again after the war.
“I remember Nanan Maria and Tatan Luis (her father’s parents) had a house on the southern part of Garapan.”
As a young child, Dimla climbed the stairs and sat perched at the top of the steps watching the activity on the street outside. There was an old Japanese man named “Tajara.” As he would walk down the street lined with homes, kids would tease him “Tajara-jara!”
“I did it, too, but one day, he glared up at me, so I ran back inside to my grandparents’ bedroom to hide and saw a huge figure rise out from the bed. It had thorns around its head and I told my parents, but no one really paid attention.”
Dimla said that she never teased the old man again.
It was not uncommon for young children to go to Mass by themselves, and Dimla adored Pale’ Pedro Delos Reyes, her mother’s god-brother, so she attended Mass daily. Unbeknownst to Dimla, he got sick and died unexpectedly. In the morning, as she walked to Mass, she saw the form of the priest coming out of their outhouse. It followed her all the way to church. During the rosary, she told her mother about it. Luise and the other women hugged her because they believed that it was Pale’s spirit following her to church. Dimla believes that she is sensitive to spirits and has always been able to see, feel or hear them. There was a trongkon nunu by their house and she would often see or hear “people” congregating there.
Saipan was under Japanese rule at the time and her father, Calisto, was educated in Japan. Afterwards, he returned to Saipan to work for a Japanese company called the Kohatsu and held an important position, which came with many benefits, including access to the company commissary. When Dimla was a young child, her mother would send her on the train by herself from Garapan to Chalan Kanoa (or Charan’ka as it was known then). There, a company employee would help her obtain the items she neeeded and would carry them back to the train for her.
“I knew that my father graduated from a Japanese university, but I don’t know much about my mother’s younger days, except that she was very well trained in cooking and some of the finer arts. She sewed and embroidered beautifully.”
Memories of life in Yap
In 1941, Calisto took a sabbatical from work and moved the family to Yap. It took three days to travel there by boat. It was not a passenger ship and the family had to sit and sleep in the middle of the boat. They stayed for a few days with a cousin, Luise Pangelinan Villagomez, in her home in Colonia, Yap. Yap has three main islands. The quickest route from their house to the church was by raft across the water.
It amazed Dimla to see the Yapese women sitting on the ground, bare-breasted, wearing only grass skirts, waiting for Mass to begin. They would cover up to enter the church. She loved to hear the swishing of the grass skirts as the women got up to leave after Mass, carrying their gua-gua like purses with betelnut and lime in long bamboo sections, as they walked back down the road to their homes.
While Calisto and the elders chopped down trees for posts to build their house, Dimla and her siblings would play all day long by a nearby creek. She also loved to wander off to explore or play by herself. Sometimes she would use ripe papaya as bait to catch little birds to keep as pets. Their home was built on a slope in an area known as Keng, which was by a road, and across the road was the beach with mangrove trees.
Dimla learned the names of the other CHamoru families in the area – Untalan, Villagomez, Hoffschneider, Fleming. Her Uncle Manuel and Aunt Felisa also lived there. Manuel was the youngest brother of Dimla’s grandfather, Mariano. It was at their daughter’s home the Tenorios stayed at before their house was built. Their house was on stilts partly over the water of CHamoru Bay.
Dimla loved to go sit on the porch to watch all the fish and other creatures in the water. Dimla bartered canned goods for fresh fish from the local women. At age 7, she used a long bamboo pole on her shoulders with two 5-gallon cans at each end to haul drinking water from a large water tank several hundred feet away.
Dimla’s Yapese friends would take her into their Lag patch (similar to taro patch but much larger) in marshy areas where the flowers of this amazing plant would grow.
“My youngest brother, Tommy, was born in Yap in 1942. Nana told Tata, ‘It’s time!’ so he went on his bike to get the midwife. I remember that clearly.”
Life was peaceful and calm in Yap. Meanwhile, WWII was in full swing in the Marianas. Guam had been bombed by this time.
Memories of life on Guam
Shortly after Tommy’s birth, Calisto Tenorio was assigned to a new post in Tokyo. However, the boat taking them from Yap to Japan diverted to Guam, which was now occupied by the Japanese. Calisto’s new orders were to work on Guam instead of going to Japan, so he was able to rent a house owned by Ana Gay. It was a huge house in Julale, Hagåtña.
Despite the ongoing war, school was still a requirement. Dimla had to attend school at “Bilibig” in Hagåtña where she met Katherine and Angie Bordallo, Pauline Ploke, Norma Bordallo, and Connie Martinez. A lot of them were older, but they were grouped together in school and became fast friends. She was later transferred to another school closer to the Julale area and made friends with Josephine Palomo, Lydia Cruz, Lorraine and Dolores Mesa and Cecilia Tenorio.
Coming from Saipan, her family knew how to speak Japanese, but although the children were immersed in the school system with other CHamoru youths, there was no preferential treatment by the Japanese instructor.
Like in Saipan, Dimla was still sensitive to spirits on Guam. She would see little people playing up in the hills and going into the lemon-china bushes. She never knew why she saw spirits and can only reason that their soul needed her prayers; and so she would just pray whenever these incidents happened.
Life on Guam was relatively calm and quiet during the war as long as the CHamoru people obeyed the Japanese. Even though Dimla’s father worked for the Kohatsu and had to do as he was told, there was no exception made for his family. Dimla recalls being loaded into the back of a big truck with other CHamorus. They were driven to the airfield where they were forced to work under the hot sun picking up rocks and piling them to the side. This went on for days, but under the hot sun, it seemed like forever.
The ending days of the war
Then the Americans bombarded Guam in 1944.
“I don’t know how Tåta knew when things were going really bad towards the end of the war in the first part of 1944, but he moved us up to Tutuhan and we stayed in a small house there, growing vegetables, sweet potatoes, peppers, onions and taro – regular staples. I don’t know if he was thinking of a shortage of food supply, but it appears he was trying to prepare for our livelihood.”
Things escalated when Dimla’s cousin “Henry-boy” came to see her father one day. He was about 17 years old and the eldest child of Luise’s brother, Jose. He, too, was from Saipan and served as a messenger for one of the Japanese secret police called “Kempeitai.” He used to visit the family with other Japanese soldiers, who would barter canned goods and rice for vegetables and other food.
“Tåta was very nervous after Henry boy’s visit. I remember that Henry hugged us and told us to be good. That was the last time we ever saw him.”
Calisto did not return to work. Instead, he immediately moved the family further inland.
“Nåna tried to talk to him, but he just told her to do what he said. Only the most important things were packed, our albums and nana’s favorite scissors.”
Things were tossed into pillowcases, which were strung together to allow the bearer to carry more than one at a time. As the eldest child, Dimla was made to carry two full pillowcases like a yoke around her neck, stuffed to capacity and tied together with rope. There was nothing else to do, to think, or to say. At that time, all she could recall was the heavy weight bearing down on back, rubbing her neck raw. But she never complained because she saw how much more her parents were carrying, in addition to the two youngest children, while Diego and Cynthia walked beside them carrying what they could.
“We went further inland to Pa’asan and stopped only to add to our food supply. Then when the bombing started, everyone sought cover. Tata dug a hole by a creek. It had a muddy floor and it was small, but we were all safe.”
Memories of Manenggon
When everyone started talking about moving further inland, the family followed.
“I don’t know how long it took us, but we got to Manenggon, and there were people camped all over the place. Tata identified that he could speak Japanese, so the soldiers put him in charge of the food supply to hand out to the people.”
The family stayed away from the overcrowded encampment and instead settled further up the hill. Dimla remembers playing by herself up on that hill.
“I found a little pool and found gold fish swimming in it. I touched the water and it was very, very hot!”
The following day, Dimla went back and tried to catch that gold fish. Her hand had swollen up so bad and her mother asked what happened. She then told Dimla to go back and apologize. Luise admonished her to call out:
“Guela yan Guelo, pot fabot asii yu, ya ti ta’lo bai hu konne’ i guihan.”
Dimla went back up and tried to remember what she was told to say and repeated it to the best of her ability. The swelling disappeared immediately.
It was crowded at Manenggon, with food and water scarce, so the people depended on whatever was rationed out. Dimla recalled a lot of praying and singing to keep their spirits up. There were other songs that people would sing, but more often than not, she would hear little snippets of “Uncle Sam,” sung quietly among the CHamorus.
About a week later, Dimla looked up over the horizon and saw what looked like a row of big, black ants going over the hills heading towards their camp.
“I immediately went down to tell Tåta about it, but when I got down to the camp site, the Japanese had bound Tata and had him on the ground.”
As she hid behind a bush, she heard them accuse her father of being a spy for the CHamoru people. They also caught him giving away as much food as people could carry. Dimla’s father was bound and in a kneeling position. The Japanese officer had his bayonet up ready to behead him. All of a sudden, Dimla heard a booming voice say strange words she had never heard before and has never forgotten: “Everybody get down!” All the CHamorus who were there understood and hit the ground. All the Japanese who remained standing were gunned down by machine gun fire. It was a deafening sound and then it was over.
Afterwards, everyone was told that they had to walk to Agat to safety and so the long trek began.
“My sister, Cynthia, was sick for most of the time we were at Manenggon, so when we were told to start marching, everyone was loaded down with the stuffed pillowcases containing our belongings. Nåna was carrying a full load and the baby, Tommy. Little Lisa was holding on to nana’s skirt and following along. Tåta, too, was burdened down and had Diego also helping him.”
Dimla noticed Cynthia wasn’t with them and asked her parents.
“They explained that they made arrangements for someone to help carry her for them. I don’t know the details, but what I clearly remember is that once we got to Agat, we were all together in one tent, including Cynthia. And so to my recollection, other than during the trek to Agat, we were always together as a family.”
What is engrained in Dimla’s memory about that trek was that it was backbreaking and difficult, walking up and down hills with nothing but the cutting leaves of the netti (sword grass) to grab on to for help up a steep hill. They had to drop to the muddy ground when the soldiers would yell for them to take cover during enemy fire. Dimla did not know any English, but was keenly aware of what the other CHamorus were doing and followed suit.
A few weeks after reaching the Agat encampment and their reunion with Cynthia, the family was detained in a separate encampment with all Saipanese and other CHamorus with Japanese surnames.
War changes people in different ways. This memory of the separation is ingrained in Dimla’s memory and was difficult for her to express in words.
“I recall the wired fence surrounding our little stockade. I remembered the Ichihara, Sudo, Sayama and Ishizaki surnames in this group. But because we were separated from the rest in this stockade, even though we were CHamoru, the others – our friends and families – treated us like we were enemies. They threw things at us and we were treated more like animals. But soon we were relocated to Agana Heights where we were housed separately by gender.”
All the detainees were released after a month and sent to Saipan in late 1944.
Safe in Saipan
Calisto Tenorio settled his family in Chalan Kanoa, but for most of their time in Saipan, Dimla stayed with her grandparents to help them out. Tatan Mariano was in charge of food rationing, so she and her cousin, Celing, would raid the refrigerator and gobble up butter pats as a treat. She also recalled long luncheon meat cans, corned beef hash, which she claims is not the same as those in stores now. Back then, it was good!
Life returned to normal and Dimla remembers learning a little English in school. She and another girl, Amparo, joined a small Christmas choir, led by her mother’s brother, Tan Kindo (Joaquin Sablan Pangelinan). Dimla shared fond memories of singing CHamoru and American Christmas songs at the different US camps throughout Saipan.
“We even sang live on the radio. And the soldiers gave us all nice gifts every time we performed. It was so much fun!”
Relocated back to Guam
Dimla’s parents wanted their children to learn English and the Western way of life, so in October 1947, they moved back to Guam and stayed with Luise’s sister, Stella, until they found a home owned by the Peling family in Agana Heights.
Although she should have been placed in the 8th grade, Dimla asked the principal, Mr. Tydingco, to allow her to repeat the 7th grade until she was more comfortable with the English language. She made friends with Bennett Perez, Carmen Martinez, Martha Benito, Richard Benito, Ben Blaz, Maria “Daidai” San Nicolas (Taitano), and her cousin, Patricia Blaz (Borja). Dimla would walk down to school every day from Agana Heights.
The Hagåtña school was a Quonset hut built near Julale and housed the 9th grade.
“Bennett Perez was valedictorian. I was salutatorian. I was sad because Tata did not want to come to my graduation, but when I was giving my speech, I looked up and saw him way in the back, and my heart was full. He didn’t stay, though, leaving right after the ceremony was over. But it was enough.”
High school life
“My first high school was in Sinajana. It was a split session and I attended in the afternoon. I took a lot of college prep classes, so my friends were mainly stateside kids and other CHamoru kids aspiring to go to college. I enjoyed this time of my life despite having to work every day after school just to help my parents out.”
Eventually, they moved to Asan, where Calisto was able to acquire land and build their house. It was near Luise’s Pangelinan cousins, Vicente, Jose and Ana. Camp Asan was the housing complex of those Federal employees hired from the US or Hawai’i to help with the reconstruction of Guam.
“Like I did in Saipan, I joined the Asan church choir at age 14. We would sing at the Camp Asan chapel and we got to know a lot of the ‘statesiders’. They were so appreciative of our singing.”
Dimla was active in her church community. She also taught catechism. Father Felixberto Flores was the parish priest who had replaced Fr. Arnold. Dimla was a member of the Sodality of Mary, which she described as, a really nice group of young ladies. The Marian Congress would meet at the old Agana Cathedral and all the sodalities from around the island would gather for the Congress. Dimla was selected to be one of the speakers. Apparently, the new priest was adamant that his parish be represented.
“Father Flores coached me and I memorized and delivered my speech without looking at my notes. I received a lot of compliments afterwards. That was a great feeling.”
Dimla also joined the Sodality softball team that competed with other sodalities from the southern villages and got to know even more people during that time.
How the war changed our lives
After relocating to Guam, the changes that occurred in their lives was evident, though gradual. Times were hard, but Luise secured full-time work at Ada’s store and Dimla worked there part-time after school. She made $75 a month working half days after school.
After the war, it was difficult for the proud Calisto Tenorio to obtain employment at the level he held while employed for the Kohatsu.
“Tåta played the piano beautifully and he knew how to tune pianos. So he would tune pianos to help out while Nana and I worked at Ada’s.”
Tenorio family business
Eventually, Calisto secured a $500 loan from his cousin and opened up a little store they called “Two Leaf,” which started out as a small hut erected on the beach side of Asan; and, after securing a ten-year lease from Maria Merfalen from Maina, he built a larger, more permanent store across the street.
“My mother was a wonderful baker and started making potu and sweet bread. All the Filipino contract workers would stop by daily to buy potu and bread. Soon, people started ordering and paying in advance, so nana would have them packed and ready for pick up each morning.”
It took all of the family to help at the store, which became a popular meeting spot for many years.
The Filipinos from Camp Rojas and Camp Asan gravitated to the Two Leaf Store and the Tenorio family. They were friendly and compassionate to the workers, understanding what it was like to be in a different environment. Calisto enjoyed drinking, so he would join the men often, chatting with them, and taking their suggestions to heart. As an accomplished carpenter, Calisto built an extension behind the store for the men to enjoy their beer and hoki clam chasers.
“That was good business back then – the beer and the chasers – and pretty soon, some guys would bring their guitars, adding singing to the mix. Every once in awhile, there would be dancing inside the store, where we learned how to salsa, cha-cha and the Jitterbug.”
Music at Two Leaf Store came from Calisto’s piano playing, the Filipino’s serenades on their guitars and a juke box, leased from the Sheltons.
“That juke box was a good investment. People really enjoyed the records that he would drop off for the juke box. Two Leaf store was a great hangout for the guys from Camp Asan and Camp Rojas.”
“We were a nice, close-knit community… and we enjoyed a good rapport with the Camp Rojas crew.”
Once she agreed to be a godmother, and the entire Camp Rojas band came to the christening and provided the entertainment. It was an awesome memory and she said they did it for her, which showed how much they liked and respected her and her family. Every fiesta at Asan, there would be a pageant with a play and group dancing. Sometimes, Dimla said, Bishop Baumgartner would come to watch the program. Father Flores was very supportive of this community activity.
Dimla took piano lessons as a child from the Mercedarian nuns in Saipan, but stopped after they had relocated. She plays mostly by ear now and can still play some songs from memory. However, age and time have thwarted much of her ability to hear and sing. She still loves music however.
Dimla pursued a career with the Federal Civil Service, retiring after over 30 years in human resources. In February 2015, Dimla lost her husband, Arturo G. Dimla, after 58 years of marriage. Their children are Louis, Maria Christina, Norman, Oneta Louise, Patrick and Quinina Elizabeth, as well as 14 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.
“War is wrong. War disrupted our peaceful way of life and affected many people in many different ways.”
The outcome of the war influenced the direction she took to improve her life and to help her family rise above the memories of scorn and condemnation because they had come from Saipan.
“Even though we were CHamoru, we were looked upon as the enemy after the war. We were good people, but the war affected some people in a very bad way. It didn’t matter that we were all family and friends prior to the outbreak, or that we were neighbors and helped one another out during the occupation, or that my dad almost lost his life because he defied the Japanese, following his conscience to protect his family and help other CHamorus get food and provisions.
It took many years to get over that bad time. I believe that many people never really recovered completely from their experiences. Even my father, once a very proud man, was never really quite the same afterwards; but, he, too, never spoke about it.”
Moved by the memories, Dimla paused to reflect on her final thoughts before speaking.
“I have experienced many things, but I’ve survived and lived a good life despite the impact of the war on our island and in our lives. I pray that our children and their children never experience what we went through.”
“I want my family to know that I love them very much and what I want for my family is to live in harmony with one another, not dwelling on the negative, but to forgive others. Always remember that actions speak louder than words. Be kind to others and be good always.”
Reprinted and adapted, with permission, from Guam War Survivors Memorial Foundation by Chris Dimla Lizama.