From peace to chaos

It is hard for Maria “Babie” Rapolla Matanane (1929 – 2022) to forget the 8th of December 1941. Her day started early that Monday morning. Her family lived in a small house in Tepungan, located in Piti.  She remembers that the family was up early that day preparing for the novena of Santa Maria. Her household consisted of her father, Lorenzo Rapolla; mother, Antonia Quenga Rapolla; sisters Angelina “Nenang”, Rosa “Chai”, Patricia, and brothers Tommy, Jose “Ping”, Antonio “Tonning” and herself. Her brother John was off-island in the military. 

Matanane’s mother was inside baking bread when they heard the sound of planes flying overhead. People began to yell for everyone to come and look at the planes. Not knowing why the planes were there, Matanane initially felt excited! There were nine planes maneuvering in the air over Sumai and at first she thought it was an airshow. It didn’t take long for her to realize that those planes were dropping bombs on the island. She wasn’t old enough to know why this was happening, for she was just a young 12-year-old girl.

The bombs touched down and soon the island was alive in frantic chaos. Matanane could see the big clouds of dark smoke rising up in the air. The sounds of the planes and alarms were overwhelming. There were also horns honking as the early morning drivers realized what was going on. People came out of their homes and the church yelling:

 “Mañelu-hu fan malagu sa man deklara gera!”

Hid together in an Asan cave

The Japanese had declared war. And the family did as they were told and ran. With no time to think, they dashed into the jungle and didn’t look back. For three days, they roamed deeper into the jungle, moving from cave to cave, until they got to a cave in Asan that was big enough to hold the 25 or more people that had fled together looking for safety. 

While in the jungle, Matanane’s family and the families they were with maintained their respect for the spirits of the taotaomo’na.  There were babies crying constantly, and they were amazed that the taotaomo’na didn’t bother them while they hid to survive. Those few days in the caves were scary for her because she could hear the gunfire that rang out on the island. There was nothing for them to do but sit and wait.

They had no idea what was going on outside.  Matanane could see that a lot of the older people were shaking in fear. They mostly sat quietly. She got little sleep during the time in the caves, but did so by sitting up against the cave walls. They ate only what was brought along in haste during their escape, which consisted mostly of dried bread, crackers, and biscochu. The fear of the war going on outside made them forget about their hunger.

On the third day in the jungle, one of the men went outside to check what was going on. He could see the Japanese ships that were out in the ocean and that smaller boats coming ashore in Asan. Matanane remembers seeing Japanese soldiers on big horses trotting down the road, the hooves making an unforgettable sound. From the young to the old, they were told to tear up any clothing that was white and tie it to sticks to make flags. These flags would show that they wanted peace as they left the shelter of the cave and marched back to Piti.

Back in the village, their daily lives continued as the Japanese took over around them. They returned to their home and lived as they did before the attack. Some were forced to learn the Japanese language, but Matanane did not have to. They went to church as often as they could and she remembers her great-grandmother praying the rosary daily.

Life carried on and wasn’t so bad

The children shared two rooms in the house and slept on mats on the floor. Through it all, Matanane said she never felt like she was suffering or starving. Food was not plentiful, but they ate the vegetables that were picked, like yucca, yam, corn, and rice. They made use of all the parts of the vegetables to cook with, like the pumpkin tips. Meat was not available to them and they mainly drank water. Coffee was also limited. 

As a young girl, Matanane was made to work in a small field, mostly weeding and cleaning around the crops of Napa cabbage and other vegetables. Her brother, Tommy, had learned the Japanese language well enough to help translate and be a foreman out in the fields, telling people what they needed to do.

Even though her brother was there with her, there was no favoritism. The Japanese were always around and she had to work the whole day just like everybody else. Those who didn’t do the work would be slapped around or hit by the Japanese. For Matanane, the work was obviously very physical, but not that hard to do. She pulled the weeds like she was supposed to, and was never reprimanded by the Japanese.

There was not a lot to do during the Japanese occupation. The family’s house happened to be down the hill from a beautiful house in Piti, owned by another local family. The Japanese had taken it over and were using it as a sort of brothel for the Japanese generals to entertain themselves with the five local girls who stayed at the house.

To pass the time in the evenings, the young girls would come down to her mother’s house. The Rapolla family had a piano, and some of her siblings, in-laws, and other family friends would play jitterbug music and everyone would gather to listen and dance. At other times, the girls would simply come down to hang out. The girls were older than Matanane, so she didn’t talk with them much, but they enjoyed spending time at her house, sometimes talking with her mother. They passed a lot of nights like this.

A particular Japanese man, whom they called Taichou, was interested in one of the local girls from the house on the hill. Knowing that this girl spent many evenings at Matanane’s family home, Taichou seemed to be protective of Matanane’s family. The Japanese left her family alone.

Being so young, Matanane experienced the war differently than the adults around her.  Her point of view was reflective of her age and her innocence. She dealt with the war as best as a 12-year-old could, and was protected from a lot of the atrocities that others faced.

Family bonds helped them to keep strong

A war rarely brings any good. For some it was a horrible experience and Matanane thanks God for sparing her family. Her wish is that her children and grandchildren will continue to share the bonds of family. That is what kept her strong throughout the war, and what will keep them strong in their lives, now and in the future.

Maria “Babie” Rapolla Matanane passed away 22 January 2022.

Editor’s note: Reprinted and adapted, with permission, from Guam War Survivors Memorial Foundation by Paige Perez Castro.