A child’s wartime journey

Mary Taitano San Agustin Lujan (1936 – 2022) endured separation from close family members, a life in constant fear, endless nightmares, sudden flights to escape bombardment and near starvation along the 1944 march and encampment of Talo’fo’fo and Manenggon.

Born to Candido Sanchez and Maria Pangelinan Taitano San Agustin, Lujan was five years old at the beginning of the Japanese occupation. Her father was a Guam police officer, who was imprisoned by Japanese Imperial forces then forced to serve as a prison guard.

She is the sister of John Taitano San Agustin, then a 12-year old boy, forcibly taken from the family, trained as a translator then compelled to serve in youth work groups to resupply Japanese munitions in the concluding months of the occupation. Her other siblings – Joe, Candido, Enrique, Carlos, Albert and Nora (born after the war), were made to work in fields from sunup to sundown.

Jose M. L. Lujan, Mary’s husband, was then seven-years-old, the son of Jesus Garrido and Isabel Lazaro Lujan, who survived World War II atrocities in part by storing and retrieving scarce food supplies buried in drums hidden from Japanese soldiers on family farmland.  

Mary’s childhood account

In the outbreak of the Japanese occupation, the San Agustin family moved from its Hagåtña home to family land in Dededo, where they were less likely to encounter Japanese forces. One morning, Lujan awoke to hear her parents arguing heatedly. Her father was about to leave to turn himself in as he had worked for the Americans. His wife tried to keep him back.

Just a few days earlier, the family traveled to Hagåtña to register with new occupying forces. A travel pass was issued, and the family was permitted to move about, but was also required to carry and show the pass when asked. It was then that Lujan’s father, Candido, learned that all who worked for the Americans were required to turn themselves in. After doing so, Candido, a prewar chief of police, was imprisoned. After several months of confinement, he was ordered to guard civilian prisoners for Japanese forces.

Lujan’s wartime household comprised her maternal grandfather, Jose San Nicolas Taitano, mother Maria Taitano San Agustin, siblings John, Joe, Candido, Enrique, Carlos, her aunt Ana Pangelinan Taitano, and cousin Dolores Makaena Taitano, who was visiting and became separated from her family in Hawai’i during the occupation.

Four maternal uncles, Jose, Francisco, Joaquin and Carlos, had departed Guam for Hawai’i before the war to pursue higher education and to establish careers and families there, while other maternal uncles, Ramon, Juan, and Rafael had established families, living in other parts of Guam.

At the time of Guam’s occupation and Pearl Harbor’s bombing in December 1941, Dolores’ father, Jose, was a superintendent of the Navy yard in Hawai’i and Carlos became a Captain in the US Army assigned as a training instructor in Australia.

Lujan’s grandmother, Dolores Diaz Pangelinan Taitano, died just prior to the American invasion due to illness and the lack of proper medication. Her death marked a significant family loss, devastating her grandfather and family for some time. Absent normal forms of communication to the outside world, it would be years before uncles in Hawai’i and Australia could be told of the loss of their mother.  

Daily life was always uncertain and dictated by Japanese orders and civilian compliance at the risk of arrest, severe punishment, even death.  Food and cattle were yielded to Japanese officials, and always limited for local families. The family farm had two horse-and-buggy carts, and daily chores for Lujan’s older siblings including farming, tending to cattle, and gathering then grating coconuts so their mother could boil the milk for oil and other purposes.

Lujan’s 12-year-old brother, John, and one of the family’s horse-and-buggy carts were forcibly taken from the family. John was ordered to stay in the dorms and schooled in Hagåtña under Japanese tutelage, barred from commuting to and from the family compound in Dededo. It was during this time that John learned to speak Japanese and kept from the family. It was much later that the family learned that John was compelled to serve in youth work groups to resupply Japanese munitions in the concluding months of the occupation.

By 1944, as the island experienced relentless pre-invasion American bombardment, the family built a small underground tunnel beneath their Dededo home, where members sought shelter whenever needed. While feeding infant brother Albert, seated on the floor one day, Lujan’s mother bent down to pick him up, just as gunfire raged from an American plane passing overhead. Her mother was hit, suffering injuries to her left shoulder, and she was feverish for days thereafter, though she eventually improved and recovered. To this day, the family marvels that had she not bent over to pick Albert up from the floor at just that moment, her injuries would have been fatal, as the bullets barely missed her heart.

As the bombardment escalated, the Japanese ordered the San Agustin family and others from Dededo to move to Talo’fo’fo where they were held until they were later moved by American forces to Manenggon. While swimming in a nearby river, the children discovered a floating pack of British-American Lucky Strike cigarettes. Candido quickly discerned their American nature and stayed alert for other visible signs of change.

It was after the Americans had secured Manenggon and civilian families consolidated there that CHamorus were given small tents for shelter and fed hot cocoa, biscuits and American chocolates daily, which was “heavenly” to Lujan as a young girl.

Guam Combat Patrol

Days later, Lujan’s father Candido, was summoned to report to US Marine Major General Roy S. Geiger, who was then assembling what would become later known as the Guam Combat Patrol. This was a team of CHamoru men, who worked with the military’s advanced patrol to scout and locate Japanese forces in hiding and to help secure the island.  Accompanied by Lujan’s brother, Joe, Candido reported and assisted as did other CHamoru men. Candido worked closely with Geiger and other military units, and the two developed a warm bond of friendship. It was then that Candido asked General Geiger to find his missing son John.

This friendship escalated when General Geiger fulfilled a promise, recovering John, who was returned to his family at Manenggon by US Navy Commander Roger Perry. Mary vividly recalls the night of John’s return.

The Americans had secured Manenggon. We were sheltered in tents, fed, but instructed to remain there because it was still unsafe to return to our home. It was late, after midnight one night, when we heard a loud voice calling, ‘San Agustin!  San Agustin! Come on out, we have someone here to see you!’ We awoke, then heard my mother screaming, ‘It’s Johnny! It’s Johnny!’

We thought we would never see him again, but my father never gave up.  No one slept that night; we all cried and held him together. His hair was stiff, his body and clothing drenched in blood  He had been running, hiding in the jungle, stopping for water at the Fonte River when the Marines in General Geiger’s units found him.

In the weeks that followed, the San Agustins moved to Agana Heights to join Grandpa Taitano’s sister, Maria Taitano Gutierrez, her twin, Ana Taitano Gay, and their families residing there.

This was a time when families held together through the postwar reconstruction and rebuilt homes, one at a time for one another. It was the time when Uncle Carlos Taitano returned to the island, helped to rebuild his father’s home, and learned for the first time that his mother had died from illness just before the invasion.

It was also a time when the Taitanos held together to mourn all loved ones who were lost in the wartime occupation, because there were others, who died in birth, died in illness, became captured, imprisoned, and even sent to Japan.

One night, American military police arrived at the San Agustin family home, inquiring for Dolores Makaena Taitano, Mary’s cousin who was visiting the island during the outbreak of the Japanese occupation.  Dolores’ father, Jose, had petitioned American military forces, even the US Congress for her return on the basis that Dolores was an American citizen in occupied territory.

Orders were issued and presented for her immediate return. Without option or delay that night, Dolores was taken by military police and put on board a military plane to be returned to her family in Hawai’i.

Hallmarks of the journey

Lujan’s account is of wartime childhood denied gaiety, and the overcoming strength drawn from strong familial bonds, faith and courage. Her witness of wartime illness, starvation and death left wounds and scars that took years to heal.

People died along the march and no one was permitted to stop or bury them. Older people fell behind, sick, too weak to go on. It was so sad, babies crying, and no one spoke. I was always afraid and had nightmares for years after. If I could recount the hallmarks of my journey to postwar healing and recovery from this experience, I would highlight:

  • My childhood doll, which my mother always kept and carried for me to Talo’fo’fo and Manenggon. 
  • My grandfather, who took care of us throughout the war and kept us together in daily prayer. 
  • The night when the Americans returned my brother John to our family.
  • Hot cocoa, biscuits and American chocolate bars, which the US Marines served every morning, after securing Manenggon. 
  • The day in 1944 when my uncle, Captain Carlos Taitano, US Army, returned to Guam and built a decent home for our large family in Agana Heights.
  • My husband Peling, who helped me heal with our eight children in the years which followed.
  • And my 2010 journey to Japan, when I accompanied my daughter Sonja to the Kashiwa Festival, and met the mayor and wonderful people of Kashiwa, Japan, for the first time. This visit marked forgiveness and a restful peace in my heart over my wartime experience.

Talo’fo’fo and Manenggon must never be forgotten and God’s faithfulness retold for future generations, so that war may never be repeated.

Editor’s note: Reprinted and adapted, with permission, from Guam War Survivors Memorial Foundation by Jovyna Lujan.