Thankful to the Marines

Rosa Sablan Payne Murer (1924 – 2017) remembered the war as if it were yesterday.  With her keen memory and strong voice, Tan Chai, as she was fondly called, started her story with,

“I love the Marines. They saved us. This is their island.” 

Murer was the oldest of the nine children of Patrick Aguon Payne (Familian Binådu) and Ignacia Palomo Sablan (Familian Tae). Murer had red hair and was a statuesque five-feet-seven-inches tall.  She grew up in the San Antonio area of Hagåtña, went to Mass at the Catholic church in Hagåtña, completed the 8th grade at George Washington High School, and learned to cook and bake.  She lived a normal and happy life.

Before the war, Murer spoke mostly CHamoru but was exposed to the English language at an early age, because her father was part English and Irish on the Payne side. CHamorus were required to speak only English in public places or else they would be fined one penny or had to drink cod liver oil. 

Her dad, disabled by a fall that injured his back, was able to provide for his family on a $22-a-month pension from the US Navy.  The family lived comfortably in a wooden house.  Mr. Payne remained resourceful and converted two mini-automobiles bought from Peter Nelson into jeepneys large enough for family transportation.  As a goodwill gesture, a 55-gallon drum of gasoline was delivered to the Payne home by Atkins Kroll, a trading company, to fuel the vehicles.

The family ranch was at Magat, Mangilao, an area located behind the current Pay-less Supermarket in Mangilao.  Murer describes her mother, a nurse, as a pioneering woman who was good at homemaking as well as farming.  She credits her mother for planting and harvesting most of the crops at the family ranch.  

Warned to flee on 8th of December

Murer was a young woman of 17 years the morning of 8 December 1941.  She remembered the smell of chicken stew on the stove, and her mother telling her to buy a yard of lace to finish her dress for the procession in celebration of the Santa Marian Kamalen feast day.  An easy task with just a big skip and a hop — it was only 11 steps to Calvo’s General Store.  However, Murer was stopped by a panicked man shouting in CHamoru, “come out of your homes CHamorus and flee because the Japanese are already at Sumay.”  

Mr. Payne heeded the warning and hurriedly gathered the family and headed to Barrigada with only the chicken stew from the pot.  Upon arriving at the home of Murer’s grandmother, Ana Ulloa Aguon Payne, Mr. Payne realized that since the house was visible from the road, it was not a safe place.  Quickly, he took his mother and family to a cave in Mangilao (behind the current location of the Department of Public Health and Social Services), and they hid there.

Several days later, Mr. Payne got a pass from the Japanese to return to their family home in Hagåtña.  Sadly, their home was one of five that were burnt by the Japanese.  The structure, a 55-gallon drum of dry corn, and the two jeepneys were all destroyed.  With nothing left to return to, the family walked a couple of miles to their ranch in Magat and lived there until the march to Manenggon in 1944.  

There was not much that could be done on the first day of the occupation but to “run and hide,” Murer recalls.  She said that with only one American plane and a rusty ship left on the island, there was no real American defense, and it was easy for the Japanese to invade.

Slapped a soldier who touched her

Murer’s first encounter with the Japanese was when a young soldier came into her ranch house and touched her breasts.  Fearing that he would further assault her, Murer slapped the soldier in the face and believed that he was going to stab her to death with his bayonet. Instead, the soldier spared her life and left the ranch.  

After a few weeks under Japanese rule, life was tolerable.  As long as you “bow and obey,” she survived the severe punishment or death met by many other CHamorus. Forced away from the comforts of her Hagåtña home, life was only as good as she could make it at the ranch.

“The Japanese came and took what they wanted, but we still ate good and had water.” 

Typical of many of the ranches on Guam, there was an abundance of chickens, pigs, cows, turkeys, geese, sweet potatoes, taro, yam, bananas, corn, coconuts, bay leaves, coffee, and tobacco.  Many of the crops were bartered with relatives and neighbors for cloth and other provisions stored and hidden from the Japanese.

Murer’s mother, a nurse, would sew the traded cloth into dresses and pants for the family.  She was well known for making men’s “dungarees” that she later sold after the War for 50 cents.  Rain water was caught in 55-gallon drums.

“Sometimes, we drank water from the holes on the trunk of the coconut trees.” 

Even if they had to push away the mosquito larvae, Murer said it was just the way to survive. Thankfully no one in her family got sick.  

Murer’s family believed in using plants for medicine and cleaning.  Unlike their wooden house in Hagåtña, the shelter at the ranch was primitive. It was made of bamboo and coconut leaves.  The family slept on the floor on top of woven mats.  Being the eldest, Murer later was allowed to sleep on an old army cot that her father bartered for from a neighbor.

The family washed their clothes in a bataya (tub), and they swam in a pond near Chalan Pago.  Murer bathed with coconut soap made by her mother and ate with spoons and cups carved from coconut shells. During meals, their food was laid on banana leaves.  Murer loved to cook and was resourceful.  

Learned to be innovative

“I can bake a lemon pie using a five-gallon kerosene can as an oven.”

Wheat flour was uncommon, so they used ground tapioca as flour and tuba for yeast.  Murer has since become well-known for her delicious tapioca and sugar cookies.  A main ingredient in their cooking was the American butter — seized from the military commissary — that was given to the local retailers and sold for 50 cents a pound.

Joined by a few Japanese soldiers, Murer’s family fished at the beach beside the current location of the University of Guam Marine Lab. They used the nuts off the Puting (Barringtonia asiatica) tree to stun the fish so they could easily be caught by hand, an old CHamoru fishing method.

Murer and her family were allowed to worship freely.  Catholic Masses were prayed every Sunday by a Japanese priest and two local priests – Father Jesus Baza Duenas and Father Oscar Calvo. A very religious woman, Murer acknowledged that her faith in God never wavered but instead grew stronger during the occupation.  Her family prayed the rosary and celebrated the patron saints’ feast days.

But with fervent respect, Murer also acknowledged the power of the taotaomo’na spirits, and said she always asked permission when trekking through the ancient paths after the war.  She said she was once punished for cursing in the jungle.  She also recalled an unbaptized cousin, who was kidnapped by the ancient spirits. 

Life during the war was about going on with life and doing what had to be done.  Able-bodied women like Murer were forced to clear the jungle from sunrise to sunset for the Japanese planes to land.

“There were over 50 women working there, and my family brought tuba to drink while other women drank water.”

She said the work was constant and there was no time allowed to socialize.  Unless you were sick, everyone had to report to the labor camp.

Until the march to Manenggon in 1944, Murer did not experience the severe harshness of her captors.  At the ranch, her family was friendly and hospitable and won the friendship and protection of a certain Japanese she called “Kaigun,” (someone in the Navy) who wore a white uniform. Kaigun would routinely tell the family what was going on and how many tomens were beheaded. Tomen was the Japanese word used to describe CHamorus.

The only tragic event at the ranch fell on Murer’s brother, Tomas, who was injured when a Japanese plane that was shot in Rota crashed on Guam in the sweet potato patch that Tomas was passing through.  Caught in the wreckage, he was pulled out and his injured back was treated by a kind Japanese doctor.  

Women whipped for lighting a fire

It wasn’t until the American liberation was imminent that Murer witnessed the cruelty of war.  One recollection she shared was of a day when all the women in the camp were called under the guise of a meeting, but instead were whipped 20 strokes each for lighting a fire that someone had reported to the Japanese.  Murer was spared because she had faked an illness and did not attend the meeting.

Another difficult time was when Murer and her family had to march for two days to Manenggon.  Murer and her siblings took turns pulling a cart that carried her father, who was ill.  Her sister Dolores was a good tree climber, and picked coconuts along the way to keep the family nourished.  There was no stopping, and those who were too weak or were without help from family or friends were left behind.  She saw many beaten and killed.

Upon arrival, there was nothing at Manenggon.  Makeshift shelters were pitched with cloth, coconut leaves, and whatever was found.  Food was scarce but shared.  Adults and children huddled to stay warm and out of the rain.  Many shared the same bedding.  No one was a stranger.  Everyone was family.  Since building fires was prohibited, there was no cooking for fear of being punished or killed.  Many CHamorus got sick and died, but Murer and her family survived the ordeal.  

When the Americans landed and captured the island, several military trucks were sent to the Manenggon area to take the CHamorus to encampments in Pigo and Agat.  Canned food and other provisions were given and those who were ill were treated.  Once able, the people were allowed to travel back to what was left of their homes.  

As the Marines organized, the Third Battalion set up three camps in Mangilao.  Camp A was located by the current location of the Department of Public Health and was a dispensary.  Both in the Magat area, Mess Camp B served breakfast and dinner while Mess Camp C served lunch.  Murer, who spoke good English, volunteered when the Marines asked for interpreters.

As she had done with the Japanese, Murer quickly built a strong friendship with the Marines.  Many extra provisions were provided to the family, even a pair of combat boots and golf shoes for Murer to use.

“I used those boots for a long time.”

Become an office aide for the military

Murer, who was 20 years old, soon left ranch work for a job as an office aide for the military.   

Shortly after the war, Murer’s family opened Payne’s Restaurant in Mangilao and catered to the Americans.  It was at their restaurant that Murer met her husband, Lester Carey Murer, of German descent from Nebraska.  A project manager for the American Electric Company, Lester helped build the Naval Hospital, Andersen Air Force Base, and other electrical projects commissioned by the military.   

Together, Rosa and Lester reared eight children: James Lester, Patricia Rose, Lena Jane, Mark Andrew, Van William, Lybertha Ann, Kate Mae and Christine Michelle.  The Murers had 25 grandchildren, 37 great-grandchildren and seven great-great-grandchildren.

With the families of her children now living in different locations around the world, Murer became a frequent flyer and visited many states and countries in the US, Asia and Europe.  

Reprinted and adapted, with permission, from Guam War Survivors Memorial Foundation by Marilyn Constance Aflague.