War is non-discriminatory

Sister Mary Bernard Unpingco (1935 – ) is a School Sister of Notre Dame and a survivor of war. She was born in San Ramon, Hagåtña, and named Rita Reyes Unpingco. Her parents were Eliza Guevara Reyes and Jose Aguon Unpingco. Unpingco was the middle child of seven children: Juan, Norbert (Bert), Gloria, Fe, Teresita and Antonio (Speaker Tony Unpingco). The family also reared (pokasi) Rosario Reyes, who was Eliza’s oldest brother’s child. Rosario’s mother had died at childbirth.

Eliza’s sister, Ana Reyes Aflague, and her son also lived with them after Ana’s husband died. Unpingco’s father, Jose, served in the US Navy and was captured and imprisoned by the Japanese for the duration of the war. Although very young, Unpingco’s memories are vivid of Ana and her uncles coming to check on them from time to time. 

 Unpingco was an observant and inquisitive child. She remembers that she was attending Mass at the Cathedral when the bombing started.

“It was frightening. I looked up at all the people who were hugging, crying and praying, wondering what would happen to us. The next thing I knew, everyone started moving.” 

Sr. Bernard Unpingco

It appeared to young Unpingco that her mother and father had a plan of action for emergencies in case her father wasn’t around. She and the younger ones walked up San Ramon hill and she recalls an old lady asking her brother, Bert, for a ride up the hill on their carabao. Once they reached the top, however, the old lady got off and left. 

They walked to Apusento in Chalan Pago, where they had a ranch, which eventually became their home for the duration of the war.

“I remember my dad visiting us for a very brief time at Apusento. I remember he had broken his arm because it was very wet and slippery. He checked on us to see that we were okay and then he went away again. I never really knew where he went to – maybe back to where he was imprisoned.”

One day, the Japanese showed up at their ranch.

“My siblings and I hid in the big bokonngo (hole) under the lemai (breadfruit) tree nearby and we watched as they pillaged our home for eggs and other things to eat.  It was very scary. The Japanese took my brother, Juan, with them. They said he had to help offload the ships carrying supplies. I never saw him again until much later on the road to Manenggon.”

Although the ranch was not near a river, the family used a large drum to catch rain water, and Unpingco enjoyed running out into the rain to shower whenever she could.

Eventually, the children were ordered to return to school and life resumed to something as close to normal, except that the Japanese had to be obeyed.

“I remember attending Japanese school. Bert and I would walk … from Apusento to school in Sinajana. The older kids would run ahead and I was often left trailing behind. I was usually late, so I would hide under the nunu tree until just before recess, then dash into class as the kids were running out to play. I memorized all the writing on the board to make up for missing class. I had a good memory. I even remember going to school in the same room in the same grade for two years.” 

When the CHamorus were ordered to go to Manenggon, everybody started walking, but some of the sick and infirm were to be transported later on by the Japanese. Unpingco was told by her mother to accompany her aunt and her sick son, but the Japanese saw her and chased her away. Only the sick were allowed to ride in the trucks, so since she was not sick, she was chased away and told to run ahead to catch up to the family.

Lost on the march to Manenggon

“I was traumatized because I got lost. For all of two nights and one whole day, I wandered by myself.”

To her salvation, there were hundreds of people all walking in one direction, and so Unpingco followed them blindly, resting against a tree at nightfall and listening for any familiar sounds.

“I found my family instead of them finding me. On the second night being alone, I was resting quietly in the dark, listening to all the sounds around me.”

Out of the dark, Unpingco heard her brother, Juan, laughing, so she gravitated to the sound of his voice.

“I found him with Uncle Kiko. I was just so happy that I wasn’t lost anymore.”

Unpingco has no clear memory of when and how long they were at Manenggon before the American soldiers rescued them.  She just remembers being frightened until the American soldiers gave them candy and rations.

Unpingco remembers that the soldiers accompanied them across the mountainous paths to get to their base camp. The family was eventually able to return to the family home in Hagåtña after the war. It had been used as a Headquarters by the Japanese, but was still livable because the bombs only hit one wall. Unpingco’s dad’s brother, Felipe, came to live with them after the war to help out.

Unpingco was eight years old when the war ended, but wanted to share her memories through this story.

“Although I was very young and my experiences were limited to that of a child, I am a survivor of that time. I probably was spared much of the atrocities of war, because I was with family for the most part, but war is nondiscriminatory.”

Unpingco believes that she felt the trauma of war, though, because of her experience of being separated from her family when she was lost.

“I believe that no child should ever have to endure what I went through during the war. I believe this experience played a great part in the decisions I made later on in life.”

Unpingco entered the Aspiranture in 1952 and became Sister Mary Bernard with the School Sisters of Notre Dame. In 1954, she was sent to the SSND Motherhouse in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1956, she was professed. Sister Mary Bernard received her BA degree from Maryknoll College (Miriam College) and her MA degree from the University of Guam.

As an educator, she served in schools in Wisconsin, Guam, the Marshall Islands, Chuuk and Yap. In addition to teaching, Sister Mary Bernard served as Regional Leader and Councilor for the School Sisters of Notre Dame. She is with the Notre Dame community in Talofofo.

 “Daily Mass and Holy Communion strengthened me and fortified me to proceed with my decision to follow Him.”

Reprinted and adapted, with permission, from Guam War Survivors Memorial Foundation by Christine Dimla Lizama.