That’s what my Mom asked me one day way back in 1968 when I informed my parents that my current girlfriend, a girl from Guam I had met at work the year before, and I were getting pretty serious regarding our relationship. And I have heard similar questions over the years about the birthplace of that girl I married in 1969. So maybe I should spend a little time here explaining a bit of geography and recent history before delving into the nitty-gritties of what Guam is all about today.
Here’s the way my daughter explains where Guam is: Find Tokyo, Japan on a world map and put your middle finger there. Then place your thumb on the northernmost tip of Australia. Then touch the map with your index finger. It should be on Guam!
There are thousands of islands in the western Pacific Ocean spread out in a rectangle for about 2500 miles. The experts call it Micronesia. It’s west of a larger triangle called Polynesia that has Hawaii at its northeast point, Easter Island at the southeast and New Zealand at the third point in the southwest. Micronesia is above the equator. Just south of Micronesia below the equator are another group of islands called Melanesia.
Guam is the largest island in Micronesia but is still pretty small — only 30 miles long and 4 miles wide in the middle. A Portuguese explorer named Ferdinand Magellan landed on Guam in 1521. A Jesuit priest named Diego Luis de San Vitores arrived on Guam in 1668 and began to spread the Catholic faith to the local people who called themselves Chamorro. Padre San Vitores named the group of islands of which Guam is the southernmost the Marianas after his benefactor, Queen Mariana of Austria, wife of King Charles II of Spain. He was killed by natives four years later but just about all Chamorros eventually became Catholics as Spain began using Guam as a stopover on their treasure galleon route from Mexico to the Philippines and back.
Guam stayed under the influence of Spain for the next 230 years. The Spanish built forts to ward off pirates and introduced pigs, deer, chicken, horses, cows, dogs and carabao to the island. They also brought a number of diseases to the island and the local population was almost wiped out in 1815 when an epidemic of smallpox spread over the island. The natives also rebelled a few times and the Spaniards killed most of the males. Then they brought some natives from other islands south of Guam — islands now part of the Republic of Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia — to supplement the local Chamorro population.
The United States took Guam from Spain during the Spanish-American War in 1898 and the US Navy began governing the island. Spain then sold the rest of their Micronesian possessions to Germany but in 1914 Japan decided to take over the rest of the Mariana Islands. Then on December 8, 1941 the Japanese decided to take over Guam, too, and by December 10th the island was theirs and the American defense force of about 500 individuals spent the rest of the war in a prison camp in Japan.
Japan occupied Guam for two and a half years and treated the native Chamorros horribly. My wife was born during this occupation and was eight months old when the US returned and took back the island in a bloody three-week battle that resulted in the deaths of about 1800 US military and 18,000 Japanese. About 1100 Chamorros were killed during the Japanese occupation. [For more on the US involvement in Guam, Tinian and Saipan during World War II see my posting here on the War in the Marianas.]
The US Navy took over the governing of Guam again after the war but in 1950 the Chamorros were declared American citizens and were allowed to govern themselves. The US also tried to join Guam with the rest of the Marianas but that wasn’t going to happen. The Chamorros of Guam were very resentful of the Saipanese Chamorros who sided with Japan during the war and some of them actually worked for the Japanese military in the torture and enslavement of the people of Guam during the occupation. So now there are five territories of the US – the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. And the US came up with the term “Guamanian” to differentiate the Chamorros of Guam from the Chamorros of the Northern Marianas. So call the people of Guam Chamorros or Guamanians. But please don’t call them Guamese!
People living in the US Territories are American citizens but they cannot vote for President. Madeleine Bordallo is the current Representative from Guam in the US Congress and she can speak before the Congress and introduce bills. But she cannot vote.
After the war the US government claimed more than 60% of the land on Guam for military bases but that amount was later cut back. I first visited Guam in the 1970s when there were more than 250,000 military personnel and their families on the island. That presence has also been drastically reduced although there are plans in place to eventually remove all military personnel from Okinawa and transfer them to Guam. Today there are about 165,000 civilians living on Guam, including 61,215 Chamorros, 43,395 Filipinos, 18,645 other Pacific Islanders, 11,385 whites, 10,395 other Asian, 3,795 other races, and 16,170 mixed. There are about the same number of Chamorros living today in California, Washington and Hawaii as there are back in Guam!
Japanese tourism is the chief industry on Guam today with the American Military as the second largest source of income.
So that’s enough of history and geography and demographics. Tomorrow I will start posting about life in Guam today.