To this day, whenever we speak of the period before the "war" and after the "war" we invariably mean World War II. We do this even though sons and daughters of Guam have been involved in other wars since World War II: in Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf. The invasion, occupation, and eventual liberation of Guam made such an indelible impact on our people that it is likely to serve as the benchmark, and the road junction, and the springboard for what we do for many, many years to come.
While this difficult period deprived those of my generation most of our tender teen years, it taught us more about life, family and ourselves than I, for one, had ever learned before or since in all the schools I have attended. The Chamorro spirit was not an abstraction; rather, it was demonstrably real during those years and I have drawn inspiration and sustenance from that reality my entire life.
Our World War II experience was harsh by any standard. Severe deprivation, indignities,and punishment were commonplace. There was always that pervasive sense of personal insecurity. Most members of my generation as well as those in the generation ahead of us prefer not to dwell on the scars of those difficult years.
But those of us who survived the trial of the war years bear witness to a side of the occupation that I will call the "inner Guam," one that the enemy was never privileged to enter. It was the purest product of that cauldron of war, the brightest star in the dark sky of those traumatic times.
They would recall, as I do, the manifestation and magnificence of the Chamorro spirit. Though only a legend to some, it is a living, breathing reality to us; a source of strength that saw us through the worst of times and guides us in the challenging days ahead.
My generation was caught between childhood and adulthood. The unexpected and violent interruption of our lives and the common adversity that we shared gave our parents and elders an unusual opportunity to inculcate in us much more vital learning than we could have received in calmer times.
Challenged by the threatening experience of war and pressed to our limits, we learned things about human nature and ourselves that we might not have been able to grasp in peaceful, less demanding, times.
We learned to be tolerant when things were intolerable; to be generous when there was so little to give; to be patient when our deepest desire was to end our bondage and to be ourselves, preserving our language and culture while the enemy was trying to impose his on us.
Life seemed more endangered, more tentative, and therefore, more precious then. We learned through toil the sweetness of the saltiness of the sweat that trickled down our faces at the peak of a hard day's work.
We clearly saw and keenly appreciated the basic choices of life, between freedom and bondage; justice and oppression; hope and despair; surviving and perishing. Through the heat and dust and smoke, we saw ourselves and what we stood for.
There were many painful experiences in that dark period in our history. But they were many pleasant and inspirational memories as well:
As excruciating and as harrowing as the occupation was, our people did not surrender without a fight and did not stop fighting after the surrender. In the face of an overwhelmingly larger enemy force, a handful of U. S. sailors and Marines stood their ground. Standing beside them, with equal valor and courage but even with greater pride and determination, were members of the Navy Insular Force Guard.
For these men, Chamorros all, the defense of Guam meant the defense of home, family, and honor. Although they wore the same U. S. Navy uniforms, their pay was exactly one-half of the pay of their comrades from the States. Despite the fact that they fought under the same flag, they were considered only half-brothers in the patronizing, colonial society on Guam at that time.
Yet, when it came time to shed blood against foreign invaders, the Chamorros of the Navy Insular Force Guard demonstrated their loyalty to the United States in the same way they demonstrated their love for the U. S. principles of freedom and democracy: not halfheartedly, but totally and wholeheartedly.
It is that commitment to home, family and honor that has sustained us over the years as a people. In the years since Magellan landed on Guam in 1521, our people have been colonized, proselytized, Catholicized, and subsidized. Guam has fallen under Spanish, American, Japanese and a second American rule.
But never have we been asked what we as a people wanted. Progress, whatever there was of it, moved at the pace of the administering authority. It was his choice to uncover or cover at his will what he wished to know about us, and it was our lot to remain mute to the process. The attitude developed that the foreigners' right to dominate the land was established by their finding it, and the people, like the flora and fauna, had no alternative but to acquiesce in silence.
The Spaniards made Guam their own, but never did they ask the Chamorro people, the Old People, what relationship should be forged with them. Nor, centuries later, when the United States took control of the island did it ask the descendants of those Chamorros and Spaniards what association should be formed.
We must wonder why the colonizing forces never asked this most fundamental question. Perhaps they felt that the new order they were bringing was so progressive that the people could not help but be overjoyed to embrace it. Or, perhaps the ugly hand of racism was at work, and they believed the people could not tell the difference between freedom and subjugation.
Whatever the case, with the close of the war and with increased educational opportunities becoming available to the people of Guam, those of my generation realized the disparities we had accepted without question for so long did not have to be the case. It was as if we had been born blind and then miraculously had been given sight.
It came as a shock to realize that darkness was not inevitable nor the natural state of the world. And so it was we who realized that we were not a second class people. Invisible barriers were just that -- invisible and without reason. New horizons revealing a whole array of vistas began to open before us. We had been told for generations, for example, that should we join the Navy, we were worthy to serve only as stewards. My generation began to ask: And why not officers? There was no reply.
And so slowly at first, and then with accelerating force, we set out on a quest to achieve our self-determination as a people -- economically, culturally, and politically.
Genuine self-determination, if the word is to have any meaning, is a self-help program. If you truly want it, if it truly means anything to you, you must reach in for it because nobody is going to reach out for you. That we have done.
During the 25th Anniversary of Liberation Day in 1969, I had the privilege of serving as aide-de-camp to one of the most distinguished officers in the Marine Corps, General Lemeul C. Shepherd, who was the guest of honor. Having commanded a Marine brigade during the liberation of Guam, General Shepherd had a very special place in his heart for the people of Guam and, in particular, for those under his command who were killed in action during the battle for Guam.
I remember still his closing remarks before a full house at the Guam Legislature: "When I get to heaven," he said, "my men who died here during the war will be at the gate waiting for me with this question: 'Lem, was dying during the battle for Guam worth it?' My simple answer will be, 'you damn right it was.'"