(Note: By any yardstick, the occupation of Guam by enemy forces during World War II stands out as one of the most difficult periods in the long history of the Chamorros of Guam. Yet, amidst the pervasive sense of personal insecurity that prevailed throughout the 31 months of occupation, there were occasional experiences on a person-to-person level worth remembering. This is one of them).
I remember Ohari because of the human dimension he gave to the war. I was thirteen when the Japanese invaded Guam in December 1941. Tall for my age and big boned, I was mistaken to be much older and was put to work in a labor battalion along with the adult men of my village, building a landing strip for Japanese aviation units. After the recapture of Guam, the strip that we built was expanded to become the U. S. Naval Air Station which eventually became the International Airport on Guam.
Most of the work was done with handtools -- machetes for felling trees, shovels for digging, burlap sacks for carrying dirt coolie-style as we leveled the ground. The work left us lying exhausted on our mats each night, and it was during these dark quiet evenings that I got to know Ohari, a young Japanese Army lieutenant who was stationed in our village. He wanted to study in the United States. It had been his dream long before the war exploded such things, and he would come to our farm to learn English from my father in exchange for his teaching me rudimentary Japanese.
Ohari was a strangely quiet man given to long breaks in conversation. He would look off into the dark as if he were drawing from the whispering bamboo some private wisdom. And there was about him that air of gentleness that forbade associating him with any evil. We knew of the executions of civilians. Later we heard of the rapes and the massacres, but the guilt by association that fell on our other captors escaped Ohari. It was if he floated somehow beyond the pale of battle and the horrors of war.
So it was that I could not bring myself to answer one evening when he innocently asked my father and me, "Why are we doing this? Why are we at war?" My enemy was my friend, and I could not bring myself to hurt him. Nor could my father and we lapsed into silence. Perhaps he sensed our discomfort and he did not pursue the answer.
He asked the question again when he came to say good- bye before departing to face the imminent U.S. invasion in July 1944. Finding us had been no easy matter. The pre-invasion softening up of the island had been going on for days and we were scattered. The good-byes were necessarily brief, but he took a final moment to ask the question again, "Why is this happening? Why are we at war?" Seeing him there in full battle gear, his eyes haunted as if he knew a dream were eluding him, I was struck by the incongruity of it all, and again, I could say nothing and neither could my father. I suppose I realized the completeness of the approaching end. Nothing before or after could ever be the same. Faced with such a cataclysm, we try to preserve the past in fallow ground. We try to leave its roots undisturbed.
Finally, he looked away, an expression of chagrin on his face as if we had denied him the simplest of favors. As he was about to leave, to our astonishment, he turned around, clicked his heels, and bowed to my father and me. For the first time in the 31 months of enemy occupation, my father and I returned a bow to a member of the occupation forces, instead of initiating one as we were required to do under the threat of torture for refusing. We returned Ohari's bow out of respect, instead of fear.
When the invasion began, we cheered the shellbursts. We were oblivious to the destruction of our own homes, of everything familiar. It was like an incredible Fourth of July celebration, and we were elated because we knew we were being liberated. When it was all over, we celebrated.
I do not know what became of Ohari. Once the island was secured and our own scattered family reunited, my father and I searched the P.O.W. camps, but that was weeks after the initial landings. Perhaps he had been taken prisoner and moved. Perhaps he was one of the stragglers who kept their private wars intact for endless months. Or perhaps he was dead. We never knew what happened to him. We did not even know how to spell his name except phonetically.
Things, of course, have changed since World War II. Once a sleepy backwater, Guam is now a burgeoning tourist mecca. The Japanese, who stormed the island by force, now arrive daily on 747's and occupy the hotels to capacity and sunbathe on the beaches. Over a million and a half Japanese tourists would have visited Guam by the end of 1997.
Something else has changed as well. All during our quest for Ohari, his question had stuck with me. I suppose it was because of the guilt l felt when I remembered the pain and disappointment on his face when he left us. But now, having become a military man myself, I realize the pain he felt was not because we did not answer, but because our silence was the answer. Confronted with what was about to happen, there was nothing that could be said. Had I been less naive, had I not liked him so much, I might have blurted some pat answer. As it turned out, my silence which had brought him so much pain proved to be the only solace I could offer him.
On the 50th anniversary observance in December 1991 of America's entry into World War II, our people on Guam did something extraordinary. As our special guests for the three-day celebration, we invited surviving members of Japanese military units who served on Guam during the occupation. If my friend Ohari was in the group, I did not notice. And if he were, seeing the flag of his country flying alongside the flag of the United States and Guam over a national park in the territory would have wet his eyes.