HAGATNA, Guam — Cynthia Terlaje still has nightmares about the war. She was only 9 years old when her parents left her in the jungle of Manenggon, a village on the east side of Guam.
She had been hiding with her family while Americans bombed the island and fought Japanese soldiers to reclaim Guam at the height of World War II.
Japan invaded Guam just hours after bombing Pearl Harbor. The island’s defense fell within three days, the beginning of a two-and-a-half year occupation during which many indigenous Chamorros were tortured, raped, killed or forced to labor without food.
When her family left her, Terlaje didn’t know what was going on. She was malnourished and dehydrated, crying and alone.
Then someone heard her cries. A stranger picked her up and brought her to the safety of an American camp in Agat. She reunited with her family two days later.
She still remembers her mother kissing her before she left that day, but they never talked about it.
“She never told me about it,” Terlaje says. “I never asked her about it.”
Now 81 years old, Terlaje still lives on Guam. She has nine children and 44 grandchildren. The dangers of war are a distant past.
But as China and North Korea grow more aggressive and the U.S. beefs up its presence on Guam, Terlaje feels uneasy. She grew up in a military family and her husband served in the Army. She emphasizes that she respects and supports the military.
Yet she worries that plans to build a Marine Corps base on Guam and add live-fire training ranges on nearby islands are a sign that another war is coming. Even decades later, her voice still shakes and she tears up as she remembers the horror she endured.
“It’s scary,” she says.
And she wonders whether a stronger military presence will make Guam a target. She doesn’t want her children and grandchildren to ever have to experience what she went through.
For the past decade, the Department of Defense has been planning to build a Marine Corps base on Guam, adding to the Navy and Air Force bases that are already on the island.
The buildup initially called for relocating 8,000 Marines and their 9,000 dependents from Okinawa to Guam. But the military scaled down the plan considerably after Guam residents opposed it and filed a lawsuit against it.
The Department of Defense agreed to move a live-fire training range from Pagat, the site of an ancestral Chamorro village, to northern Guam. The agency also promised to give the government of Guam some land that it didn’t need, invest in local infrastructure and reduce its environmental waste.
Now, the plan is to move about 5,000 Marines to Guam. The new live-fire training range is slated to be built on military land, but it would be next to a wildlife refuge.
Leevin Camacho is an attorney and part of the community group We Are Guahan that opposed the idea of using Pagat for training.
He says the new plan is still frustrating because Guam’s National Wildlife Refuge will become a “surface danger zone,” a buffer for the training range.
But Camacho says it’s tough to continue to drum up public opposition after so many years of fighting the proposals. He acknowledges that he’s now part of a minority of Guam residents who still oppose the buildup.
Military officials and national security experts say that beefing up the military’s presence and training around the Mariana Islands is important because the archipelago is the closest U.S. land to Asia. It’s’ only about a three-hour flight to Manila and Tokyo.
The island chain’s strategic value has also been growing as the U.S. has run into trouble maintaining military bases in Asia despite its many allies. The Philippines ordered the U.S. to leave a strategic naval base in Subic Bay in 1991, and the country’s current President Rodrigo Duterte says he wants remaining U.S. troops out within two years.
The relocation of Marines to Guam was prompted by decades of protests by Okinawan residents who are frustrated by the U.S. military presence and by incidents of servicemen raping local women.
Now that the buildup has been scaled down, Guam Gov. Eddie Calvo says most Guam residents support the plan, in part because the island has a long history of U.S. military presence.
The U.S. acquired Guam after the Spanish-American War in 1899 and established a naval base there, and the island is now also home to an Air Force base. Like Hawaii, Guam relies on both tourism and the military to support its economy.
The buildup is already in progress. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been earmarked for housing construction, satellite communications facilities and other projects.
In 2013, the military also moved a new missile defense battery to Guam — the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense — to defend the island from threats by North Korea. The THAAD was permanently stationed on Guam this year.
“We’re off to the races, we’ve crossed the starting line and we’re well on our way to achieving the end state of having a Marine Corps base on Guam,” says Craig Whelden, executive director of Marine Corps Forces, Pacific.
But the relocation of 5,000 Marines to Guam is affecting more than just residents on that island. The Navy also wants to establish live-fire training facilities and other operations on the islands of Pagan and Tinian, both north of Guam. Pagan would become a bombing site.
Those proposals have sparked a lawsuit from environmental and community groups who say the training ranges should have been more critically evaluated before the relocation of 5,000 Marines was approved.
If the lawsuit is successful, it could force the Department of Defense to conduct even more environmental studies of Guam’s buildup, even potentially bring it to a halt.
While that’s good news to activists on Guam who oppose the buildup, it would be yet another hurdle for military officials and others who see beefing up Guam’s presence as essential for both national and local security.
“If you don’t have a (military) presence, you’re a weak spot,” says John Brown, an attorney living on Guam who leads a group called the Guam-U.S. Security Alliance. “We are the crossroads of anybody who has an interest in expanding their superpower status. Whether we like it or not, it’s our location that is going to determine our destiny.”
Benefits Of The Buildup
Navy Capt. Hans Sholley walks along the Orote peninsula at Naval Base Guam. Apra Harbor spreads out before him, a serene scene of deep blue water stretching to the horizon.
Sholley coordinates logistical and operational support for ships and military exercises — more than 700 operations last year.
He says the base’s support role will only increase once the Marines move from Okinawa to Guam.
“Seventy-two years ago might as well be yesterday here in Guam,” Sholley says. “What happened during the occupation and immediately following the occupation is still impacting everything we do here.”
He’s talking about the years-long occupation of Guam by Japan, which invaded the island on Dec. 8, 1941, just hours after it bombed Pearl Harbor (Guam is one day ahead of Hawaii due to the international date line).
On July 21, 1944, Marines landed on both sides of the Orote peninsula, and had retaken the harbor by July 30.
That’s when the harbor was dredged and tens of thousands of service members relocated there, Sholley explains.
Decades later, it’s still common to unearth utensils, Coca Cola bottles or even munitions left over from the war. A Japanese seaplane rests on the harbor’s sea floor, attracting curious divers.
But the legacy of the war is more than just physical reminders — some still carry the emotional scars.
Cleotilde Bamba was only 10 years old the morning that Japan invaded Guam. She had just finished receiving her first Holy Communion, a Catholic sacrament, at the cathedral in the village of Hagatna when the bombing started.
Everyone was running around, screaming and trying to find their family remembers, she remembers. She and her siblings were crying and terrified. Her family fled to her grandfather’s farm in the village of Yona.
That was the beginning of years of Japanese occupation, She and her family were forced to work for the soldiers, often laboring for hours without food.
Two of her brothers died and she says her mother narrowly escaped being beheaded.
Now 84 years old, Bamba says the military buildup is important because people on Guam need the military to take care of the community.
“We cannot protect ourselves without the military,” she says.
In the decades since the war, the U.S. has built a robust presence on Guam. It’s home not just to the naval base but also Anderson Air Force Base. The island has a high rate of military enlistment and the federal government uses more than a fourth of the island for military operations.
Paul Giarra is a retired naval officer who leads a national defense and strategic planning firm in Washington, D.C., and was recently a fellow at the Center for New American Security.
He says it’s “long overdue” that the U.S. start beefing up its military presence in the Mariana Islands. Giarra also thinks that it’s inevitable that the U.S. will go to war with China.
“If we don’t want to fight China we have to be ready to fight China,” he says.
Apart from national security concerns, the buildup is also beneficial to Guam’s economy. Jeff Jones is a local businessman who is part of the Guam Chamber of Commerce. At an interview at his office in a car dealership along Marine Corps Drive, Jones points to a graph showing how the buildup is expected to boost tax revenue.
“A lot of people don’t realize how dependent we are on military spending,” he says, estimating that military service members contribute almost $100 million to the local economy in income taxes.
He notes that military construction jobs tend to pay higher wages, and that Guam’s economic booms have generally been tied to construction.
He acknowledges there are concerns about the buildup but says, “Something this big, you’re not going to get everybody to agree with it.”
“People don’t want our island and our culture to be overrun but at the same time people, they have to live, and they have to have jobs and to support our families,” he says. “The reality is that we need economic stimulus in our economy for people to be able to achieve their dreams and support their families.”
But when Camacho looks at the graph showing the economic benefits of the military buildup, he sees a small increase that’s not worth the costs. Most of the jobs are going to have to filled by workers coming from outside of Guam, and Camacho doesn’t believe the buildup is necessary to sustain Guam’s economy.
The military’s plans tap into old grievances, too. Just a short drive from Orote peninsula on the Guam Naval Base, there’s an old cemetery, muddy and forlorn.
The tombstones are so old that some of the names have faded. Pastel decorations adorn some of them, clashing with the aging gray and white of the crosses and blocks.
It’s one of the only reminders that the base was built over a village known as Sumay, forcing residents to relocate to neighboring Santa Rita. Descendants of Sumay villagers are only allowed to visit their ancestral land a couple of times each year.
Even though the graves are all that’s left of the village, they’ve become a symbol. Despite the strategic value of Guam and the economic benefits, the military’s presence comes at a cost.
Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero is one of the activists from the group We Are Guahan who protested and ended up suing the military over the original plan to bring 8,000 Marines and 9,000 dependents to Guam.
The group was successful in convincing the military not to put a live-fire range on Pagat, the site of an ancestral Chamorro village.
But the new location is still problematic. It borders a federal wildlife refuge that’s home to endangered birds and numerous historic sites.
Currently, the public can visit the refuge’s beach or take a tour of caves with ancient pictographs. Traditional healers sometimes collect medicinal herbs there.
But access to much of the refuge will likely be cut off once it becomes essentially a buffer zone around the live-fire training range at nearby Anderson Air Force Base.
Congress approved military negotiations with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for use of the refuge. The law came at the urging of Guam’s longtime congressional representative, Madeleine Bordallo, whose top donors include military contractors.
Meanwhile, the Department of Defense hasn’t fulfilled its promise to create a cultural repository for artifacts found during the construction of a new Marine Corps base, nor has the agency established a public health lab. The agency didn’t receive funding for either project from Congress this year.
Leon Guerrero grew up on Guam but wasn’t active in military issues until her senior year of college when she saw a New York Times article in which an admiral called Guam “the trailer park of the Pacific.”
Leon Guerrero was shocked by how much military officials seemed to take for granted that they could do anything they wanted to on Guam.
The island is still on the United Nations’ list of non-self-governing territories, and Chamorros from Guam have intermittently sought to achieve self-determination since the war.
“This (buildup) is something imposed on our communities and it’s not something that we chose for ourselves,” Leon Guerrero says. “It’s not something that we decided on, because it’s something that the U.S. is doing for their interests.”
She thinks Guam would be safer if it weren’t such a military bastion.
But Guam Gov. Eddie Calvo believes Guam’s proximity to Asia means that the island is vulnerable to attacks whether or not there’s a strong military presence.
During Calvo’s first year in office, North Korea’s leader — or as the governor calls him, “the crazy guy with a funky hairdo” — threatened to nuke Guam.
There’s also the fact that the U.S. military has been a fixture on Guam for more than a century.
“The military has been a part of our community and it’s been a part of our economy,” he said. “I don’t see that changing.”
The military buildup has been partly credited for boosting the island’s luxury real estate market, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal last year. The sale of homes priced above $500,000 has jumped more than 50 percent in three years and more million-dollar properties are also being picked up, often by Asian buyers.
Calvo thinks those economic benefits are important, and he doesn’t buy Leon Guerrero’s argument that the island would be safer without its military bases.
“Guam has value because of its location,” he says. “It had value when we weren’t militarized and it definitely has value when we are a military bastion as we are today.”
There’s a reason that Guam is one of the most developed islands in the Pacific even if it’s not the largest or most populous, he says.
“Location, location, location,” he said, adding that in retail, that can mean success. “In geo-politics, it can also be a bulls-eye.”