Battle for Guam, Part I

Up until about the 1970s, almost everyone in America could recall the events of 7 December 1941. This was the day Japanese Imperial forces launched their sneak attack against the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. We refer to this engagement as a sneak attack because the Japanese launched their assault before issuing a formal declaration of war, giving no time to the Americans to prepare themselves for the commencement of hostilities. This is not altogether true, of course. Only an idiot could argue that our entire defense structure —including the President of the United States— was unaware of Japan’s wartime modus operandi dating back to the First Sino-Japanese War. Franklin D. Roosevelt not only expected a Japanese assault against the United States —he did everything within his power to provoke one.

Today, the few people who remember Pearl Harbor Day now recall the events as part of the National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day observation, a designation of the United States Congress through Public Law 103-308. On this date, the flag of the United States is flown at half-staff or half-mast from one minute after sunrise until sunset.   So few people remember Pearl Harbor Day as one consequence of our pathetic education system today—so it would probably be too much to expect anyone education in an American public school to know what transpired on the next day: 8 December 1941.

Map of Guam 1941The Empire of Japan seized an American island in the Pacific called Guam.

Guam became a territory of the United States resulting from its war with Spain in 1898. In the next year, Spain sold its remaining Mariana Islands possessions to Germany. Japan, a member of the Triple Entente, began to occupy the Northern Marianas as early as 1914. After World War I, the League of Nations entrusted the Northern Marianas to Japan as part of its South Pacific Mandate. The Northern Marianas included Saipan and Tinian, initially used by the Japanese for sugarcane production.

Situated 140 miles south/south west of Saipan, Guam has a land area of 212 square miles. It is the southern-most island in the Mariana Island chain, and the largest island of Micronesia. Guam is the result of colliding Pacific and Philippine Sea tectonic plates and it is the closest landmass to the Mariana Trench, a deep subduction zone that lays eastward of the island chain. The island is roughly 30 miles long, ranges from 4 to 12 miles wide, and is subject to earthquake activity measuring from 5 to 8.7 in magnitude. Contrary to the opinion of one member of the House of Representatives, it is not very likely that Guam will capsize because of increases to human population [1].

There are no active volcanoes associated with Guam, but volcano activities do affect Guam from Anatahan, about 200 miles north. Surrounding the island is a coral table reef with deep-water channels. The best characterizations of Guam include sandy beaches, rock cliff lines, thick mangroves, sheer limestone coastal cliffs in the north, and rugged mountainous jungle in the southern portion.

The climate of Guam is tropical marine moderated by seasonal northeast trade winds. The weather is hot (high 90s) and humid with little seasonal variation. Average rainfall is 96 inches with a pronounced rainy season between July and November. Guam is located in what many people refer to as typhoon alley, the highest risk to turbulent storms occurring in October-November.

The Navy’s conquest of Guam in 1898 was an opportunity for the United States to establish advanced naval facilities in the region of the Central Pacific. Marines provided security beginning in 1901; Marine Barracks Guam guarded the Naval Base and coaling station at Piti Point. A battery of 6-inch guns installed in 1909 bolstered island defenses.

Admiral George J. McMillinCommanding the Naval Station Guam between 1899-1940 was a Navy Captain, who also served as Governor of Guam. This responsibility fell upon the shoulders of Rear Admiral (Lower Half [2]) George J. McMillin in 1940, who commanded Guam on the day the Japanese Imperial Navy stripped the island away from the Americans —a move that was always part of the Japanese plan for its war against the United States.

Japan’s thrust to Guam originated from the island of Saipan. Initially, the attack was limited to air assaults that focused on the Marine Barracks at Sumay, on the Orote Peninsula, the Naval Station at Piti Point, the Libugon Radio Station, the property belonging to Standard Oil Company, Pan American Hotel, a few surrounding villages near Agana, and the Government House.

Horii TomitaroImperial Japanese Marines of the 5th Defense Force came ashore on 10 December 1941. Landing at Dungcas Beach, the Japanese quickly overwhelmed the Insular Guard and began their advance toward the Marine Barracks and Piti Point. After a few hours, Admiral McMillin ordered all US forces to surrender. Major General Horii Tomitaro, commanding the Imperial Japanese South Seas Detached Force of 5,500 men, landed his forces at Tumon Bay, Merizo, and Talafofo Bay.

During the hours-long battle, Imperial Japanese Marines executed 13 American civilians and 5 POWs. Overall American military casualties included 17 killed, 35 wounded, 408 captured, two vessels scuttled, two vessels captured. The Japanese executed one additional Marine after the battle. One lone Navy radioman, with the help of Chamorro villagers, successfully evaded Japanese capture for 30 months —but the cost of this was high: the Japanese punished the Guamanian people with torture, rape, and beheadings.



[1] During a House committee meeting, Rep. Hank Johnson expressed his concern to a Navy admiral that stationing 8,000 Marines on Guam might cause the island to “become so overpopulated that it will dip over and capsize.” In spite of this demonstrated genius, Hank Johnson has won reelection to the house since 2007. He represents the Fourth Congressional District.

[2] The US Navy divides Rear Admiral into two ranks: lower half is a one-star officer; upper half is a two star officer. This rank is Commodore in most other navies. No one knows why the US does this, but it affects the Navy, Coast Guard, Public Health Service, and NOAA flag ranks.

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Retired Marine, historian, writer.

6 thoughts on “Battle for Guam, Part I”

  1. I believe that the Navy radioman who evaded capture wrote a book about his experiences after the war.


    1. You are correct, Mr. Gray. George Ray Tweed (1902-1989) and the title of his book was Robinson Crusoe, USN. A 1962 film starred Tab Hunter. You will find an interesting summary of this event here.


    2. Thank you for posting the link. I read Tweed’s book many, many years ago and was impressed of the courage and loyalty of those who helped him evade capture. The people of Guam were incredibly brave in the face of the despicable and arrogant brutality of the occupying Japanese forces.


  2. Dang it, I got hung up on Tweed then got called away for a bit… I’ve never seen that movie specifically about Tweed but I was positively sure I saw a mention of him in another movie. A junior officer sets off a sub with a small party armed with a Thompson to retrieve this unknown man from an island’s beach. They successfully return and later, somebody said something to the effect that “he checks out” regarding his unbelievable history on Guam. I thought it was PT 109 but it was the wrong scene.

    The Chamorro villagers were incredibly brave as were the Marines who were outgunned and out manned so early in the war. Very sad…


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