Guam was an important fueling station for naval vessels making the long run to and from the Far East, a relay point for the trans-Pacific cable, the site of a naval radio station, and a stop for Pan American clippers. A force of 147 Marines, an 80-man Insular Force Guard, and a 246-man, volunteer, ill-armed, ill-trained native militia protected Guam’s 20,000 Chamorros. The island's government departments and naval station activities were manned by 271 regular Navy personnel, under the command of Captain George J. McMillin, who was both island governor and garrison commander.
8 December 1941
At 0545 on 8 December 1941 (7 December in Hawaii because of the International Date Line), Captain George McMillin was in his quarters when he received the riveting news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Reacting quickly, he immediately ordered the island on a war footing in accordance with the contingency plan he had prepared with LtCol William K. McNulty, commanding officer Marine Barracks, Sumay.
“We had absolutely no doubt the Japs were about to attack us in Guam,” PFC Carroll D. “Barney” Barnett said. “We also knew that we could not defend Guam if the Japanese invaded. We simply were not armed or prepared in any way. For weeks we knew with certainty that war was coming. On Thursday, 3 December . . . we destroyed all records and buried all the money from the paymaster’s office . . . we also emptied the arsenal and divided up the ammunition. We kept our old obsolete Springfield rifles . . . and small amount of ammunition on our bunks.”
“Steps were taken immediately to evacuate the civilian population from Agaña [the capital], and from the vicinity of possible military objectives,” McMillin noted. “All navigation lights were ordered extinguished. Schools were suspended, and church gatherings prohibited. . . . The Bank of Guam was ordered to remain closed . . . instructions were issued that no destruction was to start without specific orders from Government House, or when it was definitely apparent that the Japanese were on the Island.” The Insular Force Guard was mobilized, drew weapons, and took up defensive positions around the Plaza de Espanza.
All Japanese nationals were immediately rounded up and confined in jail. Captain Charles S. Todd recalled that McMillin told him, “Charlie, round up all these Japanese (local residents), put them in the [concrete] jail and turn all the other prisoners loose.” Ironically, when the Japanese bombed the island, “Some of the bombs fell close to the jail,” Todd noted. “They didn't hit them [inmates], but jarred the building. They were not very happy about that.” He responded to their anger. “They’re your own people. There’s nothing I can do about that!”
‘Begin Attack on Guam Immediately’
Throughout October and November 1941, the Saipan-based 18th Air Unit, a small force of seaplanes, began flying secret photographic reconnaissance missions over Guam, “though for days we had been seeing high flying planes which we presumed to be Japanese from Saipan, 120 miles away,” Seaman Robert O’Brien recalled. The photographs were used by the Japanese invasion force to plan its attack. “I was given a map of Guam Island said to have been drawn up from air photos,” said Second Lieutenant Yanigiba Yutaba of the Japanese 144th Infantry Regiment.
The Japanese secretly landed eight Saipan natives on the night of 8 December. PFC Ray Church on beach patrol found dozens of split-toe footprints and immediately recognized them as belonging to infiltrators. McMillin noted, “A report came in that a native dugout had landed about daybreak near Ritidian Point, the northern end of the island, and that about eight Japanese from Rota had entered the island. The patrol and police arrested and brought in three men who admitted that they were natives of Saipan, that they had relatives in Guam, and that the Japanese had sent them over to act as interpreters when the Japanese landing force arrived.
“These men were identified by reliable natives of Guam as residents of Saipan. The men said the Japanese would make their landing the next morning [Tuesday], in the vicinity of Recreation Beach, to the eastward of Agaña. This proved correct, except that the landing was made on Wednesday, 10 December. I asked these men why they gave me this information. They replied to the effect that the Japanese had treated the natives of Saipan like slaves, and that they had determined to tell what they knew, even though they would be shot should the Japanese find out about it.
“I was not inclined to accept the story at the time since I thought it might be a trick to have the Marines moved from Sumay to the beach during the night, in order that they might make a landing in the Apra Harbor area without opposition. The three informers were locked up in jail, where the Japanese found them two days later. Three of them were caught and interrogated. They admitted being sent as interpreters for the Japanese invasion force and provided information on the date and place of the landing.”
On 8 December, three hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 18th Air Group based on Saipan was ordered to attack Guam immediately after the first air attack against America (Pearl Harbor) was confirmed. “Begin attack on Guam immediately, to destroy enemy warships and defensive installations.”
The first bombs exploded near the Marine barracks, wounding several men as they ran for protection. Another bomb hit the Pan American Hotel, killing two Guamanian kitchen employees. Then the bombers attacked the old minesweeper USS Penguin (AM-33) “moored to a buoy right in the middle of the harbor,” O’Brien recounted. “When we saw the bombers, I simply slipped the chain in the chain locker and let her rip. The bombers missed us by about two miles in their first pass and went on to bomb shore installations.”
Lieutenant (j.g.) Marion B. Olds, Chief Navy Nurse at the naval hospital, recalled, “The planes—I counted nine of them—came in at great height . . . they passed by and I wondered if they were merely on reconnaissance. Then I knew they had come on business. Dull, flat echoes sounded in the distance. The Japs had flown over the capital to drop their bombs on naval installations at the farther end of the island. They came in waves—bombers and fighters. The bombers dropped their eggs and the ground shook.”
The attack lasted for more than eight hours. The planes strafed and bombed the seaplane ramp, cable station, the two-story Marine Barracks, “Station Baker,” the secret Navy monitoring and transmitter station on Libugon Hill, and the straw-roofed houses of Sumay.
Station Baker was one of a number of critical links in the Navy’s secret Radio Intelligence (intercept) stations targeting Japanese naval communications. Specially trained radio operators monitored Japanese ship frequencies throughout the Pacific. “Within a short while, we were able to differentiate between Japanese ships, planes, civil traffic, military traffic, and even the [individual] radio operators,” Radioman Harold Joslin explained. The station’s radio operators were captured but not before they destroyed all the classified material.
A local resident described the panic in the village. “People were crying, running . . . we all tried to hide . . . we couldn’t believe this was happening to our village, to our peaceful island.” The aerial bombardment continued until the invasion started on 10 December.
“Enemy planes appeared from the direction of Saipan shortly after 8 o’clock,” McMillin reported. “The first bombs were dropped on the Marine Reservation and vicinity at 0827.” Jesus C. Lizama, a Sumay resident, recalled, “The Marines were running out with their skivvie shirts and underwear and rifles and they started shooting. Some of them were standing up, some lying down, and they were shooting up at the planes because they were so low.” Barnett recalled, “I was just leaving the galley, heading for the Marine radio station, when the first bombing raid started. A bomb hit next to the radio station and killed a guy inside. I remember seeing [PFC James W.] Babb get hit and his leg was torn to pieces.” The leg was later amputated.
The Japanese bombed and strafed the aged USS Penguin, which put up a desperate defense with her pair of 3-inch .50-caliber anti-aircraft guns. “We had a probable hit on one,” O’Brien said. “It went on for an hour before the Japanese ever managed to drop bombs close enough to do any real damage . . . they bracketed us close enough that they tore the ship apart . . . we lost power [and] settled fast.”
Ensign Robert G. White was killed when a ricocheted bullet hit him in the chest. “He collapsed in my arms,” S1 Edwin J. “Knobby” Serdes said, “with blood spurting from the wound in his chest, and I could see his heart . . . he died in less than three minutes.”
Many of the crew were wounded in the attack, and the ship was taking on water. A crew member “looked down and saw water pouring in from a ruptured seam.” The wounded ship’s captain, Lieutenant James W. Haviland, III, ordered her scuttled and abandoned off Orote Point. “The last thing that went down was the American flag. It was a fantasy world . . . [it] just couldn’t happen,” a disbelieving Water Tender Second Class Edward N. Howard recalled.
The crew abandoned ship, some in a salvaged life raft, while others swam for shore. The Japanese strafed them. “It was maddening thing to see the planes trying to pick them off,” O’Brien fumed. Eight of the crew were subsequently executed when they attempted to stop the Japanese ground assault.
The Japanese so badly damaged the 3,000-ton oil tanker USS Robert L. Barnes (AO-14) at her mooring buoy that she had to be abandoned. The ship was salvaged by the Japanese and placed back in service. (At the end of the war, the Barnes would be recovered and would serve commercial interests until scrapped in 1950.) Additionally, the yard boat YP-16 was scuttled and the YP-17 captured.
Piti Navy Yard, one of the first targets, was bombed and strafed and heavily damaged. Thousands of Chamorro residents fled Agaña for the relative safety of the hills and jungles.
9 December 1941
The Japanese continued to bomb and strafe for the next two days. Bombs demolished the Marine barracks area, set the Standard Oil tanks on fire, and destroyed the Pan American installation. “We had only two Lewis machine guns, World War I vintage, with pan feed, 30 rounds to the pan, and about 100 rifles stamped on the stocks, ‘Do not shoot,’” O’Brien complained. “They were given to Guam for use in training a militia and were actually dangerous to use. But we used them.”
According to the History of Marine Corps Operations in World War II, Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal, “The Insular Force Guard was posted to protect government buildings in Agaña. . . . Lieutenant Colonel William K. McNulty’s 122 Marines of the Sumay barracks continued to improve their rifle range defenses, and the 28 Marines who were assigned to the Insular Patrol, the island’s police force, kept their stations in villages throughout Guam.”
An overwhelming Japanese invasion force consisting of six transports, four heavy cruisers, four destroyers, two gunboats, six submarine chasers, two minesweepers and two destroyer tenders steamed from Saipan for Guam.
10 December 1941: Sakusen ‘G’ (Operation G)—the Seizure of Guam
The Japanese assault force—4,886 men of the 144th Infantry Regiment and 370 men of the 5th Company, 2nd Battalion, Maizuri Special Naval Landing Force (SNLF), comprising the South Seas (or Nankai) Detachment—began landing at 0400. The SNLF came ashore at Dungcas Beach, north of Agaña, and quickly advanced to the capital. The lead element ran into a group of 13 Chamorros, including women and children fleeing the area in a small bus. The troops opened firing and then bayoneted most of those that survived the fusillade.
Marion Olds, on duty at the Naval Hospital, recalled, “There were several new patients at the hospital, among them an American, his native wife and her brother. They had been shot—and bayoneted. The bayonet wounds meant only one thing. The Japs had landed on Guam.”
The main force, the 144th Infantry Regiment, landed on the west coast at Tumon Bay and Talafofo Bay, intending to drive northward along the coast to Agat. The landing ran into difficulty when it discovered there was no adequate road from the beachhead to Agat. The troops re-embarked and landed at Facpi, too late to participate in forcing the surrender of the U.S. forces.
McMillin noted, “About 0400, I was informed by the watch that flares had been seen in the vicinity of the beach to the eastward of Agaña (Recreation Beach, Dungas Beach), and it was thought landing operations were in progress. There were no defenses at this point, or at any other point on the land. Orders were immediately sent to all station to carry out the mission assigned.” About 45 minutes later, shooting was heard in the San Antonio district, east of the Plaza [de Espana].”
Robert O’Brien explained that “a group of our Penguin men, six in all, had been established at the power plant . . . they saw the Japanese moving up the beach. Instead of falling back to the Plaza a half mile inland, as had been their orders, they decided to attack the Japanese. They did, and the initial surprise worked well for a few minutes. They had one BAR [Browning automatic rifle] with them and they mowed down a good number. However, in moments the Japanese recovered from their surprise, killed all six of our boys quickly,” and mutilated the remains.
Plaza de Espana
Fewer than a hundred men set up a small hasty perimeter in the grass and bushes around the Plaza de Espana. “A bush couldn’t stop a beer can,” O’Brien commented, “but we had nothing else . . . nothing had been done early enough to make sand bag emplacements.” They were armed with rifles and two .30-caliber machine guns. Pedro Cruz, one of the three platoon leaders who manned the machine guns, perhaps best expressed the sentiments of Guam's defenders: “The only thought in my mind was: If I must die, I hope to God I kill some Japanese.” PFC Ray Church recalled, “We stationed them around the governor’s palace, eight Marines and 30 militia, most of whom had never even shot their rifles before.”
The Japanese approached rapidly through the San Antonio district and approached the Plaza on the narrow street alongside the Naval Hospital and cathedral. “As it reached the corner, our machine guns opened up on them,” PFC William G. Johnston wrote in his diary. “They were driven back. The Japanese reformed, again advanced and were driven back again, although their rifle fire by now had killed or wounded several [defenders].” Ray Church was “lying under a hedge when the Japanese came up and knocked off my helmet with a rifle and I was taken prisoner.”
At about 0545, the decision was made to surrender. “The situation was simply hopeless, resistance had been carried to the limit,” McMillin reported. The surrender was described by Johnston: “The governor had gone upstairs to his quarters to change from civilian clothes to uniform, so Commander Donald T. Giles, second in command, and Chief Boatswain’s Mate Robert Bruce Lane stepped out from the Government House waving a white handkerchief. Giles crawled and ran to an automobile parked in front and blew the horn three times. A Japanese officer blew a whistle and firing ceased. Harris Chuck recalled, ‘Using a bullhorn, an interpreter for a Japanese officer called across the plaza, ‘You are surrendered. You must surrender. Send over your governor’.’”
Radioman Second Class Bobbie Epperson recounted, “We could see and hear the Japanese approaching. In full camouflage and split-toed shoes, completely covered with netting and foliage, the Japanese appeared nonhuman, alien-like—their screaming increasing as they came toward us. If they were trying to frighten us, they were successful.”
When they reached the schoolhouse, the Japanese officer placed them under arrest as prisoners of war and marched them to the Agaña Navy Yard on the waterfront for them to surrender to the Japanese general in command of the enemy expedition. They were returned to the Plaza with the general, who demanded the formal surrender of the island by the governor.
“I was captured in the reception room of my quarters about 20 minutes after the cease-firing signal,” McMillin reported. “The leader of the squad of Japanese who entered my quarters required me to remove my jacket and trousers before marching me into the Plaza, where officers and men were being assembled, covered by machine guns.”
McMillin later was taken to Government House where he signed a letter of surrender:
“1. I, Captain George J. McMillin, United States Naval Station, Guam, by authority of my commission from the President of the United States, do, as a result of superior military forces landed on Guam this date, as an act of war, surrender this post to you as the representative of the Imperial Japanese Government.
“2. The responsibility of the civil government of Guam becomes yours as of the time of signing this document.
3. I have been assured by you that the civil rights of the population of Guam will be respected and that the military forces surrendered to you will be accorded all the rights stipulated by International Law and the laws of humanity.”
The Japanese issued a proclamation: “We proclaim herewith that our Japanese Army has occupied this island of Guam by order of the Great Emperor of Japan. It is for the purpose of restoring liberty and rescuing the whole Asiatic people and creating the permanent peace in Asia. Thus our intention is to establish the New Order of the World.
“You all good citizens need not worry anything under the regulations of our Japanese authorities and my [sic] enjoy your daily life as we guarantee your lives and never distress nor plunder your property. In case, however, when use demand you [sic] accommodations necessary for our quarters and lodgings, you shall meet promptly with our requirements. In that case our Army shall not fail to pay you in our currency.
“Those you conduct any defiance and who act spy [sic] against our enterprise, shall be court martialed and the Army shall take strict care to execute said criminals by shooting!
“Dated this 10th day of December 2601 in Japanese calendar or by this 10th day of December, 1941. By order of the Japanese Commander-in-Chief.”
Major Donald Spicer got the unenviable task of lowering the colors. “Tears rolled down many a suntanned cheek,” he recounted. “It was only by a great effort that I was able to steady my hand and keep the tears back.” A Navy nurse, Ensign Leona Jackson, said, “I think the bitterest moment of my life came . . . when I saw the Rising Sun ascend the flagpole.”
The Japanese rounded up all the Americans, stripped them naked, and herded them into the cathedral for several days before shipping them to Japan on 10 January 1942, where they were forced to work as slave labor.
During the two days of bombing and in the fighting on 10 December, the total garrison losses were 19 killed and 42 wounded, including four Marines killed and 12 wounded.
A salute to Roger Mansell (Mansell.com), author of Captured: The Forgotten Men of Guam, and Wes Injerd for allowing me to use excerpts from the book.