Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Guam--Part One

Here's pretty much the full extent of what came to mind whenever I heard the word "Guam" until a few nights ago. My mother, at that time still known as Carolyn Stanley Brunton, had been back in her native California for a while, but after having served in the WAVES during World War II and then lived abroad as a member of the Army Special Services in postwar Germany, she got the travel bug again. So she applied to go to one of two places that offered hardship pay--Guam and Tripoli. I think actually she may have decided on Guam when the Tripoli posting came up. In any case, she accepted it, ended up at Wheelus Airbase, met and married my father, and the rest is history.

So much for  my associations to Guam, the not chosen place. But a couple of days ago, when North Korea threatened to launch some missiles into the waters around Guam, I got interested again. First of all, because a lot of Americans still live there. And secondly, because Guam was not where I thought it was. Having been too lazy to ever bother looking it up, my conception of its placement in the world was extremely hazy. But I think I thought it was in the Caribbean somewhere. In any case, I did not think of it as being within striking range of North Korean missiles.

Guam in Oceania
Or here's another way of looking at in context:

The United States in its Region
Wikipedia tells us that Guam is about 30 miles long and between 4 to 12 miles wide, or, if it helps your frame of reference, 3/4ths the size of Singapore. Unlike Singapore, it is very remote from pretty much any place else, other than the still tinier islands that constitute the rest of Micronesia, of which it is a part. A website called Guampedia says that it is roughly the same distance from both Manila and Tokyo at roughly 1500 miles, and a full 3800 miles west of Hawaii. 

One might think that such a small space in the middle of nowhere could expect to be left unmolested through the eons, but there is probably no place on earth that is actually too small to be exploited by bigger places anymore. As the largest of the small islands in the neighborhood, Guam is actually just right, depending on your point of view, especially if your view is a Western one which seeks to have a strategic base in the Asian neighborhood. 

The U.S. actually has a naval base and Coast Guard station in the south and an airforce base in the north, which according to Fox News take up 30 percent of the island. The article also tells us that the American would actually like to increase that number by relocating thousands of Marines from Okinawa to Guam. Not sure if this is so true in the present moment with North Korea's current posturing, but in 2014 then deputy defense secretary Bob Work said that Guam has increasingly been a strategic hub for the U.S. military. 

It might surprise you to learn that anyone born in Guam is automatically a U.S. citizen. That's why the news these days refers to 160,000 U.S. citizens being in harm's way in the North Korea crisis. However, as has been rather ignominiously the American pattern, some citizens are more equal than others. The Guamanians don't get to vote for the president of the United States, even though he or she is their president, and they send one representative to Congress, who isn't allowed to vote. Their only real participation in American government is to participate in the Republican and Democratic primaries. 

Guam has had to deal with outsiders running their lives for a long time. A recent discovery of settlement has led archaeologists to conclude that the people who settled the Mariana Islands, of which Guam is the lowermost island, may have been the earliest long-distance ocean crossers in history, having made the journey 3500 years ago. Magellan, the first recorded Westerner to make it to that part of the world, didn't get there till 1521, and even then, he didn't stay long. It wasn't until 1565 that Spain realized the importance of Guam as a pit stop for their Manila galleons as they plied the Pacific trade route between Manila and Acapulco. And it was another hundred years before they actually colonized it. (Like I said, it's a remote place). 

The story of that colonization, unique though it is in its elements, has a very familiar ring to it. The native peoples resisted and were nearly wiped out in the process, not just by superior military force but by that well-known plague, smallpox. At the end of a 26-year war, only 5000 Chamorros (as they had been named by the Spanish) remained, a tenth of their former population. 


  1. Finally had a chance to read this. First of all, I didn't know mom had Guam as an option to choose! I'm glad she went to Tripoli for our sakes... Anyway this is great research - can't wait for the next installment.

  2. Yes, I don't know quite how I retained that piece of information. I also am not sure how a tropical island would rate hardship pay, but I suspect it's on account of its remoteness. But yes, particularly for us, it was a fateful choice on her part.

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