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Memorial Day on Guam: Residents, Service Members Honor Unique Experience

A story about the celebration of Memorial Day on Guam.

Memorial Day is traditionally a day to remember service members who have given their lives in far-away lands, but on Guam, it’s much more personal.

“The fever of service and patriotism runs high on Guam,” said Park Ranger Daniel Brown, a Marquette, Mich., native who works for the National Park Service on Guam. “People here felt the oppression and the brutality of an occupying force and the freedom of liberation.” 

Marines, Sailors, Airmen and Army National Guardsmen joined forces today with local residents and the National Park Service to commemorate Memorial Day by honoring service members and civilians who died in the Japanese invasion, occupation and United States liberation of Guam during World War II. 

Marines raise Old Glory once again after more than two years the Marines raise the American flag over the Marine barracks on the island of Guam. These same Marines seen in this picture took part in the recapture of the Marine barracks just a few hours before this picture was taken.

Park rangers worked with volunteers to erect a flag display, placing 3,055 American and Guam flags on Asan Beach, a part of the War in the Pacific National Historical Park and one of beaches where Marines landed in 1944 to free the island.

The Marines were especially grateful for the opportunity to honor their own deeply rooted history here, as Marine units served as the assault force to liberate the island from Japanese occupation.

“Memorial Day is a special day to remember those service members who have given their lives in defense of our nation,” said Col. Scott Loch, officer-in-charge of Marine Corps Activity Guam. “Helping the National Park Service to place these flags is a tremendous opportunity for us to do that, while also honoring those who sacrificed their lives in the Japanese invasion and the liberation by United States forces. Marines have a deeply rooted history on Guam, and we’re proud to support this effort.”

Each of the 1,885 American flags in the display represents a service member, while the 1,170 Guam flags represent local residents – those who died from the invasion to the liberation of the island. 

“World War II for many people is ancient history, but here, it’s very personal because people here remember the war. They suffered in the war,” said Brown. “These flags represent the bravery and sacrifice of those who died here.”

Japanese forces began an aerial attack on Guam Dec. 8, 1941, and subsequently landed on and captured Guam Dec. 10, overtaking the few hundred Marine and Navy defenders from the permanent Marine Barracks and Naval facility on the island. 

United States Pacific forces led by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz began an island-hopping campaign in 1944 called Operation Forager, focused on the capture, occupation and defense of the Mariana Islands, specifically Saipan, Tinian and Guam. 

By the day of the invasion on Guam July 21, 1944, a total of six battleships - the New Mexico, Idaho, Pennsylvania, Colorado, California and Tennessee - nine cruisers and their destroyer escorts had shelled Japanese defense positions on the island for 13 days - the longest such action in the war.

Assault troops with the III Amphibious Corps, composed of 3rd Marine Division and 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, landed on Guam along Asan Beach, fighting the Japanese 320th Independent Infantry Battalion, which occupied the high ground overlooking the beach and pillboxes below. 

The Guam assault by the Third Marine Division and the First Marine Provisional Brigade came July 20, 1944, after a 17-day aerial and naval bombardment which established a record tonnage of explosives dropped on a Japanese position. Opposition on the beaches, as at Saipan, was vigorous and Marines in this wave leap from their amphibious tractor for the shelter of the sand dunes. The Marine advance was steady and the former American possession, captured by the Japanese on December 10, 1941, was completely won by August 9, 1944

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All organized resistance on the island ceased by August 10, and the island was once-again in American hands.

Guam’s history during World War II and the continued experiences of those who serve from the tiny island make Guam a unique place among the United States and its territories. 

Despite its small size of about 200 square miles, Guam has a very high enlistment rate and veteran population per capita. Many families here include veterans and, often, active duty or reserve members as well. 

With that history of service to the nation, however, also comes the real understanding of sacrifice. 

Marines crouch on beach as Japanese landmines knock out a couple of their tanks. Moving Marines keep low to duck sniper fire. One of the tanks burns in the background.

This Memorial Day is especially significant for the community here, as it is still mourning the loss of two local Army National Guardsmen who died May 16 in Kabul, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked their unit. 

The flag display at Asan Beach, the experiences of those who suffered here through the Japanese invasion and occupation, and the sacrifice of those lost make Memorial Day especially meaningful for residents and service members alike.

“Being a Marine and serving here has taught me a lot about my own history,” said Marine Sgt. Albert Opena, the executive assistant for Marine Corps Activity Guam and a native of the island. “Memorial Day is a chance for me to honor the sacrifices of both the Marines and my own people. It’s an honor to represent the Marine Corps here and be part of the organization that liberated the island."