Guam and Cavite

Cavite attack 1941 One of the earliest clues to the story of my father’s wartime past came in the mailbox every month or so when I was growing up: an envelope bearing the return address of the “Survivors of Wake, Guam, and Cavite.” As the years went by I connected a few dots, but Dad never told his story. He had some mysterious scars and debilitating, recurring illnesses relating to the war, but he didn’t talk about it and we knew better than to ask. My father died in 1994 and only after his death did I begin to search in earnest for “what happened to Dad.” That quest turned into a book project when I discovered a bigger question: Why Wake? Along the way, I discovered how Guam and Cavite fit into the puzzle, but their stories were secondary to my purpose. While fielding a recent query about a POW, I found that the fate of the Americans caught at Guam and Cavite varied from those on Wake Island, but that the survivors were linked by more than commas in a return address.

As I explained in Chapter 11 of Building for War, the two western-most projects of Contractors Pacific Naval Air Bases (CPNAB) were added to the big prewar navy contracts belatedly, due to their close proximity and vulnerability to Japan. W. A. Bechtel Company took on expansion of Cavite Naval Air Station at Sangley Point in Manila Bay, Philippines, the headquarters of the U. S. Navy’s Asiatic Fleet, as well as construction of an ammunition depot at Mariveles on Bataan Peninsula across the bay. J. H. Pomeroy Company sponsored the construction project on Guam, building a breakwater and expanding naval facilities in Apra Harbor. In both cases, the companies sent out only key men, relying on local hires for labor. Hundreds of Filipinos and Chamorros (Guamanian natives) worked under the direction of American superintendents. Under construction for just a few months and hampered by long supply lines and time-consuming delays, neither job was near completion by early December 1941. There were thirty-seven American civilian contractors at Cavite and seventy-one on Guam.

News of the attack on Pearl Harbor reached the far-flung American Pacific possessions quickly; forewarned, they anticipated certain attack from Japan. Within a few hours, Japanese bombers from nearby Saipan targeted Guam. The small Marine garrison and naval contingent put up token resistance for two days, but surrendered the island on December 10. In the Philippines, Formosa-based Japanese bombers turned first against airfields and other military installations near Manila, but came for Cavite on December 10. According to the Corregidor Historical Society, the two-hour attack ignited destructive fires and heavily damaged or destroyed facilities. Cavite officially fell to the Japanese a few weeks later, but all civilian personnel had dispersed long before, some into Manila and others joining up with military forces retreating to the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor.

On the very doorstep of Japan, prewar American complacency was even more pronounced at Guam and Cavite than at Wake. Marines at Guam had only small arms – most were WWI vintage – and no air cover: With Japanese-fortified islands less than an hour away, Guam had been written off as indefensible. At Clark Field near Manila the fleet of new B-17s, flown in that fall to serve as a deterrent to Japanese aggression, were mowed down like so many sitting ducks despite war warnings received that morning. As I argue in Building for War, prewar American hubris and racial bias encouraged a dangerous underestimation of Japanese intentions and capabilities.

Japanese ground forces quickly caught and contained Guam’s Americans, though a few held out in the jungle. According to Roger Mansell’s Captured: The Forgotten Men of Guam (Naval Institute Press, 2012), the prisoners were shipped to Japan on the Argentina Maru January 10, 1942. After a brief stay in Zentsuji POW camp, the civilian prisoners, including the CPNAB contractors, employees of Pan American Airways and the Pacific Cable Company, a dozen Capuchin Fathers, and six women (five nurses and a military wife with a baby) were sent on to Kobe, Japan where they were housed in private residences and a local mission. In February 1944 the male internees were relocated to Fututabi camp in the foothills north of town and were forced to cart their own food daily from Kobe several miles away. Difficult as all POW experiences were for the duration of the war, at least Fututabi internees were not subjected to slave labor and severe punishment. By war’s end all of Guam’s CPNAB POWs survived but three: one killed in the Guam invasion and two who died as prisoners – a death rate of about 4 percent.

By contrast, Japan’s conquest of the Philippines took much longer and the thousands of prisoners fared far worse. The thirty-seven CPNAB employees (which I recently discovered included two women office workers) scattered in the early days of war. Some were captured with other American and Allied civilians in Manila and interned at Santo Tomas, a Jesuit University. A small group attempted escape by boat in early January 1942, hoping to reach Australia, but were captured an interned in Borneo for the duration of the war. Most of the men followed the military forces to Bataan and Corregidor and held out there until surrender. Records of the Pacific Island Employees Foundation are incomplete, but reveal that at least three CPNAB men died on Bataan, three more in POW camps, and tragically twelve men died during transport to Japan on the Arisan Maru on October 24, 1944, when American forces torpedoed the Japanese ship in the South China Sea. Of 1800 prisoners aboard, only eight or nine survived. All told, the Cavite CPNAB death rate was nearly 50 percent.

In addition to over seven hundred photos of Wake Island men, the faces of twenty of the Cavite men and thirty-eight Guam men stare out of the pages of the “Blue Book.” The Wake survivors regrouped in about 1960 under the banner “Survivors of Wake, Guam, and Cavite” and included these fellow ex-POWs in their mutual quest for government compensation and recognition, though it is unknown how many followed through. The three groups of contractors faced very different wartime fates, but the survivors shared a bond that we can’t begin to imagine.



  1. Blue Book | Bonita Gilbert - […] 38 photographs of the 71 Guam contractors and 20 of the 37 Cavite employees (see my recent post on…