Caught in the middle: The islanders sharing their home with the US military

Hagatña, Guam CNN  — 

Guam is a victim of perhaps its greatest asset: its location.

Situated between Asia and the Americas, Guam – and all the islands that make up the archipelago of Micronesia – are prime real estate for those looking to traverse the Pacific, for military or commercial purposes.

It was an asset to the Indo-Malaysian people that first settled here nearly 4,000 years ago, says local historian Malia Ramirez.

It was an asset to Spanish traders after Ferdinand Magellan landed here in the 16th century. And it’s been an important military asset for the United States, being employed in conflicts dating back to World War I, locals say. Today it’s referred to as “the tip of the spear” of the US forces in the Pacific.

“Look how many nations have come to our shores and ask yourself why,” Ramirez said. “This area has been very strategic, from the time that Spain took it over.”

Guam's green flora and Andersen Air Force base can be seen from above.

The island’s martial nature continues to dominate, both in terms of Guam’s reputation and actual land mass. The US Defense Department owns nearly a third of Guam. More than 160,000 people live here and 13,000 are either in the military or are family of service members.

That presence is a double-edged sword. Guam is the closest US territory to North Korea, a country whose missile and nuclear programs have passed key thresholds in recent weeks and years.

North Korea has threatened Guam before – most recently in 2013 – but that was before US President Donald Trump took office.

A recent, seemingly ad-libbed comment about raining “fire and fury” down on Pyongyang if the country did not cease with its threats was followed by North Korean state media announcing its military was drawing up plans to fire missiles in the waters off the coast of Guam.

Though many here are defiant, proud and confident that the US military will protect them, others see far away leaders – who they didn’t elect – putting them on the front lines of a potential war they don’t want to fight.

“It’s so much easier to think of Guam as a base and not understand well no, there are real impacts of hosting a US presence that is this large,” said Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero, an independence activist who also wants to see the military draw down their presence. “What other place can you name where the US occupies a third of the land?”

The island with no say

Guam is an unincorporated territory, meaning its citizens can’t vote. They have a delegate in the House of Representatives, but she can’t vote on the House floor.

As Guerrero puts it: “That literally means we belong to – but are not part of – the United States.”

Patriotism runs on a spectrum here in Guam. Some are proud of the military presence here; others loathe it. Some wear their American pride on their sleeves.

First Sgt. Patrick Flores, who has been deployed to Afghanistan, says the island takes pride in its patriotism, citing the high number of veterans in the community.

“Almost every household in Guam has at least one family member that’s either served or still serving,” he said. “It’s pretty much like a culture thing.”

Guerrero doesn’t consider herself an American – she’s Chamorro, the indigenous people who have lived on Guam for 4,000 years (though the two aren’t mutually exclusive).

Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero.

Regardless of their beliefs, war is part of everyone’s narrative here, especially World War II. More than 14,000 endured wartime atrocities on the small island, including forced relocation to concentration camps and torture.

The island was the first American territory to be occupied by the Japanese, who held it from 1941 until 1944.

To those like Guerrero, WWII was proof of the perils of US leadership and the dangers of what could lie ahead.

“We will feel the combat more than others, and we always have. In WWII, we lived through an occupation and were bombed,” said Guerrero. “Most Americans never experience that. But Guam has, and it’s not because we’re Guam and went out there and pissed off Japan. It’s only because the US was here.”

To others, the continued sacrifice of Guam’s citizens – locals say one in eight serve in the military – is a point of pride and gives them comfort in their security.

Tom Quitugua, who works at a flight charter company called Micronesian Aviation, told CNN he isn’t worried at all.

“We are guarded here, we are protected here,” he said.

Still, if war was to come, it won’t only be the uniformed locals who would be pulled into the conflict, said Guam Gov. Eddie Baza Calvo.

“There’s going to be over 200,000 Americans that will be caught in whatever engagement happens here,” Calvo told CNN.

The sunrise over the beach in Guam on August 12.

The survivors

Domingo Santos was just 10 years old when he heard the planes roaring above. He and his entire village were in church.

It was December 8, 1941, and the Japanese were invading. Two days later, the island was surrendered, leading to three years of oppression under the Empire of Japan.

Santos’ family considers themselves lucky. They survived, in part, by bartering fish for other staples they needed, like corn.

It wasn’t until 1944, just months before the war ended, that they were taken to a concentration camp.

His parents and all of his seven brothers and sisters survived the occupation. That includes his eldest brother, who was stationed on the USS Oklahoma – which was sunk in Pearl Harbor – and his sister Isabelle, who was shot in the thigh by a stray bullet during a dogfight above the island.

That happened while he and Isabelle were picking and cutting coconuts. He wasn’t hit, but the woman next to his sister took a bullet through the chest.

She was one of the 1,170 civilians on Guam who died during Japanese rule.

The so-called “survivors” of Guam are getting older and dying. The Chamorro no longer spend the July 21st liberation day holiday – the island’s most important social event of the year – listening to the war stories of their forefathers like they used to, the historian Ramirez says.

“The annual liberation day celebration was the constant reminder of how volatile things can be when world conflict occurs,” he said.

With the heightened rhetoric between North Korea and the United States, he and others are worried that the lessons of history are being forgotten.

“Your whole history was totally erased in three weeks. Your home, the streets you walked in, the church you went to,” said Ramirez. “How many people can put themselves into that situation or step into that situation?”

Malia Ramirez, local Guam historian who specializes in oral history.

‘This is home’

Ultimately, what Domingo Santos – now 85 – Malia Ramirez and Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero want is empathy from those on the mainland, especially those in Washington.

They want to be heard. They don’t want to be forgotten, especially when they hear comments like those from Sen. Lindsey Graham, who told NBC that “if thousands die, they’re going to die over there, they’re not going to die here and (President Donald Trump) told me that to my face.”

Domingo Santos, 85, at his home in Guam.

“I just wish there was more sensitivity,” Ramirez, the historian, said. “We are here and we do exist and we’re part of the United States.”

The Chamorro don’t want others to forget that if the tough talk results in war, it would be them and their families on the front line.

“Nobody really deserves to be caught in the middle of these games,” Guerrero said. “You’re playing with people’s lives. We just want peace, we just want to continue to enjoy our lives here.”

Many of the Chamorro CNN spoke with have no plans to leave, despite how dangerous it gets.

“This is our home,” Ramirez said. “We have nowhere else to go.”

CNN’s Ivan Watson and Pamela Boykoff and journalist Mindy Aguon contributed to this report