Remember Guam: Dec. 8, 1941

  • Published
  • By Tara K. Simpson
  • 36th Wing History Office
While few Americans have difficulty recognizing the magnitude of Dec. 7, 1941, a very small number also understand the significance of the following day.

Mere hours after the initial attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces also imparted their wrath on American installations in the Pacific, west of the International Date Line. Part of the Japanese "Z Operation" targets included Wake Island, the Philippines, and Guam. After two days of pre-landing bombardment, Imperial army and navy landing forces, nearly 6,000 strong, swiftly captured and claimed Guam. Woefully outnumbered in both men and weapons, the Governor, Navy Capt. George McMillin, was forced to surrender within hours after enemy forces made landfall.

By the autumn of 1941, U.S. intelligence had identified that an assault by Japan on American holdings in the Pacific was imminent. Relations between the two nations had become increasingly strained due to Japan's push to gain valuable territory and natural resources in Asia and the Pacific. Despite participating in negotiations with the U.S. over various issues including the U.S. trade embargos on Japanese products, Japan was already preparing itself for war with America. With a successful offensive victory against U.S. forces, Japan could expand its territorial perimeter and control over Asian lands and Pacific islands.

Over 40 years prior to the Japanese attack and seizure of Guam, the island had become a U.S. possession following the Spanish-American War. This separation of Guam from the rest of the Marianas Islands was further compounded in 1914 when Japan seized and took control of the Northern Marianas and the rest of Micronesia. By June 1941, Japan had spent millions of dollars fortifying the islands, building a fully operational naval base in Saipan, and airfields in both Saipan and Tinian. With the looming outbreak of the Pacific War, the island of Guam was extremely vulnerable. U.S. war plans included building up military forces at bases including the Philippines and Hawaii, and recognized that once combat began Guam would be quickly conceded to Japan.

In the weeks prior to Dec. 8, a feeling of helplessness pervaded the minds of all the people of Guam. In mid-March, foreign planes had been spotted over the island. The sightings continued throughout the summer and fall. Since the weekly Pan American clippers were the only U.S. aircraft that flew to Guam, the enemy's reconnaissance missions were evident to both civilians and military alike. During October and November, 104 American civilians and military dependents were evacuated to Hawaii and the mainland.

In the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 8, Governor McMillin received word from the Asiatic Fleet informing him that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. With no further information or warnings, the Governor could only wait for daylight. Guam's protection lay in a meager, outdated arsenal and less than 300 Navy personnel, 153 Marines, and 120 Insular Guardsmen, most of whom had never seen combat.

The Monday began as scheduled, with most of the island's residents preparing for the feast of the Immaculate Conception. However the morning's calm was shattered at 8:27 when nine Imperial army aircraft from Saipan flew over Agana and headed for targets in Sumay. The fliers' objectives included the Marine barracks on Orote Peninsula and the Pan American complex. A bomb striking the Pan American kitchen claimed the first two war fatalities in Guam. Piti Navy Yard was struck next as the USS Penguin, a World War I ship, received word from the Governor to head to sea. Lacking a third of its crew, the remaining sailors attempted to thwart the enemy aircraft with its only anti-aircraft gun. After the planes left to return for Saipan the ship's skipper elected to sink the crippled vessel.

Within the hour of the initial announcement of the Japanese attack, the streets of Agana were clear. Plans for the fiesta were forgotten as families struggled to find safety in the hills, jungles, farms, and outskirts of the villages. The flight from the city continued well into the night.

The following morning the enemy planes returned to strike additional military facilities and the Pan American Airways station. The city of Agana and government buildings were also targeted, as well as several nearby villages. On the evening of the 9th, the governor ordered four lookout posts. Just before midnight ships were spotted off the coast. Shortly after 2 a.m. Japanese army forces began their landings and were met with little or no resistance. The main clash took place on Agana's Plaza de Espana at 4:45. Within the hour the governor surrendered. A total of 17 Navy, Marine, and Guam Insular Force Guards were killed. Thirty-one civilians were also killed in the pre-landing strafing. The casualties were just the first of many more tragedies that would take place on American soil over the subsequent two and half years of Japanese occupation until the liberation of the island by U.S. forces on July 21, 1944. 

Editor's Note: Tara K. Simpson graduated with a Master's in Military History from Norwich University, Northfield, VT in June of 2008. She has been working for the 36th Wing Historian Office by researching, editing, archiving, etc. since August of this year.

Mrs. Simpson is also a freelance writer and is featured in the Stars and Stripes, The Pacific Edge and ABC-CLIO, a publisher of leading history reference books.