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Ancient History of Guam

The people of Guam and the Marianas archipelago are called Chamorros and archeologists debate the Chamorro presence here between 1,500 and 3,000 years. Linguistic and cultural similarities indicate the ancient Chamorros were of Indo-Malayan descent (Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines) who flourished as an advanced fishing, horticultural, and hunting society. Early explorers left documentation of the people’s intricate weaving and delicate pottery making skills, expert seamanship in unique canoes (proas) and of their skilled craftsmanship of unique houses (thatched houses atop solid coral foundations known as lattes unique to these islands). Theirs was and remains a matriarchal society that through the women’s power and prestige much of the Chamorro culture, language, music, dance, and traditions, have been able to survive.

The Spanish Era

The island's first known contact with the western world was on March 6, 1521 by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, sailing for the Spanish Crown in an attempt to circumnavigate the globe. Magellan stayed three days to replenish the much needed water and food for the crews of his three ships and in exchange offered highly prized iron. Sadly cultural differences caused a conflict and the unnecessary death by Magellan’s angry men of some of the natives and the burning of villages, but Guam nonetheless became a life saving and most important watering stop in the Pacific.

In 1565 Miguel Lopez de Legazpi officially claimed Guam for the Spanish Crown and in 1668 a small band of Jesuit missionaries led by Padre Diego Luis de San Vitores arrived. Catholicism was introduced as well as the cultivation of maize (corn), animal husbandry and hide tanning (cattle) and the Chamorros were required to adopt western-style clothing. They rebelled and fought against the Spanish ways, but were cruelly subdued with a loss of the majority of the population.

A Spanish Governor ruled the islands and Guam became a regular port-of-call for the Spanish galleons that crossed the Pacific Ocean from Acapulco, Mexico, to Manila, Philippines for the next 250 years. The ships carried precious gold and silver mined in the New World that was exchanged for Chinese silks and spices and contributed to Spain’s and Europe’s golden years. Over the years scientists, voyagers, and whalers from the US, Russia, France, and England joined the growing visitor list providing detailed accounts of the daily life on Guam under Spanish rule.

Dawn of the American Era

The island was ceded to the United States following the Spanish-American War of 1898 after 333 years of Spanish rule. The American flag was raised in Apra Harbor by the Captain of the USS Charleston, Henry Glass, on 21 June 1898. A year later, in 1899, the U.S. formally purchased Guam and other Spanish-held territories for $20 million. The Department of the Navy administered Guam as per an executive order by U.S. President William McKinley. Under the U.S. naval government, many changes and improvements occurred, including agriculture, public health and sanitation, education, land management, taxes, and public works.The U.S. Navy continued to use Guam as a coaling and communication station until 1941, when the island fell to invading Japanese forces in an attack launched simultaneously with the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Japanese Occupation 1941-1944

On December 10, 1941, Guam’s Naval Governor George McMillan surrendered to the Japanese

South Seas detachment forces after a valiant defensive struggle by the island's Insular Force Guard in front of the Governor’s headquarters in Agana. For 31 months, the people of Guam were forcibly subjected to the Japanese lifestyle. Guam was renamed 'Omiya Jima' or Great Shrine Island and was brought under Japan's Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Control of the island was eventually transferred to the Japanese Navy in 1942. Some measure of religious practice and business activities were permitted during this brief time period. But the Chamorro loyalty to the US flag prevailed in spite of the danger that caused, and by July 1944 the American and Allied forces had retaken the Pacific islands until they arrive at Guam.


Birth of Naval Base Guam 1944

On July 21, 1944, now known as Liberation Day, American forces landed on Guam and after almost three weeks of bitter fighting that claimed 1,600 American servicemen and almost the entire 18,000 Japanese Army, not to mention the approximate 800 Chamorro lives lost throughout the occupation, the island was declared ‘secure’ and the American flag raised again amid the rubble of the former US Marine Corps barracks in Sumay, Apra Harbor.

 Today’s naval base surrounds that same location and is the result of construction under Navy’s *“Lion Six” that landed on Guam within hours of the first Marine landing.  A “Standard Lion” consists of a group of components intended to furnish everything needed for the complete operation of a large base. It is assembled elsewhere, in this case in the US mainland in April/May 1944 and shipped to location.

The area was officially named “Naval Operating Base” in October 1944, and was the largest single element of WWII Fleet support in the Pacific. It was nicknamed “The Pacific Supermarket” and built to support the ongoing Pacific campaign against Japan. Navy Seabees molded jungle and mangrove swamp into a self contained Navy supply base housing 50,000 personnel and complete with an expanded harbor and repaired and expanded airfield, new docks, ship repair facility, submarine base, 3,000 Quonset huts and more than 1000 major structures. Where there is open space today, in 1944 Quonset huts and buildings stood jammed together. This base was the largest of more than 100 smaller installations constructed around the island manned by another 150,000 Sailors. Guam’s local population was estimated at 20,000.

An area within today’s base, once Sumay village, like other island villages on the west side of Guam, had been destroyed by American pre-invasion bombardment and due to its location was absorbed into the new base. With the help of the Navy the Sumay residents, who the Japanese had already evicted in 1941, were permanently resettled in newly established Santa Rita village in the hills above nearby Agat.

Return of Naval Government 1945-1950

With the war’s official end in September 1945 and until 1949 the island was under Naval government rule, with a Navy captain serving as Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Marianas (COMNAVMARIANAS) and headquartered at Fonte Plateau dubbed Nimitz Hill because it was the first headquarters and home of Adm Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the U. S. Pacific Fleet, in 1945. The region’s naval headquarters have been on Nimitz Hill ever since except in 1997 – 2007 when the building was made the temporary Guam High School. Today it is the the Admiral is Commander, Joint Region Marianas.

In 1950 the U.S. Government transferred the island’s Navy oversight to the Department of the Interior when President Harry Truman signed the Guam Organic Act .  which made Guam an unincorporated territory with limited self-governing authority, and gave island residents American citizenship. In July 1975 U.S. Naval Station, Guam was placed under the overall control of Commander, Naval Logistics Command, U.S. Pacific Fleet.

U.S. Naval Base Guam Today

Slowly over the years this Navy base evolved, expanding and contracting with various conflicts such as the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. Naval Base Guam today is home to numerous U.S. Navy commands supporting the fleet in this part of the world. Many significant historic sites spanning numerous eras are located on the base making Naval Base Guam unique among Navy bases. Approximately 6,300 active duty Navy members and 6,900 family members live on Guam as well as a significant population of retired military personnel.

Post WWII Island Growth

(courtesy of Guam Visitor Bureau,

By 1962, President John F. Kennedy lifted the World War II security clearance requirement for travel to and from Guam, allowing Guam's economy to flourish. Since the advent of Guam's tourism in 1967, when Pan American Airways inaugurated service from Japan, the islands' economy continued to diversify and expand. In addition to increased military expenditures, tourism, and related businesses, construction, retailing, banking and financial services-a revamped economy played a significant role in providing jobs for local residents, while offering business options our cosmopolitan society has come to expect.

Magnificent luxury hotels, a wealth of fine restaurants, and fabulous duty free shopping have established Guam as the Premier destination in the western Pacific, international and commuter airlines make the Antonio Borja Won Pat Guam International Air Terminal a bustling hub of activity.

Presently, regular flights connect Guam with numerous Asia/Pacific countries, including Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Australia, the Philippines, the neighboring Micronesian islands, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, and the United States.

Each year, Guam receives a record number of visitors, in the early 1990s more than one million. Throngs of leisure-seeking visitors come to experience the island's warm beautiful seas and tropical lifestyle, the same tropical lure our military families find so satisfying and a true bonus to their time spent on island.


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Commander, Joint Region Marianas Public Affairs Office   |   PSC 455 Box 211   |   FPO AP, Guam 96540
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