By Eric Dehm
Here are the facts you’ll hear from reporters who googled Guam 10 minutes ago: It’s a small tropical island, 210 square miles, located about halfway between Japan and Australia. It’s an unincorporated U.S. territory, which makes it home to over 160,000 American citizens and has a sizable military population with an Air Force base and a Navy base both taking up significant space on the island. At least one congressman is worried that if the population gets too big, the island might flip over.
The following is what I can tell you, having been stationed on board the USS Frank Cable, homeported in Guam from 2009-2011. Though to be clear, I was only there for one year as I deployed to Afghanistan for the second half of that time period. Still, I got to know the island fairly well in my time there.
Gimme the money
The military is one of two big employers on the island, along with the tourism industry which caters primarily to Japanese travelers who, mostly, stay at a number of high-priced resorts lining Tumon Bay. Why do Japanese tourists go to Guam? Well, it’s got beautiful beaches, temperatures in the 90’s year-round, and duty free shopping at popular American stores where they can get items that are prohibitively expensive to obtain in Japan.
Oh, and it has the world’s biggest K-Mart. How big is it? Big enough to have a parking lot on the roof, in addition to the massive one surrounding it. Big enough to have over 20 cash register lanes. Big enough that resorts on the beaches run buses for tourists to go and shop/take pictures. Yes, this K-Mart is so big it’s a tourist attraction, with the signs gracing each aisle being in several languages, most prominently English and Japanese.
Guamanians: They’re just like you (kinda)
Speaking of English, it is the main language on the island. Guam is indeed a US territory and everyone native to the island speaks English. The people of Guam are US citizens and hold most of the same rights (voting in national elections being a notable exception) that someone from Alabama, California or Texas does. In fact, residents of Guam are able to join the US military, and do at a significant rate. 1 in 8 Guamanians is a veteran which puts it near the top of states and territories as far as veterans comprising percentages of the population.
Despite that, there is a fairly large independence movement on the island, which I can understand. There’s also a vocal movement for WW2 reparations, which I can not understand. You see the island was invaded by Japan at the onset of WW2, and the occupying Japanese forces committed atrocities against the population until the US came back three years later to liberate the island in the Battle of Guam. So if the Guamanians were to ask anyone for reparations for their suffering during the Japanese occupation, one would assume it would be the occupiers. Nope. Why this is the case is something I heard several theories on, the most common of which was that it might threaten the Japanese tourism industry, which is not something anyone on Guam is interested in.
The Big Beautiful Blue
The island also has a high concentration of SCUBA divers. There are numerous dive shops on the island, catering to tourists, locals and the military. The diving around Guam is some of the best in the world. To be honest, after my first couple months on the island you were more likely to find me out diving than at the beaches, bars and clubs along Tumon’s main strip. Guam has some great diving, including a particularly unique and fascinating site. In Apra harbor, Guam’s main port, the German Navy’s SMS Cormoran, was scuttled under US threat in 1917 and a few decades later a Japanese Army transport ship, the Tokai Maru was torpedoed by the USS Snapper and sank right on top of the Cormoran. It is the only place in the world where a diver can touch a WW1 and WW2 wreck at the same time. But even if you don’t want to do the deep dives to get to those wrecks, there’s an amazing array of sea life on display as soon as you take a step into the bright blue of the South Pacific.
The land life? Not as great. There are few birds, particularly for a tropical island, which is due to an infestation of Brown Tree Snakes, an invasive species thought to have come to the island via military transports in the days following WW2. Now if you hear the word infestation and are picturing Guam’s residents having to shovel snakes out of their driveway before they head to work each day, I assure you, that’s not the case. In my year on the island I only saw 4 brown tree snakes, and 2 of those were dead when I saw them. The 3rd was dead at the hands of a local, shortly after it dropped out of a tree in front of me one night on shore patrol. Apparently they are more active at night and keep to the jungles around the island.
Fun story #1: the government has bombed the jungle areas the snakes prefer with poisoned mice on at least two occasions recently in an effort to eradicate them.
Fun story #2: Also living in the jungle of Guam for over 27 years following World War 2? Shoichi Yokoi one of the last Japanese holdouts from the war.
North Korea isn’t the biggest threat: crime is
Speaking of shore patrol, the Navy would have about 10 sailors (E-5 through E-7 typically) out on uniformed shore patrol every night making sure that our shipmates, and the rest of the military members were safe, and that they were not at one of the numerous off-limits establishments on the island. Crime is an issue on Guam, and crime against military members in particular. During my time on the island, there were numerous instances of assaults on military members. And property crime is even more common. In fact, during a visit to the island, my mother had her belongings stolen out of my vehicle.
There are worse places to be stationed
Guam is, much like any duty station, a place with some great and not so great aspects. On the plus side, beautiful ocean waters and great weather, once you get acclimated to the humidity. On the negative side you have the crime issue and the feeling those of us who served there felt – that the military wasn’t really welcome on the island by the local community.
Overall, I’d say I enjoyed my time in Guam. I made some great friends, had some great times, and found my love of SCUBA while I was there. In fact particularly if you are, or want to become, a SCUBA diver and you are willing to spend 2 days to get there and back, and have a few grand sitting around for the flight? I’d highly recommend a visit to “Where America’s Day Begins.”