War in the Pacific National Historical Park, Guam

We recently visited War in the Pacific National Historical Park in Guam. It was almost 6,500 miles from our house and took 17 hours to get there. That’s a long way to go, but if you are trying to visit all the National Park Units you will need to go there, and if you are a World War II history buff, you will want to go there!

Established in 1978, War in the Pacific National Historical Park honors those who participated in the Pacific Theater of World War II. About 300,000 people visit this park each year. Unique to this park unit, it includes more water acres (1002) than land (926). It is also home to more species of plants and animals than any other national park unit, with 400 species of plants some of which are only found on Guam, and 3,500 known species on the surrounding coral reefs.

Pacific Theater

We found that War in the Pacific National Historical Park really helped to provide context for the larger war in the Pacific, describing the extent of Japan’s incursions into adjacent countries to gain valuable resources, oil and metal to support their burgeoning population. 

As we mentioned in our blog about Pearl Harbor, we hadn’t really realized that the attack on Pearl was only one part of a much larger Japanese aggression.

The war in the Pacific was fought over a vast expanse of oceans, islands and continents – Pearl Harbor, Midway Island, the Coral Sea, Guadalcanal, the Marshall Islands, Guam and the Marianas Islands, the Philippines, Korea, and what were the Netherland’s East Indies, British Malaya and French Indochina. In fact, it went all the way north to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska where the Japanese occupied the island of Attu. 

War comes to Guam

Hours after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese bombed the US territory of Guam – a major refueling and communications hub for the Americans and the largest of the Marianas islands. They launched full scale invasion two days later, capturing and holding Guam for the next two and half years. It wasn’t until July 21, 1944 that the US retook the island and secured its valuable deep water harbor.

Caught in the middle of this conflict were the native Chamorros. When the Japanese took over, they allowed the Chamorros to stay on their farms, and life continued, but now under dominion of the Japanese. They were forced to learn the Japanese language and adapt to Japanese customs. Anyone caught speaking English or suspected of helping the Americans was doomed to torture or death.

By 1944, in expectation of an imminent American invasion, the Japanese started to dig in, forcing Chamorros to work, hand digging caves and building coastal defenses. Later that year, in early July, the Japanese rounded up 10-15,000 Chamorros and marched them to concentration camps in the jungle with little food or water. Unfortunately many did not survive until August to see the Americans retake the island, inch by inch.

Visiting the War in the Pacific National Historical Park

The visitor center at the War in the Pacific National Historical Park tells the story of the Chamorros and other Pacific Islanders, recognizing their bravery and the sacrifices they made. There are also really interesting exhibits that document the war in the Pacific, starting with the extent of the Japanese invasions throughout the Pacific and then walking through each of the major battles. There are also detailed maps and accounts of the US landing on the beaches of Guam and how they fought through heavy jungle to drive the Japanese from the island. 

Outside the visitor center is a rare two man midget submarine that washed ashore in 1944.  It is so tiny, it is unbelievable to think that two Japanese men fit inside it. They certainly would not have had much in the way of water and rations, and no creature comforts. 

After learning about the Battle of Guam at the visitor center, there are several other sites that you will want to visit. At these sites you will really see how hard it was for the American soldiers – landing on beaches guarded by guns hidden in caves; fighting up 60 degree slopes through dense jungle and sword grass; and searching for the well-entrenched Japanese forces hidden in the forest. Over 7,000 American and 17,500 Japanese lives were lost before the Americans finally secured the island.

The Battle of Guam encompassed the entire island and you can see evidence of it in many places – Japanese bunkers and pillboxes, Japanese guns, US foxholes, trenches and communication wires all remain. The National Historical park has preserved a few special sites you can visit:

Asan Beach Unit

At the Asan Beach Unit you will see the remains of one of the US landing craft and can walk on the beach where US Marines came ashore on July 21, 1944. You can also see some of what they were up against… Not only did they have to face obstacles and mines in the water and on the beaches, they faced Japanese defenses hidden in caves and thick jungle. 

There are still two Japanese gun emplacements reinforced with metal beams, as well as the remains of Japanese pillboxes. As you walk the Asan Ridge Trail you will see the caves, fortifications, and remains of some of the Japanese coastal defense guns. 

Asan Inland Unit

From the beach, drive inland to the Asan Bay Overlook. Not only does it offer a great view over the landing beach, as you look down at the jungle, you will really get a better understanding of the difficult terrain the Americans had to fight their way through.

It is also a sombre memorial to those who lost their lives or suffered during the war. There is a wall of names listing not only the service men who died, but also the thousands of people of Guam who suffered the atrocities of Japanese occupation some giving their lives.

Fonte Plateau Unit

The top of the hill was the base of the Japanese General and a major communication center. This was one of the most important places for the Americans to take and the Japanese to defend. The American victory at this location marked was a turning point, forcing the Japanese into retreat.

Today you can still see the concrete entrances to the fortified bunker. The location also provides an amazing view over the area, looking over the north-central part of the island.

Piti Guns Unit

Another unit of the National Historical Park is the Piti Guns Unit where the Japanese put three large guns over the Piti village, a coastal defense against ships and beach landing craft. Take the trail to see these huge 14 cm coastal defense guns still in their original emplacements. They were never fired because they weren’t ready when the Americans landed.

As you hike this short, but steep trail, it is interesting to think how hard it must have been to drag big heavy guns up there – probably the task of Chamorro forced labor.

Agat Unit

To the south of the visitor center is the Agat Unit, including Apaca Point and Ga’an Point, both American landing sites. Even after weeks of bombardment from offshore American ships, the Japanese defenses were formidable. 

You can still see the remains of a pillbox and anti-aircraft guns, as well as some of the concealed defenses, all built by Chamorro laborers. There is also a 20 cm Japanese coastal gun at Ga’an Point.

At low tide you can see the rusting remains of American military equipment, victim to the heavy defenses of the Japanese. The first day of fighting at Agat saw over 1,000 men wounded, killed or missing in action. The Americans prevailed, securing the beach three days later.

Mt. Chachao / Mt. Tenjo Unit and Mt. Alifan Unit

There are two other units of the National Historical Park that remain undeveloped.They protect sites of heavy fighting as well as the remains of Japanese caves, tunnels, foxholes and machine gun nests. We did not visit them, but hopefully the National Park Service will invest in visitor facilities so they can be easily included in your journey. 

Other Remnants of War

There are remnants of the war on and around the island. In many places, you will see warning signs that advise you to be careful of unexploded ordnance. Offshore, divers can find things like sunken tanks, artillery shells and other war debris.

If you visit Guam to see War in the Pacific National Historical Park, you might want to consider visiting the neighboring islands of Saipan, Tinian and Rota. They all fit into the larger picture of the war.

Are you trying to visit all the National Parks, or National Park Units?

If your goal is to visit them, one or all, we’d love to help you strategize. Give us a call at (480) 609-3978 or drop us a note here. We always enjoy talking with people who share our passion for visiting these gems of the National Park Service.