One memorable trip — in Guam

Robert Stanger Contributing writer

For one of the truly memorable canoe excursions I have ever taken, I must go back many years when I was a freshly-minted Navy ensign on Guam, the southernmost of the Mariana Islands located some 3,500 miles west of Hawaii.

But this is not just the story of a canoe ride, since the locale of this excursion — the village of Merizo (which is also the name given to a southwestern portion of Guam) — is also where my much older half-brother, Burke, served as a medical officer as he was a Navy chief Pharmacists Mate, a rating now known as Hospital Corpsman.

The Pacific portion of World War II (which had a dire effect on Merizo) also enters the picture, as it occurred between Burke’s service and my visits to the village. Burke’s illness, which he acquired while posted to Merizo and which ended his Navy service, are also part of this story.

But to get back to the canoe trip … I and two Navy companions acquired the craft, which was painted Navy grey and was somewhat dinged up, from a Navy unit that supplied recreational equipment to personnel on Guam.

Most of the waters around Guam aren’t exactly canoeable, so it rather surprised me that at least one canoe was available for personnel to use. Capsizing in deep waters risks shark attacks, while capsizing off a reef would invite cuts and scraps from wave action on sharp coral.

But I knew from past visits that the lagoon off Merizo would be quite canoeable since it is protected by reefs to the north and south, and by Cocos Island to the south. So, this is where we car topped the craft from the Navy base on the east side of the island.

The three-mile paddle through the relatively shallow turquoise waters to Cocos Island was very enjoyable. There is always a breeze on Guam, and this dispelled the heat from the tropical sun.

We rested on the island, where at that time there was a Coast Guard Loran station. (The station is gone now, and one-third of the mile-long island is now a park, with the rest being the site of a private day resort.) We walked to the ocean side of the island, off which the seafloor begins its descent into the Marianas Trench, which descends to 32,000 feet. It is deeper than Mt. Everest is high and is the deepest part of the world’s oceans.

The small leaks in the canoe were more of a problem on the return trip and we lacked a bailing container. So, both to slow the leaks and to cool off, I recall swimming at least part of the way back to Merizo.

We didn’t stop to chat with any of the villagers on this trip, as I recall.

I had been there previously to inquire about my half-brother. Few remembered him very distinctly, as he had been there so many years before.

But I was shown the house where he had lived with his wife and two very young children, Burkie and Irene. The house was at the very edge of the lagoon, so close that it was almost in reach of the lagoon’s low waves.

Burke’s wife, Lou, was a woman of Norwegian descent from Minnesota whom he met while stationed in Washington.

The memories villagers I met could well have been subdued by what happened there during the final stages of the War in the Pacific.

The occupying Japanese feared a rebellion by the natives, or Chamorros, as the bombardment prior to the American invasion to retake the island had started. The Japanese rounded up 60 young men on the island and slaughtered 46.

The atrocity is commemorated annually in Merizo each July.

Accounts of the Pacific War that I have read always seem to contrast the brutal behavior of the Japanese military during the war with the decorous and overly polite behavior of the populous in general.

I recall how Burke later described becoming ill on Guam, where due to his work, he was exposed to tuberculosis that was common among the islanders due to sub-standard living conditions.

He said he was taking a shower when, due to his having acquired TB from the islanders he treated, he suffered a spontaneous lung collapse.

He and his family had to leave Guam, and Burke had radical treatment for TB at a naval hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas. All his ribs on one side were removed. (This was before drug treatment becomes common.)

He was discharged from the Navy after 19 years of service and lived with us (me, my parents and sister) in Erie for a while. He taught me to play chess, but there was no contest, at least for him.

My father, Burke and I would go to Presque Isle to swim, but due to Burke’s disfigurement, we bathed off the stone break wall, where there were no other bathers.

Then he and Lou got their own Erie apartment. Lou gave up the children to Erie relatives (There were three, as Bill had been born after they left Guam.)

One of Burke’s descendants (a grandson, the son of Burkie) is Eric Stanger, a physician who now lives in State College, having previously lived in Ridgway and St. Mary’s. Due to his health (the TB was gone, but he had severe emphysema), Burke was advised to move to a climate less harsh than Erie’s.

My father bought a mobile home for them, which he had hauled to Tucson. But Burke spent most of his time in Tucson at the veterans’ hospital there, which is where he died in 1949 at age 44.

When I was on Guam, a rather sardonic saying, “Guam is Good,” was popular.

I’m afraid it didn’t apply to Burke.

(Or, of course, to the 1,700 Americans killed and 6,000 wounded in the fight to retake Guam. The fighting also killed 18,000 Japanese.)

One Japanese soldier survived in the jungles of Guam long after the war ended. Yokio Shoichi was discovered in January of 1972, almost 28 years after U.S. forces had regained control of the island.

He was featured in a 1977 documentary film called “Yokoi and His Twenty-Eight Years of Secret Life on Guam.”

He eventually received the equivalent of US $300 in back pay, and a small pension.

Robert Stanger has lived seasonally for over 40 years along the Allegheny River and has the stories to tell about it.