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A unique experience, to say the least

Robert Stanger Contributing writer

One of my Erie nieces was married to an Air Force veteran who spoke of having known fellow servicemen at Thule Air Force Base in northern Greenland who had become afflicted with what they called the “Thule Big Eye” caused by the lack of sleep they suffered due to 24 hours of daylight during the high Arctic summer.

A rejoinder I might have offered was that I could have developed “Guam Ear” or hearing problems due to tropical downpours pounding the roof of the tiny Quonset hut in which I lived with three others at the Naval Station, Guam.

The hut in which I lived along with a Red Cross representative and two other Navy guys was at the end of a row of such accommodations lined up on both sides of a dining hall and a bar with a very loud jukebox.

We were lucky in that our hut was at the edge of a bluff and overlooked the inner basin of Apra Harbor, which serves as Guam’s port. Looming above the inner harbor with its berths for ships was Mt. Lamlam, Guam’s tallest peak at some 1,300 feet.

I certainly didn’t appreciate it at the time, but being stationed on Guam in general and at the Naval Station, in particular, was a unique experience.

The island, which the U.S. acquired from Spain as a result of the Spanish-American War, measures 32 miles north to south and 4 to 12 miles in width. It is the southern-most island of the Marianas chain.

The island’s northern portion is a flat plateau and is the site of a Navy communications station and Andersen Air Force Base, from which the massive and venerable (or infamous, depending on your point of view, since they were used extensively in the Vietnam War) B-52s have long flown.

Huge bombers (B-36s) would fly low over us when we played the island’s beautiful military-owned golf course located south of the airbase.

The Naval Station, where I lived and worked, was a singular place. (The area is now known as Naval Base Guam.) The station was on the Orote Peninsula, which runs along the south edge of Apra Harbor and juts out into the Philippine Sea.

The peninsula was the site of a “banzai” (“May You Live Ten-thousand Years”) attack by saki-fueled Japanese soldiers when the U.S. retook the island in mid-1944 in a 20-day battle.

Statistics say that 18,000 Japanese lost their lives in that battle, while the U.S. only lost only 3,000 servicemen. Fewer than 500 Japanese surrendered.

At the station, I worked in a communications facility located in a large pre-fabricated building called a Butler Building.

In addition to the sailors (radiomen) who worked where I did, a large contingent of sailors labored on the Navy’s payroll there, and other personnel was involved with ship movements and administration. The station’s two chief officers … a captain and a lieutenant commander … also had offices there.

To say that this was a male-dominated environment is, to put it mildly. (But an apparent token Guamanian, an attractive girl, was the lieutenant commander’s secretary.)

I recall there being only one or two ships based on Guam when I was there. (The situation is much different today since the island is a nuclear submarine base.) One Guam-based ship was a light transport, or AKL (same ship as in “Mister Roberts”), and it traveled to islands to the north (the Northern Marianas) and to the south (the Caroline Islands).

The young officer with whom I shared the Quonset hut sailed on the AKL for training. He came back from one voyage with smiling photos of Japanese sailors they had met who were on a ship that his vessel had encountered. Their ship had been sent out from Japan to retrieve what remains could be found of countrymen killed during the War in the Pacific.

The sailors I worked within the Butler Building where bused back and forth from barracks located on higher ground above.

They had use of a large swimming pool there, and, given Guam’s tropical climate, it was well used during off-hours. (One might even use the word “jammed.”)

The station had an open-air theater where movies were shown every night “rain or shine.” A canopy shielded officers and their dependents.

I had a car, and as soon as I was off work, I usually headed to Gab Gab Beach, the Orote Peninsula’s swimming hole. (It was just a large rectangular trench guarded by a steel shark net at its open end, that had apparently been blasted out of the shoreline reef.)

Surprisingly, I was often the only swimmer there in the late afternoon (unless a visiting ship was hosting a picnic there). The station’s officers’ bar was apt to be more crowded.

The reef ran from the “beach” out almost to the tip of the Orote Peninsula. I would occasionally don flippers and a diving mask with a snorkel and swim along the edge of the reef to the end of the peninsula and walk back to Gab Gab along the rough shoreline wearing the sneakers I wore inside the flippers.

But the coral in the reef was dead, apparently due to the breakwater which had been constructed by Navy Seabees after the war to protect Apra Harbor. This barrier obstructed the flow of ocean water into the harbor, leaving it too warm for the reef’s coral.

The breakwater is called the Glass Breakwater after Navy Captain Henry Glass, who claimed Guam for the U.S. in 1898 after the Spanish-American War.

At the end of the Orote Peninsula, there is a flight of stone stairs that traverse the peninsula’s cliff (the “Spanish Steps”) and date to when Spanish galleons carrying plunder from the Philippines would stop at Guam on their way back to Spain. There was a freshwater source at the steps.

At the tip of the Orote Peninsula, there was a signal tower for which I had nominal responsibility. Sailors who manned the tower, and who lived in quarters at its base, would report on shipping entering and leaving Apra Harbor via the channel below.

The badly-damaged USS San Francisco would have passed through this channel on January 10, 2005, after the nuclear sub ran into a seamount south of Guam two days earlier at a depth of 525 feet.

I would often climb the tower and use the viewfinders there to survey the surrounding scene.

To the north, I could focus on Rota, a small island located south of Saipan. In those days, I imagined life on Rota as simple and idyllic.

However, an Internet check on the island today shows that it is the site of luxurious resorts, offering golf, swimming in spacious pools and fine dining.

Since I have never seen the island advertised in the U.S., I imagine it caters to well-off Asians, including Japanese whose predecessors who didn’t fare too well in the Marianas some decades ago when Japan attempted to establish “The Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.”

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