BATTLE OF SAIPAN: A MISSIONARY'S STORY

This following is excerpted from "A Time of Agony: Saipan, 1944," by Sister Maria Angelica Salaberria, M.M.B. [Mercedarian Missionaries of Berriz], who served the people of Saipan from 1934 to 1949, and again from 1967 to 1971.

The account is part of a series is presented by the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Museum of History and Culture for the 60th Anniversary Commemoration of the Battles for Saipan and Tinian.

By Sister Maria Angelica Salaberria

During the year 1940, and especially during 1941, the threat of war between Japan and the United States became more imminent, and fear and anxiety about the future began to take hold and agonize the people of Saipan. Gradually, military personnel began to arrive and soon a military government was established on the island. I do not recall the exact date, but I do remember that by mid-1941 we were already under military rule. The military occupied the parish church, saying they needed it to store war materiel; thus, the mission was left without a church, and we had to set up a tiny chapel to celebrate the Eucharist and for other acts of worship. Naturally, all the people who attended could not fit inside the chapel, and we assembled them in our dining room and the visiting area, which were quite spacious and connected to the chapel by a door.

During 1941, around the month of November, if I remember correctly, the military assembled some thirty young native men with good command of the Japanese language to instruct them in the strategy of war. At this point, we must bear in mind that Guam, the southernmost of the Mariana Islands and located only 206 miles from Saipan, belonged to the United States, and that all the other islands of the Mariana archipelago belonged to Japan. From these native men and their relatives, we learned that Japan was going to initiate the war against the United States at dawn on 8 December. At the time, Saipan had a population of 3,000 natives and 35,000 Japanese. The panic that struck the people was indescribable, and since all the local people were Catholic, each and every one, without exception, received the sacrament of penance in preparation for death. One should have seen the joy expressed by the parish priest, Father Jose Maria Tardio, because according to him, it had been more effective than a mission.

December 7 arrived. All the military men and the thirty selectees designated to start the war by attacking the island of Guam departed aboard ships to Rota, a small island halfway between Saipan and Guam. At dawn on the 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, they headed for Guam, and before landing on the island, the thirty local men were ordered into the water to make preparations for the landing of the Japanese. The U.S. Government on Guam was unaware of Japan's intentions and was caught completely by surprise, with no war defenses. Consequently, the Japanese advanced with no difficulty and gained control of the island within four days. As a result of this attack, all missionaries, both Spanish and American, were taken prisoner, and only two recently ordained young native diocesan priests remained on Guam.

Meanwhile, what was happening on Saipan? Father Tardio routinely came to our chapel daily to celebrate the Eucharist at 5:00 in the morning. I do not remember whether it was on the 12th or the 13th when Father Tardio did not come, but at about 5:30, four Japanese policemen arrived to search our home. After the search, they ordered us to accompany them to the police station. In a large room, the chief of police and the entire police force, both Japanese and native, awaited us. Father Tardio and Brother Oroquieta were there also. Once we entered the room, the chief of police solemnly declared that Father Tardio and Brother Oroquieta were under arrest and would be confined to their residence, totally isolated from the people. As for the sisters, we were placed under arrest also, although we were allowed to walk around, but only within the town of Garapan.

Father Tardio (who realized we would be without mass as a result of this sentence, but who did not speak Japanese) asked in Chamorro if he could go to our chapel to celebrate mass. A native policeman, very experienced and knowledgeable of the Japanese, in a completely free translation said, "Chief, Father Tardio has to pray in the chapel every morning at 5:00, and he asks whether he may continue to do so." The chief, who must have been surprised at the need to pray, answered, "Of course! No problem!" Thus our daily mass was saved, at least for the time being. But it was short-lived. Eight days later, the police came again to take us to the government offices. There we were told that Father Tardio was forbidden to go pray in our chapel, and that we, too, were to be confined to our residence and isolated from the people.

It was 23 December 1941. There we were, without mass, without the sacraments, and without contact from the priest or the people. They did consent, however, that Remedios Castro (then an 18-year-old woman, today a sister of the Mercedarian Missionaries of Berriz) could stay with us to obtain food and help with whatever necessities might arise.

Given this state of affairs, and seeing God in the circumstances surrounding us, we prepared to spend the Christmas holidays as joyfully as possible. The days and months passed, and Lent came. Meanwhile, the people were caught in an ever-increasing panic, without mass, without the sacraments. The Saipanese were all Catholics and absolutely isolated from us. That group of people, so close to its missionaries!

By March 1944, the town [of Garapan] had been evacuated. Little by little, all Chamorro families had been moved to their ranchos, the inherited properties that all native families owned in the jungles or in the countryside where they cultivated fruit trees and vegetable gardens and tended animals. Now, we were practically alone in the town, surrounded by the military.

In early March 1944 we were told we had to leave Garapan, and we were moved to a hill where there were two unoccupied houses a short distance apart. One was for us, the other for Father Tardio and Brother Oroquieta. Here we were able to participate in a daily mass celebrated by Father Tardio in a nearby hut. The scenery was beautiful, with views of the ocean, and we immediately realized we would be the first to see American ships when they arrived. The Japanese must have realized that also, because exactly a month later, they moved us to another location [Chalan Galaide]. They took us to a ravine surrounded by jungle where we could barely see the sky. They had built a small wooden house for us, while Father Tardio and Brother Oroquieta were given the small house belonging to the landowner. About 100 meters from our house, they had prepared an underground shelter, measuring approximately 1 X 5 meters, where we were instructed to take refuge when the alarm siren sounded. Father Tardio and Brother Oroquieta also had their own shelter.

On 22 May we heard a deafening sound, like a truck lumbering up the mountain. We were surprised because we did not believe a truck could maneuver those roads. The truck stopped across from our house on the opposite side of the ravine and the crew began unloading it. They brought cases of ammunition and placed them around our house, like a wall. Sister Mercedes protested and asked how they could do such a horrible thing as to surround our house with cases of ammunition when in a war-time situation the slightest mishap could set them ablaze and kill us all. Unmoved, the officer commanding the operation calmly shook his head: "Our intention is to take this to a cave nearby, but we cannot do it today. We will return in a few days and take these cases to the cave." It was obvious that his intent was quite different, because for that purpose, it would not have been necessary to go to the trouble of hauling those boxes across the ravine and placing them around our house.

Our life went on more or less as it had in Garapan: isolated, with no news of anyone. Remedios would go to town or to the hamlets where she knew she could find food. One day, the sisters had taken their meal and it was approximately 2:00 in the afternoon when I went into the house to get something to eat. Suddenly, bombs exploded around us and a deluge of bullets and shrapnel fell on the roof. It was 11 June 1944. In this predicament we could not run to the shelter, about 100 meters away, and we protected ourselves as best we could, covering ourselves with mattresses. When the air battle ended at dusk, as it did daily during the battle of Saipan, we went outside the house. The spectacle was awe-inspiring and terrifying, the surrounding mountains aflame, covered by a dense black smoke. Miraculously, none of the bullets around our building exploded, although we could hear others exploding in the boxes located at a certain distance from the house.

It was decided that the following day, at 4:00 in the morning, we would celebrate mass in a ruined shed nearby, then we would go to the shelter, taking sufficient food for the day.

A young couple lived in a house nearby where they had been since being evacuated from town. We suggested they join us when we had to go to the shelter and they gladly accepted. It was important to have lay persons witness whatever might happen, because the rumor among the local people was that the Japanese intended to kill us. There were nine of us-seven sisters and the couple-compelled to spend the day in a space so small that we could hardly change position. We never lacked food; the worst thing was that the air became more and more scarce as the hours passed, and by mid-afternoon it was difficult to breathe. The first day of our voluntary retreat into the shelter was Monday, 12 June. We did not move all day, but placed ourselves in God's hands and listened to the thunder of the air battle.

I believe it was on Friday of that week that we came out of the shelter at nightfall while Sister Genoveva went to the kitchen to prepare food. When Sister Genoveva did not return, Sister Mercedes said to me, "Let's go see what Sister Genoveva is doing." Upon arriving at the house, we were met at the entrance to the kitchen by two military policemen, rifles in hand. The kitchen had no wall on one side and the fire that the sister had made to prepare dinner and the next day's meal could be seen from the outside. The policemen were furious, because according to them, we had made the fire to signal the Americans on the other side of the jungle. One of them pointed his gun at Sister Mercedes and me, about five or six meters away, and made a motion as if to fire. Fortunately, a third soldier appeared behind him, quickly grabbed his arm, preventing him from firing, and said: "Don't do that, you fool!" Remedios stood there, struck dumb with fear. "Remedios, speak," I said. As a lay person and a Chamorro, I thought it best that she be the one to speak. She said, "How can you think such a thing of these nuns who have come to help us all, the local people and the Japanese?" The soldier answered, "Fine, but if they build another fire, I will kill them." Once again, God's loving providence was with us.

On Sunday, the 18th,we were in the shelter, as we had been every day, when at mid-morning two civilian policemen appeared at the entrance, screaming for Angelica-sama to come out. One of them said to me, "We have come on behalf of the chief of the civilian police to tell you he thinks you will be better off near the Japanese civilian population, which we have gathered around Mount Tapochau. Be prepared at 8:00 this evening, and we will come to take you to Mount Tapochau." We informed Father Tardio and Brother Oroquieta. We did not know whether the change would be for better or worse, but since we were not doing well where we were, we received the order with a certain enthusiasm.

We began the pilgrimage at 8:00 in the evening, carrying our small bundles and escorted by two policemen. It was a long walk. All I remember is that we arrived at Mount Tapochau at midnight. The policemen left us in a clearing, telling us to rest there, that they would take us to a better location at daybreak. Exhausted, we lay on the ground to sleep, when after a couple of hours we became aware of a racket around us: a battalion of parachutists had landed exactly where we were. Imagine our fright, in the dark of night. At dawn, the policemen took us to another place, and again, God's loving providence protected us. No sooner had we moved from the site where we had rested, than a bomb fell on the exact spot. The place where the police had left us was a large clearing, with not a single tree for shelter. Furthermore, we were caught between Japanese and American crossfire. We spent the day lying face down on the ground, bullets whizzing continuously over our heads. A bomb fell close to Brother Oroquieta, but did not explode. At nightfall, a soldier approached us to see if we were dead and was surprised to find we were alive.

This is when it occurred to Remedios to go to the chief of police and ask him to take us to her father's ranch, located in the northern part of the island where there are many caves and we would be safer. The chief amiably acceded, but said, "It cannot be tonight, because we are busy leading the entire Japanese population north." Consequently, we had to stay in the same place, under the same circumstances, caught in the crossfire for yet another day. I believe it was on the 21st, after Father Tardio had heard our confessions-which we thought could be our last that the police gave us orders to precede. We had to go down from Mount Tapochau, and to save time, they took us on a short-cut, a very narrow, steep, and rocky path. In some places we had to descend sitting down, grasping the bushes along the sides of the pathway. While we were going down the mountainside, a battalion of soldiers was coming up the same path, heading for the early morning battle. Several soldiers moved quickly, carrying the dead on stretchers. Here and there, huge piles of bodies were burning, which made a tremendous impression on us. From their ships, the Americans fired bullets or bombs - I do not know what those weapons were called - but they produced a deafening shrill, and upon reaching a certain height, lit the battlefield as if it were daytime. When they exploded, large chunks of burning iron fell; if they struck someone, they tore them to pieces, legs, arms, and heads flying in all directions.

We continued to walk northward, and around daylight, we reached Talofofo. We were left there on the side of a mountain, at a place so rocky that there was no level place to sit. The air battles began very early, and we had no choice but to lie, face down, all day. At around 5:00 in the afternoon, the battle subsided and we had just begun to eat when suddenly, several planes flew by, showering bullets over the area. One of them struck me, entering the right side of my chest and exiting my back. Father Tardio was a few meters above me and I screamed, "Father, absolution, please! I am going to die - I have been wounded." Father Tardio, lying face down, turned and blessed me. All I could think of was, "Now, I will see God." Sister Mercedes realized I was bleeding to death, and in spite of the deluge of bullets, managed to remove a towel from her bag and wrap it tightly around me to stop the streaming blood. At this point, we noticed that several gasoline tanks eight or ten meters away had started to burn, and since the wind was blowing in our direction, the flames were coming toward us. Naturally, we started to leave, but then we noticed that Sister Genoveva was not moving. We went to her and found she was dead; but for the time being, we had to leave her. Once safely away from the flames we met a soldier, and we asked him if he could take us to a cave. He took us to a nearby cave filled with Japanese civilians. Early in the morning we were taken to a much more peaceful place than Talofofo. We were left amid the foliage of trees where we felt safer psychologically, though such was not the case as planes flew overhead and bombs exploded all day.

Meanwhile, my wound was getting worse. At 8:00 in the evening they took me to a large cave where two famous surgeons were attending wounded civilians. One of them treated my wound so well that it gave me great relief. Since we were not far from where we left Sister Genoveva's body, we begged the policeman to take us there. He agreed to do so, and we found the body where we had left it. We told him we wished to bury her and asked when and how we could do it. The chief of police who was there replied that we need not worry; they would bury her. Later we were able to confirm that it did not happen. When the battle for Saipan ended, with the help of some American soldiers a search for the body was made in the area where she had died, but it was never found. It was probably cremated, as were all bodies.

The next stop was at a place called Calaveras [Kalabera], near the coast on the east side where there are high vertical cliffs. There we felt more protected from the bullets and bombs, although we could see them exploding against the huge cliffs before our very eyes, as though we were watching a scene unfolding on a screen. My wound was dressed a second time. Meanwhile, Remedios kept insisting that we be taken to Marpi, at the northern end of the island, to her father's ranch. Finally, they relented and the policeman informed us we would be escorted there that night. It was either June 29th or 30th. We had to cross the island from east to west, a distance of six miles, then continue up and down, over the mountains to Marpi. There was a doctor among the Japanese there, and it occurred to Sister Mercedes to ask him to dress my wound before we left, since it had not been treated for several days. The man was extremely nervous and frightened. By the light of the full moon he began to dress my wound. In his haste, I do not know what he stuffed inside my open wound, and when a luminous bomb exploded, he fled like a bolt of lightning and hid. The pain was so great that had Remedios not supported me, I would have fainted; nevertheless, we immediately began our pilgrimage to the west. The luminous bombs followed us, and as usual, we had to hit the ground instantly when they appeared. How could I, in my condition, have walked so far, performed such movements as throwing myself suddenly to the ground, then getting up again? I do not know. What is clear is that, for God, nothing is impossible.

We crossed the island and at a place near the west coast the policeman stopped and said, "You are now free; you may continue by yourselves." Imagine our joy, when after nearly three years of detention, we unexpectedly found ourselves free. We were at the intersection of two roads leading to Marpi. One was very long, since it was necessary to skirt a mountain to get there; the other was much shorter, but Remedios found it so changed that she was afraid there would be military installations along the way that would prevent us from proceeding. We decided to take the long way, and after skirting the mountain, arrived at Remedios' father's ranch at 4:00 in the morning. After the battle, we learned that the shorter road had been electrified along both sides, because it was feared the Americans would invade on that side of the island.

There were many caves on the ranch, all filled with Chamorro people. Nevertheless, we managed to find one large enough for the seven of us, although we could not stand, only sit or lie down. Father Tardio and Brother Oroquieta found another one large enough for them and the youth who accompanied them. As soon as we were settled, Remedios went to all the caves seeking a nurse and found a very good one, one of our former students. Through her, we located a wounded Japanese officer who had medicines with which to treat himself and who provided some good ones for the infections in my wounds. With this help, the infections disappeared before we crossed to the American lines eight days later.

Once we had medications and were well cared for by the nurse, we needed to find a way to change my clothes, which, after eight days, were tattered and soaked with blood. But how? Once again, Remedios went from cave to cave, asking for clothes. She brought me a short-sleeved, flower-printed blouse, and a flower-printed skirt with vivid colors and a 2-meter-long train in the style typically worn by the Filipino and Chamorro women. Imagine what I looked like, in a skirt with a train, a short-sleeved shirt, and a nun's wimple and veil. Now came the problem of washing my clothes. Remedios remembered a small creek nearby and asked the Japanese officer to accompany her, and at 2:30 in the morning they went to wash my clothes, or rather, to dip them into the water. Do you realize what Remedios meant to us? Thanks to her we found food at Marpi, where she could move about at night. She tried to find water nearby to quench our thirst, and throughout the entire war, never ceased her efforts to obtain, within the range of possibility, whatever would alleviate our predicament.

During our eight days in the cave we could hear the battle raging, the continuous gunfire getting closer by the day, making us realize the Americans were very near. Thirst was one of the greatest hardships we faced during the month we crisscrossed the hills and jungles from south to north. There was no rain, and we could not move about during the daytime. Whenever she could, Remedios would go out at night with a bottle, looking for a creek or a well whose water was more or less clean; then Mother Superior would dole it out, a little in the morning, a little at noon, and a little in the evening. When we were forced to walk at night, Remedios would go into the sugar cane fields and bring each of us a piece of sugar cane to chew as we walked, and it helped. At the end of a month of insufficient liquid, our throats were so parched that there were days when we could not swallow our food.

On the morning of 8 July, when we were thirstier than ever, we began to hear constant gunfire close by, and we were convinced the Americans were practically on top of us. At this point an elderly Chamorro arrived at the cave, shouting "Sisters, come. Now! Follow me!" He took us along a path through the bushes. After circling around we came upon the American lines, in the middle of the battlefield. I was dying of thirst, and the first thing I said was, "Water, please!" One of the soldiers who was busy firing at the enemy heard my cry, stopped firing, turned, and offered me the water canteen dangling at his belt. When I remember his act, I feel both shame and gratitude: I could think only of my thirst, and the young man, in imminent danger of death, turned immediately to help me.

At this point the Catholic chaplain was in the middle of the battle, attending to the dead and wounded. As soon as he could, he came to greet and bless us. He was unable to finish; he was so moved a lump came to his throat and tears streamed down his cheeks. This was not so strange because, as we learned later, the first question asked by the local groups captured by the Americans was, "What about the missionaries? Where are our missionaries? What has become of our missionaries?" This concern for their missionaries, coming from all of them, impressed the Americans deeply. This was how they learned there were missionaries on the island, that we were held prisoner, that the Japanese tried to kill us, etc. This happened during the first 15 days. Some days, they had an idea where we were because local people would tell them, "Yesterday we saw them in Tapochau; the day before they were in Talofofo," etc. It was at that time that several priests (among them the one who greeted us on the battlefield), together with some Catholic soldiers, made midnight forays into the Japanese-held area, endangering their lives, but could not find us. This accounted for the unrestrained emotion of the chaplain who received us: we were believed to be dead.

At this point we were led to a hill about a half kilometer from the battlefield where a group of about 30 soldiers were resting, waiting to relieve others returning from the battlefield. Several were of Mexican origin and spoke perfect Spanish. While we were talking with them a young lieutenant of Italian descent, who also knew Spanish, approached. He was Lt. Gadnier. He introduced us to a young Japanese girl, seven or eight years old, dressed in a beautiful kimono. The lieutenant told us, "This girl saw her parents commit suicide this morning, and we have kept her with us. Would you like to be responsible for her?" You can imagine how happy we were with this proposal. How could we not take in a young war orphan whom we could lead to become a daughter of God? The little girl's face reflected the panic that prevented her from speaking, and we were unable to encourage her to utter a word. She was petrified. She carried a woman's pocketbook with all the family documents: the name of her parents, where they lived, their possessions, etc.

In mid-afternoon, those of us who had been captured that day were loaded aboard a huge truck and driven to the concentration camp [Camp Susupe] set up on the south side of the island, some twelve miles away. We were impressed to be riding on roads completely new to us, built by the Americans as they gained control, section by section, of the island. In Camp Susupe about 3,000 local people had been gathered. In the morning they had been notified by radio that the missionaries were alive and had crossed over to the American lines. I cannot describe the joy and jubilation of these people when we arrived at the camp. All 3,000 awaited us, waving handkerchiefs, greeting us with shouts, many crying for joy, and we, containing our emotions, surveyed the multitude from the heights of the huge truck. All I could think to say was, "Lord, this is the triumph of Your Church. Thank you, Lord!"

The people were housed in two canvas tents. The following morning, the doctor came to examine us and found many things to treat in addition to my wound: anemia, vermin, as well as gallstones. All these conditions were the consequence of the food and dirty water we had been drinking for more than a month. With the resources available to them, the American doctors took very good care of us and we recovered our health relatively soon.

Four days after we arrived at the camp, the war in Saipan ended and Lt. Gadnier came to visit us. He inquired about the little girl, and we explained that we had not been able to keep her because when we arrived, the officer in charge of orphans told us that she would have to go to the Japanese camp to be included on the list of orphans, and that within a few days we could arrange for her adoption if we so desired. We also told him that we had found a young childless couple who were good Christians and wished to adopt the little girl. At this point, Mercedes Gonzalez asked Lt. Gadnier what his mother's name was. The young man took out a small piece of paper and wrote "Antonetta." Mercedes told him, "We hope this girl will become a Christian someday, since she is going to live with a Christian family. The day she is baptized, we will name her "Antonetta." This made the young man very happy and he said goodbye, saying he had to return to the battle on Tinian, an island very close to Saipan, and that he would return to visit as soon as the battle ended. God had other plans, however, because Gadnier died in the battle. We wrote to his mother, telling her that on two occasions we had seen her son performing good deeds, and we sent her the little piece of paper on which he had written her name-probably the last thing he wrote.

Meanwhile, the Ameriocans had begun to distribute the orphans among the native families wishing to adopt them, but the Japanese judge in the Japanese compound protested, stating there was a law forbidding them from giving their children to local families for adoption. The Americans respected their law and recovered all the children given for adoption. We never saw our future "Antonetta," but there was another orphaned girl whose name was not on the list of orphans because a native family had taken her in when her parents died. She was somewhat older, about ten years old. After being properly instructed, this girl was baptized and given the name "Antonetta." Today she is a Mercedarian Missionary of Berriz.

When the war ended, the withdrawal of the troops began and lasted several months. It was not easy to move the thousands of men spread across the Pacific. If I remember correctly, the total withdrawal was not completed until February 1946. We, the inhabitants of Saipan, continued to be confined in Camp Susupe until 4 July 1946, the U.S. Independence Day. All of us, missionaries and local people, were cared for and fed by the powerful U.S.A. While awaiting their withdrawal, the Catholic military men got together to build a large wooden house for us. There was a ground floor, a first floor, and a central courtyard, and it stood where our cement house in Chalan Kanoa stands today.

At this point I cannot help asking myself, "Can our intellects ever comprehend the magnitude of the gifts of protection, love, gentleness, and tenderness that God, Our Father, showered on us during that time of war? Can we ever find words to adequately express our thanks?" I cannot; I can only say, "I shall forever praise the loving-kindness of the Lord. Thank you, Father!"

Translated and edited by Marjorie G. Driver and Omaira Brunal-Perry. MARC Educational Series No. 19. Published in 1994 by the Division of Historic Preservation, CNMI Department of Community and Cultural Affairs, and the Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam. Used by permission.

May 17, 2004

Saipan Tribune http://www.saipantribune.com

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