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By Mark-Alexander Peiper

HAGATNA, Guam (Pacific Daily News) - To this day, 71-year-old Bert Unpingco said he feels anxious and gets nervous if he is driving down an unfamiliar road or if his family doesn't tell him where they’re going to take him.

A survivor of the Manenggon concentration camp during the Japanese occupation of Guam during World War II, Unpingco next month will participate in a walk up to the camp in hopes of finding closure to the trauma and tragedy that befell him and thousands of others during the war.

On July 10, 1944, Japanese Lieutenant General Takeshi Takashina, who assumed command of the island in March 1944, ordered all Chamorros throughout the island - men, women, children, the sick and the elderly - evacuated from their villages and marched to concentration camps in the south. Many of the Chamorros were kept in a concentration camp in the Manenggon Valley in Yona.

The walk, which has been dubbed "Hasu Manenggon: Remember Manenggon - An Island Tribute," will retrace the last 1.5 miles of the July 10 march to the former concentration campground and the location of the soon-to-be-built Manenggon Memorial Peace Park. "I was part of the march and though I’ve driven into Manenggon ... I always dread it. I think that for many of us, we need to relive that experience to finally put it behind us because I’m very sure it will remove much of the lingering fear that I have and that many others f my generation," he said.

"That feeling that people don’t care and that you don’t know what will happen – it’s a very bad feeling that sometimes makes you lose your confidence. I wish this event had occurred years ago so that many of us could have let go before we began to enjoy our senior years.

"I think it will cause us to release those emotions, to remember our experiences, learn from it and allow us to pack it, put it in the closet and don't worry about it anymore."

Unpingco was only 8 years old when, on December 8, 1941, a man ran into the Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral-Basilica in HagÂtÒa, interrupting Mass and Unpingco’s First Communion, to warn of the Japanese war planes that flew overhead.

The next day, a bomb was dropped on his family's home in HagÂtÒa because the Japanese were trying to destroy the home of his neighbor, American radioman George Tweed. Through the help of some Chamorros, in particular the Artero family, Tweed managed to evade capture from the Japanese throughout the duration of the occupation.

Unpingco said his family then moved to the area in Chalan Pago, now the site of the Apusento Gardens housing complex, where his family built a ranch. They remained there for most of the almost three-year Japanese occupation.

During his family’s time at the ranch, Unpingco said he really didn't see the horrors of war as the Japanese soldiers took a liking to him and the other children and would teach them songs.

But in the recent months preceding the American liberation of Guam on July 21, 1944 things started to change. Unpingco said it first started with food, as armed Japanese guards would take animals and crops from his family’s ranch.

"Then in July, the local Chamorro officer told us to pack as many things as we can and carry as much as you want to, but not any knives or anything that can be used as a weapon," Unpingco recalled.

"He said the Japanese were going to put us in a safe place where we wouldn’t get hurt because the fight was going to be on between the Americans and Japanese. But he didn't know where we were going."

Unpingco, who was 10 at the time, recalled that when his family left their ranch via what is now Maimai Road and came up to a main road, they ran into "hundreds and hundreds of people," all marching to the same destination.

Most of the people marching were barefoot, so many would get pricked by wild taro plants, he said. Unpingco said the path also was very muddy and slippery because, after an especially harsh dry season, the island was in the midst of monsoon rains, causing people to slip and fall.

But nobody could stop walking because if anyone fell behind, the Japanese would start slapping them, yelling, "hayaku, hayaku" or hurry up, Unpingco said. He said it frightened him and many others, causing people to start saying the rosary as they marched because "nobody knew what was going to happen."

"This all confused me because during the early days of the war, some of Japanese soldiers defended me - gave me food, like a bowl of rice, things like that, to give to my family. They taught me and the other children some of the Japanese songs they were singing," Unpingco said, then took the time to sing verses of the songs he was taught some six decades ago.

"I learned to like them and then they liked me, but as we got closer toward the end of the war, that’s when everybody seemed to turn into something like animals -- I guess they were trying to survive. Along the way (to Manenggon) I saw meanness that did not exist before."

Unpingco described Manenggon as an island within an island as the valley is surrounded by rivers and streams, which were difficult to cross on the march.

No buildings, latrines, food or medicine were provided at the campsite. Unpingco said Chamorros in the camp would catch fish and shrimp from the Ylig River and eat plants to survive.

The Chamorro captives had to construct their rain shelters and sleeping areas from palm fronds. Many captives suffered from malnutrition, dysentery and other health problems.

The river also was used as the only form of sanitation, but after days of being the only source of sustenance for thousands of people, Unpingco said, "everything was consumed."

Unpingco said the Japanese at the camp would force some of the men to carry munitions for them and only let a select number of prisoners cook and did so infrequently.

Then one day, many of the Japanese soldiers suddenly vanished. Soon afterward, three Marines arrived at the camp and started leading the Chamorros out of Manenggon and toward American camps at Finile and Asan.

"Many people were crying, but at the same time praying and at the same time laughing because the Americans had come and the song everyone kept repeating was, ‘Uncle Sam, my dearest Uncle Sam won’t you please come back to Guam,’ and everyone would applaud because Uncle Sam was back in Guam," he said.

Unpingco said though his experience at Manenggon still makes him feel uneasy, he also has good memories about how the Chamorro people at the camp pulled together and shared with each other to help people survive.

"I’m very happy that we’re finally trying to get these bad feelings out so that whatever bad feelings we have toward the Japanese or anybody needs to come out so that we can become friends again," said Unpingco, a former member of the Guam Visitors Bureau board.

"My job for many years was to promote tourism and as much as 80 percent of our tourists was coming from Japan," Unpingco said. "I’m proud of that fact because I remember that when they were coming here, they were carrying guns but now thousands of them are carrying cameras. I think this park will help to serve as a memorial so that we don’t forget what war can do to people, but we can forgive."

June 22, 2004

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