Chamorro Women at Camp Susupe

Article written by Nicole Martin, PhD

The photograph below freezes in time a history that most mainland Americans know nothing about. It captures three Chamorro women on their way to the first public mass at Camp Susupe, an American World War II civilian internment camp on Saipan, the largest of the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific. The woman on the left holding the crucifix is Vicenta Mendiola Lizama Evangelista. The woman next to her in the middle is her mother, Carmen Mendiola Lizama. The name of the woman on the right holding the baby is unknown.1 What most draws the eye is what appears to be a look of anguish on Carmen’s face.

Black and white photo of two women holding religious items flanking distressed older woman in crowd
Three Chamorro women attending mass in Camp Susupe, an American-run civilian internment camp on Saipain, during WWII.

Courtesy Northern Marianas Humanities Council and Shawna Indalecio

It is hard to look away from Carmen. Why does she appear distressed? Is it because she is traumatized from the war and now confined to an internment camp? Is it because the bombardment destroyed her home? Is it news she received about missing loved ones unaccounted for since the battle began? Or is it simply the weariness of a war not of her or her people’s making?

While we cannot know for certain what she felt in that moment, we do know that her experience, voice, and agency – and those of the Chamorro and Carolinian generally – have been overlooked and erased from most military narratives about the Pacific War. For centuries, her home island served as the grounds for a tug-of-war between competing nations who have repeatedly devalued and discounted the Chamorro and Carolinian people.2

The Battle of Saipan

The Mariana Islands include Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The Chamorro lived here for 4,000 years before experiencing 300 years of Spanish conquest. In the early 1800s, during the Spanish period, Carolinians migrated to Saipan and made it their home after the destruction of their island homeland from typhoons. Saipan fell under Japanese rule from 1914-1944 after a short period of German colonization. During the Japanese period, nearly 20,000 Japanese, Okinawan, and Korean civilians moved to Saipan, a large population in comparison to the 4,000 Indigenous civilians, which included the majority Chamorro in addition to Carolinians and other Micronesians.3

On June 15, 1944, U.S. marines stormed the beaches, kicking off the 25-day harrowing Battle of Saipan. While the battle is considered a pivotal turning point for the U.S. military in the Pacific theater of WWII, it came at a great expense to the Indigenous communities on the island. When the U.S. military started bombing the island, Indigenous, Japanese, and other civilians ran to find shelter. It is likely that the women in the photo spent time in the limestone caves that dot the island.4

Uniformed Marine kneels at mouth of cave with emaciated woman surrounded by six children
U.S. marines discover a family (may be both Indigenous and Japanese) hiding in the limestone caves in 1944.

National Archives and Records Administration

Civilians lived in the caves for over three weeks with little food or fresh water, facing the knowledge that their homes had likely been destroyed and their lives upended. As one survivor remembered, the overriding emotion was “[f]ear of the unknown, and fear of the noise.”5 Hundreds of Indigenous civilians died. One woman recounted, “My baby brother died during the battle, and my brother, sister, and father were all struck by bullets. My sister died from her wounds.”6

Civilian Internment

After the battle, the U.S. Civil Affairs Unit moved all civilians into Camp Susupe. They were unprepared for the herculean task of feeding, sheltering, and caring for almost 18,000 civilians. They arrived sick, hungry, thirsty, wounded, and traumatized and were met with appalling conditions in the camp. Shelters were constructed of scraps and dirt floors, squeezing many families into tight spaces. The food consisted of military rations and malnutrition was rampant. A barbed-wire fence surrounded the camp, restricting the civilians’ movement.7

Black and white photo of long, single story housing with people in courtyard
Housing in Camp Susupe in 1945. Note the long one-room barracks style, an improvement over the initial small shelters made from salvaged materials and dirt floors.

McMicken WWII Collection

Reinstating Catholic mass was one way the people made camp life more bearable.8 In the photo, Carmen and Vincenta are carrying beloved religious icons. When they fled their homes, they likely carried these items with them, reflecting their valued and cherished status. Perhaps, then, Carmen's face expresses not distress but the feeling of engaging in a deeply meaningful religious practice again.

The unknown woman in the photo holds not a religious icon but a baby. A staggering half of the civilian refugees were children. What must it have been like to raise a baby in such conditions? One navy lieutenant remembers, "There were a lot of orphans, and nobody had thought of baby bottles and nipples for them. We used rubber gloves, medicine droppers —anything to get milk into them."9

Five months after the start of the battle, the Civil Affairs Unit began moving the Indigenous civilians to Camp Chalan Kanoa. Life improved in the new camp, as some lived in refurbished prewar Japanese concrete houses that had survived the battle, while others lived in wooden houses built by army engineers. Some internees were released from the confines of the camp, under armed guard, to farm vegetables and to fish, which helped supplement the rations. Despite improvements, Indigenous civilians still lacked the freedom to move around their homeland.10

Liberation Day

When World War II ended on September 2, 1945, the Indigenous civilians were not released from internment. The U.S. government provided a range of reasons, including safety, negotiations with Japan, and the fate of the strategic island. In January 1946, the government began repatriating Japanese, Okinawan, and Korean civilians but continued to intern Indigenous civilians. It was not until the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands made the U.S. a ruling power over the Northern Mariana Islands that Indigenous civilians like Carmen and Vincenta were free to leave the camps. The day was July 4, 1946 and is known as Liberation Day in Saipan.11

Today, the people of Saipan celebrate Liberation Day with great fanfare. It is a way to commemorate their release from the camps, the moment they returned to their land and villages. For those who remained in their Camp Chalan Kanoa houses, they were now able to create a sense of home without the confines of barbed wire.12 Despite the overwhelming loss – the destruction of their lives and homes – they survived and rebuilt their community.

Stories like those of Carmen, Vincenta, and the unknown woman are shared each Liberation Day. Importantly, the celebration provides a way to reflect on how their island and their lives were made a tool of war. A memorial honoring the 933 Indigenous civilians killed in the Battle of Saipan and throughout the internment period rests in American Memorial Park.

1 Information about the photograph comes from Shawna Indalecio, the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of Vincenta and Carmen, confirmed by email with American Memorial Park, May 29, 2023.

2 For more on this erasure, see Chamorro scholar Keith Camacho's Cultures of Commemoration: The Politics of War, Memory, and History in the Mariana Islands (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2011).

3 The Japanese civilian population included many of Okinawan ancestry, as well as Korean immigrants who were forced to move as colonial subjects of Japan at the time. For more on the long history of the Chamorros in the Marianas, see Doug Herman, "A Brief, 500-Year History of Guam: The Chamorro People of this Pacific Island Have Long Been Buffeted by the Crosswinds of Foreign Nations," Smithsonian Magazine, August 15, 2017. See also Don Farrell, Saipan: A Brief History, 3 ed. (Tinian: Micronesian Productions, 2019) and "Battle of Saipan," American Memorial Park, National Park Service.

4 Jennifer McKinnon and Stephanie Soder, Story Map of Camp Susupe, Northern Marianas Humanities Council, 2019.

5 Rosa "Chailang" Palacios, interview included in McKinnon and Soder, Story Map of Camp Susupe.

6 Rita Reyes, interview included in McKinnon and Soder, Story Map of Camp Susupe.

7 Norman Meller, Saipan's Camp Susupe, Occasional Paper series 42 (Honolulu, Hawai'i: Center for Pacific Islands Studies, School of Hawaiian, Asian, and Pacific Studies, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa, 1999), 34, 41. Meller described the conditions as “appalling.” See also "Battle of Saipan," American Memorial Park; and McKinnon and Soder, Story Map of Camp Susupe.

8 "60th Anniversary of Liberation from Camp," Liberation Day 2006, Pacific Digital Library, 2006, 9.

9 "Army & Navy - OCCUPATION: At Camp Susupe," Time, October 30, 1944.

10 McKinnon and Soder, Story Map of Camp Susupe.

11 Ibid.

12 Don Allen Farrell, "Camp Susupe vs. Camp Chalan Kanoa," Saipan Tribune, July 29, 2022.

Part of a series of articles titled Home and Homelands Exhibition: Loss.

American Memorial Park

Last updated: June 11, 2024