Guam: War in the Pacific National Historical Park

visitors can see guns and other structures
Tens of thousands of Americans and Japanese died during the assault on Guam. Today, visitors can see guns and other structures erected to defend the island by both Japanese and American forces

Courtesy of Anna Lee, Flickr's Creative Commons

Scattered across Guam in seven units, War in the Pacific National Historical Park commemorates the role the island played in World War II. A massive conflict, the Second World War raged in two locations on opposite sides of the earth. While bitter fighting took place in Europe, many of the islands in the Pacific were also sites of hard struggle. Today, visitors to the park learn about World War II on one of the Pacific islands and about the life of native Guamanians. The park honors and remembers the efforts by all Allied Powers in World War II.

On December 7, 1941, Japanese forces bombed US Navy ships and facilities at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  War began to spread throughout the Pacific, and Guam with its American military base was on the list of targets. Guam and other nearby islands were strategically important as supply bases in the Pacific. Those on Guam did not have long to wait before war reached them. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, bombs fell on the American military bases in Guam. Following this bombardment, the fight moved from the air to the ground. Japanese military forces soon controlled the island.

Long before Guam became a vital military resource, it was home to the Chamorro, who came to the island from southern Asia in approximately 2000 BC. The Chamorro had a complex society that European explorers upset when they arrived beginning in the 1500s. The wealthiest Chamorro families lived in huts built on top of stone pillars known as latte stones, some of which are still on the island today. The explorers brought new customs, new diseases to which the Chamorro had no immunity, and new languages.  Spain was the first European power to arrive, and the Spanish remained in control for more than 300 years, until the United States gained control of Guam at the end of the Spanish-American war in 1898.

Even though Guam was far from the mainland, the United States began to develop this new American land to strengthen the American military presence in the Pacific. The administration of this important military outpost fell to the Navy. Rule under naval governors did not always respect the civil rights of the native Chamorro. Life on the island did not change too much during World War I, but the Great Depression and the Second World War greatly altered the landscape. Visitors to the park will see the remains of a number of World War II defensive fortifications that record multiple battles for control of the island.

Guam was valuable as a place from which planes could land and take off and ships could refuel. As World War II intensified in the Pacific, Guam became even more important to the United States as a base for possible attacks against Japan. The Japanese also recognized Guam’s strategic position, and following the December 1941 bombing of Guam, the Japanese overtook the island and continued to hold it until August 12, 1944. While the island was under Japanese control, the Japanese forced the Chamorro to build defensive structures throughout the island. They also restricted the freedom of the Chamorro, incarcerating between ten to fifteen thousand Chamorro in concentration camps on the island before the end of the Japanese occupation.

Sites related to Japanese occupation of the island and the battle by American troops to re-take Guam are highlights of the park today. The Japanese had guns and traps built into the coast to defend the island.  Part of the American invasion of the island began along the shore in July 1944. At Agat Invasion Beach outside Agat Village on Highway 1, American troops attacked from the bay, which the Japanese had filled with mines and bombs. Overlooking the beach, the Japanese constructed fortified positions called pillboxes, from which they could shoot down the Americans. A number of these concrete pillboxes and bunkers remain. At Ga’an Point in Agat, visitors can also see some of the guns the Japanese used and a heavily fortified, well-hidden stronghold from which the Japanese fired on the attacking American Marines. Other defensive gun mountings are at Piti.

American invasion forces also landed on Asan Beach. As at Agat, the beach at Asan had heavy fortifications to deter attack. American Marines fought hard for about a week to gain control of the area around Asan.  Memorial Beach Park at Asan Beach has gun placements and several monuments that are reminders of the battle. On Asan Ridge above the beach, there are still gun mounts, pillboxes, and tunnels from which bullets rained down on the American forces. The capture of the area around Asan, including what is in the Fonte Plateau Unit of the park, was key to breaking Japanese dominance of the island. Visitors to the Fonte Plateau Unit can see the former Japanese communications center and the site of the battle to capture the hill.

The American assault on Asan did not finish the fighting. The battle continued inland. In caves near the Asan and Matgue rivers close to Asan beach, Japanese soldiers fought the Marines in an unsuccessful counterattack in which approximately 3,500 Japanese soldiers died. The Asan Inland Unit contains some of the difficult terrain on which American troops had to fight. Throughout the park, overlooks located mostly along Routes 1 and 2 provide visitors with the opportunity to pull off the road and learn more about the fighting.

The park's Mt. Alifan and Mt. Chachao/Mt. Tenjo units were both Japanese defensive positions during the struggle to retake the island. At Mt. Alifan near Agat Beach, the Japanese built a command center in the hills. Though bombed, the foxholes and trenches the Japanese constructed are still there. At Mt. Chachao/Mt. Tenjo overlooking the landing location of American troops at Asan Beach are foxholes and trenches and the site of an American gun mount from World War I. Both of these units are in relatively undeveloped areas that may not be easily accessible.

The visitor center shows films about World War II in the Pacific and exhibits highlighting life on Guam before, during, and after the war. Signs at some units and roadside pull-offs provide additional information about the island. Swimming, fishing, hiking, diving and snorkeling are also popular things to do in the park.

Visitors to the park should not enter caves or tunnels, because they may contain hidden explosives. Unexploded ordnance may be on land or offshore in the park. Visitors should not disturb any found ammunition, but report its location to a ranger.

The Americans did not take the entire island of Guam back from the Japanese until August 10, 1944. Approximately 55,000 soldiers were part of the landing forces that helped to liberate Guam. The fight ultimately killed more than 7,000 Americans and roughly 17,000 Japanese. The Allied assault on Guam was an important challenge to Japanese control of the Pacific. Roughly a year after American troops retook Guam, Japan surrendered following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945.

Last updated: December 29, 2020