'We try to shrug it off': How the people of Guam are coping with nuclear threats

Beach on Guam, Pacific Photo: Shutterstock

Beach on Guam, Pacific Photo: Shutterstock

Living on Guam is a dichotomy - a beautiful island in the middle of the Western Pacific that plays an important strategic role in scary world events, the homeland of the Chamorro people for 3500 years or more. We who call Guam our home are reminded of this reality every day.

We wake up to colourful sunrises, drive to work next to the deep blue Pacific Ocean, see brilliant rainbows and spectacular cloud formations every day. The reef life, waterfalls beaches and sunsets are awesome all the time. The living is easy, and we love it intensely!

But we also see uniformed soldiers, war ships, submarines that we know are heavily armed and huge military planes and helicopters around daily. There are international military exercises here regularly. Nearly everyone on island has at least one relative serving in the military.

It's just a small island – we know one another, including the US Armed Forces personnel stationed here. We shop and eat and drink together.

This has been Guam's fate – the island is large enough to host a good number of people, has plenty of fresh water and a nice-sized, deep harbour. And we're used to being treated as a pawn in other powers' strategic games: In 1941, the United States gave up Guam without much of a defence against Japanese attack in World War II.

People walk around Hagatna, Guam. Photo: AP

People walk around Hagatna, Guam. Photo: AP

American forces sent their dependents home just before Japan attacked, leaving a small contingent of soldiers here ill-equipped to protect the island. Chamorros suffered greatly at the hands of the Japanese for 2.5 years. More than 1000 Chamorros were killed.

Memories of that devastating time were brought back this week as President Donald Trump and North Korean President Kim Jong-un threatened each other, making the people of Guam feel as though we all have targets on our backs.

On Wednesday, North Korea announced that it might fire missiles to within 40km of Guam.

Guam during World War Two. This August 1944 file photo shows an American flag atop the first US tank to lead the push to Agana, capital of Guam.  Photo: AP

Guam during World War Two. This August 1944 file photo shows an American flag atop the first US tank to lead the push to Agana, capital of Guam. Photo: AP

We try to shrug it off, make some jokes about how idiotic these two leaders are and then get on with our lives. As we watch hour after hour of the news, people say brave things like: We are strong, we are resilient, our faith will sustain us. The US military will protect us this time, because now we are US citizens. It seems all the world's media is finally looking at us.

Just about everyone on Guam is getting tearful, panicky calls from friends and family off island begging them to leave and go somewhere safer. Social media is heavy with these conversations, and people are angry that this is happening here once again.

We just celebrated our Liberation Day with memories of war fresh on our minds.

Life on Guam: people walk through the Chamorro Village marketplace in Hagatna, Guam. Photo: AP

Life on Guam: people walk through the Chamorro Village marketplace in Hagatna, Guam. Photo: AP

One woman told me her son called worried sick, as his whole family is on Guam except him. If Guam is bombed, he will be all alone in the world. She spoke with him for quite a while and said he's OK now. She asked him to pray for peace and is confident the US military will intercept any missiles fired at us.

Another friend told me she has broken out in a terrible rash due to stress. She has a granddaughter in the military stationed at the Korean DMZ and fears for her safety. The young woman told her by phone this week that they have been immunised for poisons and wear protective clothing.

They will have only two minutes to act if attacked, she said. But "don't worry, Grammie, we're going to be all right. You raised a tough Santa Rita girl." After she hung up, my friend cried, because she knew her granddaughter was terribly scared and just trying to put on a brave face.

A copy of the local newspaper is for sale in Hagatna, Guam. Photo: AP

A copy of the local newspaper is for sale in Hagatna, Guam. Photo: AP

A neighbour looks at it this way: We've all been given one life to live, and she is choosing to be the best person she can, to live fearlessly and courageously. Another said she will not let this ruin her life. She will continue her everyday life, she said, and she rests in the hands of God.

A veteran told me he knows the scenarios of engagement and is aware of the assets and capabilities of the US and its allies. He also knows that no one wants a nuclear war, because everybody loses. He said it's time for a regime change in North Korea.

Life continues on Guam, which has been the focus of North Korean threats in the past. Photo: AP

Life continues on Guam, which has been the focus of North Korean threats in the past. Photo: AP

Many people here have been angry about a Fox News graphic showing that Guam has a total of 3831 Americans affected by the threat - which excludes the local population of 160,000 people, all of whom are American citizens, too, though as a territory of the United States, we don't vote for president and have no voting representation in Congress.

It's a never-ending dilemma for us, leaving us with a sense of disempowerment. We've worked for years on decolonisation and self-determination but haven't made much progress.

We are all watching, though, to see if the military starts sending their dependents off Guam again. We are fervently hoping that cooler heads will prevail.

  • Murphy is a longtime resident of Guam, a former journalist, and managing editor of guampedia.com, an online resource about Guam.

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