WWII survivors witness the signing of Bill 181 at the governor's conference room in Adelup on Jan 3, 2020. Photo by Mar-Vic Cagurangan
“For me, it’s better late than never,” said Isabel Duenas, who sat among more than a dozen World War II survivors at the governor’s conference room on Friday to witness the governor’s signing of a law that establishes a local war reparation program.
“We are tired and we are getting really sick,” Duenas said. “It’s fine as long as we get it. I got two letters already and now I’m just waiting for them to call me.”
Duenas, then a resident of Inarajan, was six when the war broke out and sent her family running into a cave to hide from the Japanese soldiers. “One of my sisters was born in the cave on July 14, 1944,” she recalled.
Duenas turns 82 on Sunday.
At this point, any remaining war survivor might be spending their last birthday. Hence the local government’s rush to develop a domestic strategy — albeit contentious—to get war claims checks into the hands of the war survivors as soon as possible without waiting for the next federal action. The program will borrow money from the general fund, which the local government anticipates to be reimbursed by the U.S. Treasury.
“After 75 years of waiting, our Greatest Generation can now begin to heal old wounds,” Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero said in signing Bill 181-35, which gives her a transfer authority to fill up the 75th Guam Liberation War Claims Fund.
Leon Guerrero said her administration has set aside $14 million in local funds, which will supplement the $23 million that the U.S. Treasury has made available to the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, for war claims that have been adjudicated.
“So, that’s roughly about $37 million in obligation to our manamko,” Leon Guerrero said, targeting the issuance of the first check by the end of January.
Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero signs Bill 181-35 on Jan. 3, 2020. She is joined by Sens. Amanda Shelton, Wil Castro, Tina Muna Barnes, Kelly Marsh Taitano, Pedo Terlaje and communications director Janela Carrera. Photo by Mar-Vic Cagurangan
The government of Guam is awaiting the U.S. Treasury’s approval of a draft memorandum of understanding that will secure the federal replacements of local funds that will be tapped to pay off the survivors’ adjudicated claims.
“They are reviewing it. They will give it to us by the beginning of next week,” the governor said.
The distribution process will start shortly once the agreement is signed, Leon Guerrero said.
“End of January— it is a very aggressive action but everybody in my cabinet and staff knows that that’s my target and we are working very feverishly to meet it,” the governor said “The U.S. Treasury is totally engaged. I’m very hopeful that the process will go smoothly.”
According to the speaker's office, checks will be funded from lapsed funds from fiscal 2019 and fiscal 2020 budget subject to the governor's transfer authority.
Bill 181-35—now Public Law 35-61— however, did not sit well with critics, who questioned the policymakers’ decision to tap local funds to pay off the war restitution long sought from the federal government.
“While a small chorus of cynics have questioned this measure's motive or timing, each of us recognized that those directly impacted by this bill no longer had time to wait,” Leon Guerrero said.
“Signing this bill into law is more than just paying long overdue debt; it acknowledges the pains of the past, is symbolic of the peace of the present, and is about making our Greatest Generation whole.”
Bill 181-35, authored by Speaker Tina Muna Barnes, received a bipartisan support.
“Sorry that I failed you, that I could not get it in time, but I will continue to share with each and everyone of you that we will not stop trying," Muna Barnes told the war survivors, who gathered at the conference room. "We are alive today because you have suffered during World War II, a war that we never asked for. This maybe little but this is to pay honor to you."
The bill was passed amid the local leaders’ clash with Guam’s Delegate to Congress Michael San Nicolas, who is awaiting the U.S.
Senate’s action on his bill, H.R. 1365, which would fix technical errors in the Guam Meritorious Claims Act, also known as Guam World War II Loyalty Recognition Act.
H.R. 1365 modifies the use of amounts deposited in the Guam World War II Claims Fund. The bill, which removes the requirement for appropriations, has been read twice referred to the U.S. Committee on the Judiciary. Payments will come from Section 30 funds.
While the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission has processed approximately 750 war claims, the technical errors have impeded the release of payments under the Guam Meritorious Claims Act, which was signed on Dec. 23, 2016.
“While the creation of this local program is essential for those running out of time, this administration maintains its support for the passage of H.R. 1365,” Leon Guerrero said. “Passage of H.R. 1365 is vital to the payment of all claims adjudicated under federal law.”
War survivors have told and retold their stories of Japanese atrocities. But their fight for war reparations has been a long-running battle since the war ended.
In 2009, the Guam World War II Loyalty Act was debated during a Senate Committee meeting on the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010. The committee raised concerns that the bill would set some precedence. U.S. senators opposed payment of claims for personal injury to spouses and children of survivors in the case in which the survivor has since passed away after the war.
In a compromise attempt, the U.S. senators offered then Guam Delegate Madeleine Bordallo to keep Guam’s war claims in the final defense bill if they were awarded solely to descendants of those killed during the war and to living survivors, but not to their heirs.
Bordallo rejected the offer saying it would ignore all those who suffered through the occupation, and that she did not have the consent of the people of Guam to negotiate those terms.
“The people who really deserved this war reparation are now all dead and it really hurts,” said Kel Alicto, 81.
She was six when the war broke out and witnessed her mother taken by Japanese soldiers to a labor camp.
“My father died when he was 50 and my mother died when she was 45,” Alicto said. “This is a good law. I don’t know how they are going to do it but I will file my claims.”