As Guam buildup revs up, the former Sumay Village offers a look at island’s past military-civilian relationship
What’s left of the once flourishing and prosperous Guam village of Sumay is behind the well-guarded gates of Naval Station Guam [‘Big Navy’], rarely seen by any island residents, except those granted full-time access by the Navy.
Sumay was known as the “Pearl of the Island” before the war. It evolved from a small fishing village to an important agricultural and commercial hub for ships in the mid-1800s. But the arrival of the Americans and their military in 1898 as well as developments such as trans-Pacific aviation made it an economically rich village by the 1930s.
In 2018, scattered rubble and a standing cross are the only remains of what was once Sumay’s Santa Guadalupe Church. Sumay was once Guam’s second largest Catholic parish and its priest became the last Spanish bishop on the island. There’s a cemetery that served the village. Many of its weathered stones are toppled, illegible or missing.
Otherwise, Sumay largely lives on in yellowed records, photographs and the memories of those few surviving who actually lived here and their descendants.
The military that now guards its boundaries was in fact the key to much of its growth and prosperity before World War II and also, to its bombing and destruction during that conflict. Following the war, with the village largely in ruins, the U.S. military claimed the property for its purposes and relocated its residents to what is now the village of Santa Rita and other island villages. During that turbulent time, few civilians were in a position to challenge that decision.
Over the years since 1946, various Navy commands allowed former villagers to visit their lost home occasionally, usually on November 2 for All Soul’s Day, but the 9/11 attacks and the resulting tightened security put an end to that until 2010, when the first Back to Sumay Day was instituted, in the words of the Navy, “with the goal of inviting former residents of the pre-World War II village and their descendants back to the site.”
And they have come. The 2018 iteration included a mass held at the [Pan-Am] Clipper Landing Park pavilion on the base. Following the mass, there was fiesta food, music, cultural dancing and a display of photos dating back to pre-World War II Sumay.
The visitors were welcomed by Santa Rita Mayor Dale E. Alvarez.
“To the former residents of Sumay who are with us today, I’d like to say, ‘welcome home.’ You’re all living proof that Sumay was and is a special place in our hearts and in our minds, even after 74 years. And to the former residents of Sumay who are not with us today we say with sincere gratitude, ‘we are thinking of you and we will continue to preserve your memories for future generations to remember.”
Of course few of the original residents were on hand, but their largely sunny recollections of the village have been documented.
In his 2008 master’s thesis, James P. Viernes quotes Concepcion Taitano Mafnas Concepcion /Tan Chong Ano/ on the village. “[It was] a nice town…people coming from all over Guam trying to find jobs. Down there is where all the military people live. That’s where you get the jobs before the war. Very nice town, people also come down to the ocean to fish…plenty fish. You can catch anything. Even children go with their basket to pick clams…very easy to live in that village.”
Yes, there were jobs and fishing, but Viernes also quotes Chamorro historian Anne Perez Hattori expressing the clear-eyed view that the Navy needed wage workers to support its mission, quite a change from the existing Guam society: “…it was quite difficult for the Navy to obtain labor. Governors complained that the relative self-sufficiency of the lanchos (ranches) disinclined the Natives from taking on strenuous or tedious tasks offered, and in fact, needed by the Navy.”
And according to Viernes, they got what they wanted. “While the capital city of Hagatna provided many employment opportunities for Chamorros, the majority of jobs available to them were in Sumay prior to 1941. Chamorros held positions as mess hall attendants, cooks, construction workers, laborers, golf caddies, laundresses, housekeepers, clerks, and attendants at the U.S. Marine Barracks, the Pan American Hotel and seaplane facilities, the Standard Oil Company, the Commercial Pacific Cable Station, the Golf Links golf course, and in the homes of military officers and their families.”
According to local historian Pale Eric Forbes who conducted this year’s mass, “It wasn’t very crowded or congested, so it was a comfortable place. You had the ocean, the backlands here where they could farm and everyone was just happy and got along and helped each other. So they had very fond memories of their childhood here.”
Times were tough after the war, recalls Antonio Tiano whose parents once lived in Sumay and getting enough food to eat was always an issue, for which he thanks the Americans.
“Life in Sumay, fishing and crabbing were the major concern. Food. A nice place to live. And to survive, because food is number one. Mostly, the military [after the war] is concentrated in Hagatna, so the food is very close by. We don’t have work at that time. They give out rations. After the military get done, they call us in to help ourselves.”
For more than a decade, plans for the long-planned military buildup have been ensnared in controversy largely driven not so much by memories of Sumay Village as by those of the high-handed way in which the military once could take property for its own use with little or no recourse by the civilian population.
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Major changes in the plans had to be made to concentrate buildup construction and activities on existing military property, suggesting at the very least that 2018 is much different than 1946.