News

Holiday salutations from Guam

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

As the sun rises over the Philippine Sea, beaming across the series of islands that surround the Mariana Trench in the south Pacific, the United States' farthest territory is the first to welcome the new day.

Paul McDonald, mayor of the Agana Heights district on the island of Guam, brought warm greetings from his home to Federal Way during a recent visit to his daughter and son-in-law who are stationed here with the Coast Guard.

Had McDonald not come, he would have missed Christmas for the first time with his only granddaughter, a first-grader at Lake Dolloff Elementary School, whom he accompanied to school one day with coconuts for her classmates.

McDonald's hair is dark and his mustache is touched with gray. Even indoors, he kept his wool suit jacket on over his polo shirt during an interview. It's cold here compared to Guam, he said, where the temperature hovers between a balmy 75 and 95 degrees.

In the Pacific Ocean's series of tropical archipelago, Guam is after Hawaii and before the Philippines as a fingertip is traced from the tip of California southeasterly toward Indonesia. Guam is green and lush, with vibrant fish and sea anemone under the surface of its blue waters, sandy beaches, golf courses and enviable fishing.

The Mariana Islands, a line of eight isles of which Guam is the largest, were a strategic military base for the United States during World War II. In addition to Guam, the site of Andersen Air Force Base, the chain includes Saipan, Rota and Tinian, where the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were loaded onto the Enola Gay and Bock's Car bombers.

Military presence was for many years the backbone of life in Guam, an island diverse with the many cultures –– Spanish, Japanese, American, Philippine and others –– of nations that invaded and ruled at one time or another.

"I got my last name because my grandfather was one of the first Marines in Guam," McDonald said.

The shipyard provided thousands of chamoros –– Guam's indigenous people –– with steady jobs. Every time U.S. troops were called up, the tropical island buzzed with aircraft and activity.

In the 1950s, the citizens of Guam were granted U.S. citizenship after political leaders there lobbied the federal government. The primary language of Guam is English, though it's still possible to hear Spanish peppered in the predominantly Catholic country's names and saints, and residents consider themselves American.

"We're American citizens," McDonald said. "Per capita, we're some of the most patriotic."

The island's population of around 200,000 –– fewer than the city of Seattle –– sent surprising numbers of volunteer soldierrs to Vietnam and, more currently, Iraq. "We're proud to be American," McDonald said. "Nowhere do you feel more American than in Guam."

Since budget cuts closed the shipyard on Guam, the tourist industry has taken over as the primary employer, with people finding jobs with commercial airlines, in hotels and on boats.

The well-trained shipyard workers are leaving in droves for California and Washington, looking for job opportunities, McDonald said. Many of the workers transferred to Mare Island in Vallejo, which has since closed, and the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton.

"I was one of the victims" of the shipyard closure, McDonald said. A shipyard worker for 16 years, he was laid off along with 3,000 other workers. He said if he wasn't just re-elected to another four-year term as mayor of Agana Heights, the district just north of the capitol, he'd consider moving to Washington, too.

Though tourism is a flourishing industry on Guam –– especially with Japanese visitors, who live only a three-hour plane ride away –– nature has a tendency to keep it in check. The small island lies in the path of typhoon alley and is frequently buffeted by violent whirlwinds. Trees can only grow so high, McDonald said, "because typhoons will come and prune them. If we didn't have the typhoons, we'd have more tourism than Hawaii."

Last year, two typhoons hit Guam six months apart, devastating the island. "We're still in recovery mode," he said. "Lots of our facilities have not been repaired yet, especially with the funding situation with the Iraq war. There are priorities."

The 200-mile-per-hour winds stripped trees –– "Actually stripped to bare, not one leaf," he said –– and downed power lines. Flooding ruined the drinking-water supply. At one point, some people were without electricity for a month and a half, and several were without running water for weeks.

"Rebuilding is not moving as it used to move when there was no war," the mayor said. "Our facilities and infrastructure are still in disarray."

The remoteness of the island and its share of natural disasters have created in its residents resiliency, adaptability and self-sufficiency. Because Guam is so remote –– closer to Japan than to the United States –– people there have learned to use the resources available to them and not expect timely U.S. rescues, whether from storms or from difficulties in their industries.

Shipyard workers were cross-trained and learned to do several jobs on the ships that would come through, because there weren't always enough people to hand the jobs off to. That's been a boon to the workers who left Guam in the wake of the shipyard closure, McDonald said.

"When we come out here and apply for a job, that's an advantage for us," he said. "We're trained to do more in Guam. We're way out there. We can't call for help."

McDonald said there are a growing number of chamoros adapting to the chill of the Pacific Northwest's winters. During the last Census, conducted about five years ago, there were 20,000 chamoros living in California. Guamanian officials believe Washington is second, with close to 10,000.

"The majority of chamoros in Washington are adventurous and hard-working," he said. "It's like going somewhere you've never ventured. It's scary. But they're here, and a lot have survived and prospered."

It's been an adjustment for some of the families who have moved to the Pacific Northwest. "First thing is the climate," McDonald said. "It's cold."

McDonald also noticed a difference in the houses.

"Our (typhoon-proof) homes have to be built with concrete. It's very expensive because of tariffs. When we're here, we see a wooden home –– beautiful, but shabbily built. The floors squeak ... that's not right," he said, laughing. "And they're expensive."

Despite the chill, McDonald spoke favorably this week of Federal Way and the surrounding area.

"I'm glad my daughter's here and not anywhere else," he said. "The city is clean, people are nice and very diverse."

He even found a chamoro restaurant in Auburn –– the Islander Barbecue, which he said serves authentic barbecue.

Though McDonald has already returned home –– his inauguration was today –– local chamoros kept him busy for the three weeks he was here.

"From now until Christmas, I have like eight parties," he said. "Chamoros are really happy out here. I envy their lifestyle. I was just re-elected last month to my fourth term. I'd probably consider coming out here if I didn't make it.

"I came out here and met a lot of chamoros and Guamanians. I'm really proud of them. I want to greet them with Happy New Year's and many more prosperous years, and extend that to everyone in Washington."

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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