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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 24

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
From the Mississippi
to the Sea

Admiral Robert E. Coontz

published by
Dorrance & Company

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 26
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p340  Chapter XXV

Conditions and Customs in Guam

Learning English — Entertaining Guests from Transport — Wearing Shoes to Church — Moving the Lepers — A Centipede — Arresting the Caribou — To Shanghai and Japan — German Vessels — Cannibals.

Magellan discovered the Island of Guam in 1521. The population at one period, in the last century, was 48,000. Then came an epidemic of smallpox and at the time of my arrival there the island had less than 10,000 inhabitants; now there are upwards of 18,000. Many local diseases, particularly of children, have caused great havoc in the Island. In spite of the mixed population there are still a few full-blooded natives but Spanish blood predominates. Many of the Mestizos, as those of mixed blood are called, are good-looking. The natives were greatly oppressed by the Spaniards. When I was first in Guam, in 1898, at the time the American forces captured it, the wage for common labor was eight cents a day, gold, but in 1912 it had risen to forty-eight cents a day and, in consequence, there was a much greater degree of prosperity.

Two crops of corn are raised each year, one in August and one in February. The soil is so shallow that, although the corn in many places grows to a height of twelve feet, its roots hold so lightly that a typhoon may ruin an entire crop.

There are still a few deer on the island, and several times we had venison, but to me it did not compare favorably with the Alaska venison. In the northern part of Guam which is densely wooded with what might be called scrub trees the deer  p341 travel on trails. When we built the concrete highway the natives used to place long planks between two trees over the road and lie on them watching for the deer to come beneath, when they would shoot them.

The Iguana are of all sizes: some of them as small as a rat and others as large as a small child. They are vicious only when protecting their young. Near the settled parts of the island they are to be seen in large numbers, but in the wilds they are careful to move away when they hear an unusual noise.

When the United States annexed Guam the natives spoke their local language, Chamorro, and also Spanish. It was twenty years before English predominated. Those who went to school in 1898 married and had children of their own; from 1918 on, the second generation went home and spoke English to parents who understood it. Time did the work.

One morning, having occasion to arise early preparatory for an island trip, and getting no response to my bell I proceeded to the servants' quarters, and much to my astonishment found sixteen persons sitting about a table and eating. I knew that I was furnishing the food. They were the steward, the cook, three attendants, a "makee learn" boy, two washer women, three gardeners, one cow milker, one maid, one carriage driver, and two others who were their guests. I feared that my food bill would be large that month, but the steward told me the only thing which it was necessary to pay for was the rice, as the vegetables and fruit came out of the garden.

When we reached Guam the dry season was almost over, and water was so scarce that the natives lined up at the old ice plant and were given a pint at a time. Fortunately rain began to fall a few days later and by October there was an abundance of water. One or two big dams had already been  p342 built, but they were not large enough to furnish sufficient water in the dry season. I asked for an appropriation of $11,000 to pipe a supply from a perennial spring in the center of the island near Agana, the capital, and was pleased to receive $25,000. A reservoir was built above the city, and the water from the spring was pumped into it from a distance of several miles. Since then water conditions throughout the islands have been steadily improved by the successive governors.

I regarded it as the governor's duty to entertain as many people as possible passing Guam on the transports. They were a long way from home. I gave one public reception each month and shook hands with and provided refreshments for anyone who cared to come, whether dressed or barefooted. In addition, I gave two dances a month for the "quality" at Dorn Hall, in the capital. This hall was used first as a school, then as a moving picture theater and finally for dancing. My office was open at all times, even to the humblest native.

We had two bands in Guam, or rather one which was large enough to divide, and when the Supply made long cruises we use to lend part of it to her. We had what we called "the beginners' band" for the natives. When a man enrolled in that band he had to take the entire course of instruction, and was fined twenty-five cents — a large sum to a native — if he missed a lesson. The result was that we had good attendance and turned out some excellent musicians.

The governor's palace was about four blocks from the Pacific Ocean, and the roar and boom of the surf could be heard day and night. The palace was on the west side of the island, however, and by reason of  p343 that fact was more or less protected from the danger of tidal waves.

July 1, 1912, I had a cablegram from Washington telling me that I had been promoted to Captain, and would assume that rank and uniform. When we made out the retirement tables, in 1887, it looked as if I might be a lieutenant commander in 1912, but here I was a captain! This illustrates that promotion tables are sometimes deceptive.

In August, 1912, we had our first sizable typhoon. A transport was in and I had given a reception in the afternoon to several hundred of her passengers, and endeavored to get them all back to the vessel. Typhoons, however, did not mean anything to them and some delayed so long that the captain of the transport very properly withdrew his boat, and prepared to leave the harbor on a moment's notice. Sixty were left on shore. I had them removed from the boat landing five miles away wet and disheveled, took charge of seventeen of them at the palace and divided the others among the families of the officers. We had to provide them with complete changes of clothing and put them up for the night as best we could. One of my guests, a colonel of cavalry, slept in one of my hammocks without removing his clothing or his spurs. With the outside shutters closed, and the inside of the house open for any possible air, sounds carried a long distance. About one o'clock in the morning two young women who were occupying a three-quarter bed in an adjoining room began to talk. Hoping that I might quiet them I rolled a small cannonball from my own room down the corridor to their door. It did not accomplish the desired result. They only wondered what the peculiar noise was and finally I had to go to their room and request them to be quiet. I heard no more from them until the next morning.

My son, Kenneth, was to leave the island for the  p344 Naval Academy on this transport and fearing that it might be obliged to sail without giving notice I had all the passengers put on a navy lighter, took them out myself alongside the vessel and had them hoisted on board. Those who had spent the night on shore had to submit to this kind of handling, much to the amusement of the passengers on board.

My son's trunk was practically ruined on the trip to the transport, and when he reached Manila he had to buy a new outfit. Leaving Guam in August he reached Washington October 23, and entered Shadmann's Preparatory School. I have sent many boys to Shadmann's and not one of them failed to enter the academy. My son roomed with a young man named Brewington, from Texas, and during their acquaintance they found that they had the same great grandfather, who had gone from Alabama to Texas.

The Supply was the station ship at Guam. It anchored in the harbor of Apra, about a mile from the landing. This anchorage was excellent except in typhoon time. Just before I left the island I succeeded in procuring several anchors and moorings from the lighthouse board and placed them inside one of the reefs to make a berth for the Supply, or any other vessel that might need them. My understanding was that these moorings were given to us by the Department of Commerce, but two or three years later I noted that a bill was submitted for $15,000. I never learned the outcome. If the Department brought them home from Guam it cost a lot of money. Anyhow, the moorings were greatly needed.

Lieutenant Harlow T. Kays came out on the Supply to be aide to the governor and to perform other duties. He brought his wife and young daughter with him and remained throughout my incumbency of the governor­ship.

 p345  In Guam all natives except the Protestants, of whom there are only a few, go to church at four o'clock Sunday morning. They wear their best clothes. Those in the lower strata of society rise a notch when they wear shoes, or rather when they have shoes. They have been known to buy shoes even if they did not fit and carry them in their hands going to or coming from church. Merely to own them was sufficient.

We introduced the movies to Guam while I was there. They were shown at Dorn Hall, and as the people were poor we charged only ten cents for the best seats, and five cents for those down in the pit, so that the native children could attend. One of the first reels sent out pictured a railroad train hauled by a heavy engine moving at full speed and disappearing in the middle of the screen. It seemed to be rushing straight for the center of the pit, and the children gave a wild yell and started to leave the hall. Fortunately, the windows were open and low and the youngsters reached solid ground without injury. It was some time before we could persuade them to return.

In December, 1912, I received orders to transport all the lepers, then in Guam, to Culion Island, in the Philippine Islands. It had to be done ostensibly on account of economy, but it was a heartrending procedure. On the way from the leper colony to the steamer it was necessary for all of the unfortunates to pass through the town. Their relatives and many other natives congregated to see them go. It made one think either of a circus parade or a big funeral. One leper was eighty-eight years old, and whether or not he survived the trip I never learned. The day before their departure two of them escaped. One was a blind man and the other was a woman who could not walk. The blind man carried the woman on his back, and they went many  p346 miles into the fastness of the island, where we eventually recaptured them in a starving condition. We sent them to Culion on the next transport. For several years after that there were only two cases of leprosy on the island. Some of our medical men reached the conclusion that one of the ways by which the disease was communicated was by bedbugs.​a Later they experimented with Chaulmoogra oil and it seemed to work quite successfully as a cure. It is not an easy undertaking to celebrate Christmas in a hot climate, but we did it just the same. We used our own money to make 1,800 children happy, and saw that each one of them had four or five little presents which were nicely wrapped and tied by the wives of the white men on the island.

I decided that while governor I would undertake road building. The highways at times were almost impassable even for carabao and bulls. There is a substance on the island called cascajo (pronounced cascow), and aside from extremely bad places we found we could build roads with this material at a cost of $1,000 per mile. I had highways constructed in various directions in different parts of the island and endeavored to get the natives back to the soil. As in many other countries the islanders were in the habit of walking several miles to work in the morning and returning to their settlement at night. The government began to lease them land — forty acres for three dollars a year and twenty acres for a dollar and a half a year. To some extent this plan was successful, and I hope that eventually it will make farmers of those people. I also recommended a cadastral survey of the island.

Mrs. George Williamson, a friend of the Rabys, came out to Guam on the Supply from San Francisco. One morning I took her in my carriage to the bluff where she could look down on the city of Agaña,  p347 and get the magnificent view of the harbor. Owing to the high grass it was necessary to leave the carriage a short distance from the edge of the bluff. It was raining and when we got out of the carriage I raised my umbrella. Walking through the grass was difficult and as the rain had ceased I closed the umbrella without clasping it and stuck it in the ground until we should return. On our way back to the carriage I reached for the umbrella and was bitten by a centipede that had crawled inside it. As soon as we returned to the city I had the wound cauterized and thought little more of it, as people rarely die from the bite of a centipede.

The next morning, however, when I awoke, my arm was swelling at an alarming rate. We sent for the surgeon, and although he applied various remedies, by five o'clock that afternoon three ridges an inch wide had risen on the arm up to the shoulder. Everyone was frightened. Finally it decided to place the swollen arm in an ice cream freezer and pack it with chopped ice. This treatment was efficacious. The swelling was reduced, the arm cooled off and I recovered, but for many years I did not lose the mark where the centipede had bitten my finger.

These reptilesº are a pest in Guam. A native was bitten on the eyelid, but recovered. Before we screened our porch I killed two one afternoon while my family was sitting near by reading. Once when several officers and four or five ladies were waiting at the naval hospital a centipede crept from a crevice in the wall, and after looking over the party made straight for the leg of the wife of one of the surgeons. It so happened that the lady's leg was shapely and encased in a green stocking. The centipede ran up her leg and bit into the fleshy part of the calf. The woman became hysterical and was carried into the hospital where the wound was  p348 cauterized and after forty-eight hours she was ready to leave her bed.

A peculiar custom prevails in Guam. If a man's carabaob breaks into a neighbor's field and destroys his crops, they arrest the carabao. It is taken to the central jail, around which there is an enclosure, and a fine is imposed, which the owner has to pay before he can reclaim his beast. If the fine of an arrested animal is not paid the animal is taken by the government and placed in the governor's garden. When I reached Guam I found that I had to feed a carabao and a bull, and that every few days the carabao had to be taken to a place where he could wallow in the mud and ooze to his own content. Tropical animals do not like white people and some of them are dangerous at times. A small native child, however, can lead them. The "arrest" rule applies to all animals.

After the typhoon the recovery of crops is slow. Following the one in 1912 the government helped all it could and with good results.

I found there was a vast difference between the monetary value of exports and imports and endeavored to bridge the gap. I was authorized by the Navy to have the Supply make several trips to Manila each year and north as far as Hongkong to carry products of the island at a nominal freight rate. Before that time the Supply made one trip a year to China and Japan on what was known as a "health" trip. When white people remain in the tropics for more than two years it is necessary for them to go to a cooler climate, especially so for the women and children. Most of us had been in Guam that long, and my wife and daughter were not very well. We, therefore, decided on a trip to China and Japan in April and May. Our first port was Shanghai. The Supply was an old roller, and we literally rolled all the way, but each day was a little  p349 cooler as we steamed north. Admiral Nicholson was in command of our naval forces in the Far East with headquarters at Shanghai. Wiley was captain of the Saratoga and Marvell of the Helena. Wurtsbaugh was captain of the Admiral's flagship.

We granted all the leave we could to the ship's officers and men, and everyone saw Shanghai, as well as a great deal of the surrounding country. Even in that latitude the weather seemed very cold to us after having lived in Guam. Outside of the trips made officially, there were countless places of interest to those who were visiting the port for the first time. All nationalities were represented by one or more vessels in the harbor.

From Shanghai we steamed through Shimonosaki Straits to the Inland Sea of Japan. I had crossed this sea several times before, but on this trip we followed zigzag courses at a speed of only six knots and anchored when darkness came. The days were getting longer, and we sat in deck chairs, with our rugs around us, near the forecastle and viewed the magnificent scenery. After the eastern entrance was passed, and we could see Kobe in the distance, we headed for Yokohama. We reached there about May 2, 1913, just after the California legislature had passed its Japanese Discrimination Act. In the excitement, and with no radio, the Supply had not been advised against visiting Yokohama. We anchored inside the breakwater and reported to Washington, and after receiving some garbled cable messages decided to remain there two weeks. This became necessary also for the reason that just after we arrived in port some seventy of our crew and our Chamorro nurses came down with chicken‑pox. By arrangement with the Japanese authorities, as each one developed the disease we were allowed to send the patient to the naval hospital at Yokohama, to be kept there until an hour before the ship sailed. The epidemic curtailed our sightseeing.

On one of the trips to Tokyo we attended a Japanese  p350 theater for the upper classes. We entered just as the performance started, at five o'clock, and remained in our seats until seven-thirty, when there was a recess for dinner. The meal was served in the same building and was over in a half-hour. The production then continued and lasted until eleven o'clock. A small part of the play was in English. We did a little sightseeing and watched the women make some purchases. I was too tired to enjoy the theater and chose a seat with a post behind it. Except when aroused by applause or laughter, I slept through the whole performance, much to the amusement of my companions.

On arriving in Japan I was waited upon by a committee of merchants having representatives in Guam. They informed me that, because of the fairness with which I had treated their people, they desired to show some courtesy to my officers and their families and to me. They wished particularly to entertain us at Tokyo and Nikko. They did so in lavish manner. A special car took a limited number of us to Nikko. We spent the night at the Kanaya Hotel and the next day were shown everything of interest in the city. Nikko is as interesting as it is picturesque. We were pleased with the temples and rode through the long avenue noted for its beautiful trees.

Captain Raby and I left our children at the hotel with the Chamorro nurses and instructed them to remain indoors. As soon as we were away, however, the nurses took the children into the street. Unfortunately, the Guamites knew nothing of the Japanese customs and the children ran away from them. Before they could be stopped they were on the sacred, red lacquer bridge which was used only by members of the royal family. The youngsters were chased away from the sacred spot by the guards and hurried back to the hotel. The nurses were so frightened that they locked themselves in a closet, where we found them when we returned.

That night in Tokyo we had another banquet. Both  p351 men and women sat cross-legged for several hours as they ate. We partook more or less sparingly of the Japanese raw fish and other foods and drinks, but indulged ourselves when American beefsteaks were served.

One night, while returning from Tokyo to the Supply and passing through Yokohama in our rickshaws to the ship's landing, we ran into a large meeting, which was just dispersing. A big Japanese who had evidently been in England or the United States cried: "Down with all Americans in Japan! Destroy them! Destroy them!"

I gave instructions, "Eyes front," and ordered the rickshaw men to run faster. They got through the crowd and reached the landing safely. I believe the man was merely a mob inciter.

Clearing from Yokohama with all on board fully or nearly recovered from chicken pox, we started for Guam feeling much rejuvenated. We passed near the Bonin Islands, but they were closed to foreigners and all we could do was to look at them from a distance.

On arriving at Guam toward the end of April we found that an epidemic of measles had broken out on the island. The disease had been brought in by passengers on board a transport from the United States. On our own ship we discovered a case of scarlet fever, contracted, most likely, in Yokohama. This meant the quarantining of the governor and all of his party in the old barracks at Asan, which, fortunately, were still in good condition. The scarlet fever patient was taken to the uninhabited island of Cabras, near Piti, where he was cared for and where he recovered. After the usual period of quarantine, no new cases having developed, the ban was raised and my family and I moved back to the palace, and the other officers and their families returned to their respective habitations.

Guam is a closed port. Occasionally a ship came in for help. Once it was reported to me that the Comet, a German vessel, had hove to outside of Orote Head.  p352 I sent out a launch and the captain reported that he had engine trouble and wished permission to come into Guam for repairs and to send cables. I allowed him entrance for a limited time, and the commanding officer and one of his subordinates came to the capital by bull cart. I suspected from their actions that they were German naval officers. Immediately after luncheon I told my wife to keep them engaged in conversation for a time. I remembered the old German naval register presented to me by the Superintendent of the Naval Academy in 1911, at Flensburg. I slipped down to my room and in the book I found the name of the captain of the ship listed as a naval officer, and the first officer who was with him was likewise recorded. I rejoined them and asked them frankly who they were. They admitted their identity and I gave them twenty-four hours in which to leave the harbor.

On the second visit of the Comet Captain Muller brought his wife and infant child. Although he was a German naval officer, his wife was British. The ship's station was at Rabaul, German New Guinea. A part of her crew was from the Solomon Islands and were cannibals. They were very black and had wonderful white teeth without a flaw or a filling. The little fellow who took care of Captain Muller's child also served as a waiter. My wife casually asked him if he were a cannibal. He said, "No, me no eat man; but my big brother he eat man." It is remarkable that many of the natives of that part of the world speak pigeonº English.

Captain Muller told me a queer story of the Solomon Islanders. When a child dies the parents purchase a case of beer. They take out the bottles, drink the beer and, because of the lack of lumber in the island, they place the body of the child in the beer case for burial. Once, on the death of an infant the beer was drunk and the child was placed in the box, which was taken to the cemetery. Upon returning to the parents found the child's body still lying on the table. The bottom  p353 had fallen out of the beer case. There seemed to be nothing to be done but to buy another case of beer and drink it. This time, however, they made sure that the bottom was intact before they placed the child in its improvised coffin, and the infant was buried in accordance with custom.

Later on another German cruiser, the Cormorant,​c came into port claiming to have had engine trouble, and she was allowed the usual time in which to make repairs. I entertained the officers at the palace, and in return they gave us a luncheon and dance aboard their ship. I remember only two things about the party. One was that a drink of water was not to be had on the boat, but they had about seventeen different kinds of wine on the table. As some of the ladies did not drink wine, they suffered, for it was a hot day. The other thing I recall was that the ship was too small for dancing; also, it was Sunday and officials in Guam had to pretend to be religious, even if they were not, in order to set an example to the natives.

While the Cormorant was lying in the harbor several of the officers were invited to dinner at the cable station. The officials there always had an especially good brand of liquor, and upon this occasion their guests imbibed freely. Six of the mess attendants on board the ship accompanied the German officers to the dinner and stood behind them throughout the meal, much to the surprise and amusement of their hosts. During the festivities one of the mess attendants stepped forward and tapped an officer on the shoulder, telling him he had drunk enough. The officer, however, took another libation, and again the boy stepped forward. This time he said nothing, but quietly and quickly lifted his charge from his chair, placed him upon his back and carried him to the ship.

The fate of the Cormorant, which was sunk in the harbor of Guam during the World War, is well known.

It was customary to have swimming parties and suppers at Piti, the little harbor five miles from Guam. Once, in the spring of 1913, we had an unusually large crowd —  p354 some sixty-three people. Before the supper was over several of the party became sick and complained of stomach pains. The gathering disbanded and we hurried home. Within forty-eight hours practically everyone who attended the dinner was ill in bed, and some of them dangerously so. The affair had the appearance of a deliberate poisoning plot. Most of the leaders of the white population of Guam and their families narrowly escaped death. A thorough investigation failed to disclose the cause of the mysterious sickness.

Thayer's Notes:

a According to the World Health Association, the method of transmission of leprosy remains unknown; transmission thru insects is a possibility.

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b In this one paragraph, Adm. Coontz writes caribou thruout; puzzling since just a few lines before, he has the correct carabao. Very different animals, and there are no caribou in Guam.

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c Properly, the SMS Kormoran, originally built by Germany as a Russian merchant ship given the name РязаньRyazan. (Many online sources, usually repeating a large site well known for its unreliability, have Cormoran and various bad transcriptions of Ryazan.)

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