1898 One Hundred Years Ago

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After America declared war on Spain in late April, heroic acts filled the newspapers almost daily. There was Dewey’s destruction of the Spanish fleet at Manila; Schley’s victory at Santiago; Hobson’s valiant scuttling of the Merrimack ; and of course the bloody land battles at Las Guasìmas, El Caney, and San Juan. In a brief war chock-full of glorious (or at least glorified) exploits, the least heroic incident must surely be the Navy’s bloodless capture of Guam.

On June 4 the cruiser USS Charleston and three troop transports sailed from Honolulu to reinforce Dewey at Manila. In his instructions to the Charleston , Secretary of the Navy John D. Long had added (like a wife telling her husband to pick up a quart of milk while walking the dog), “On your way, you are hereby directed to stop at the Spanish Island of Guam.” Capt. Henry Glass was told to capture the island, destroy any Spanish vessels and fortifications, and take prisoners. “These operations . . . should not occupy more than one or two days,” Long predicted.

Historians discussing the capture of Guam invariably compare it to comic opera, which it does resemble, but only in retrospect. To the men involved it was deadly serious. Guam was Spain’s main outpost in the Pacific, and according to recent visitors, it was heavily defended. As the Charleston steamed onward, its crew—mostly raw California farmboys—busily practiced firing the ship’s guns. The night before the expected battle, a few men prepared letters for their families in case they did not survive.

At dawn on June 20 the Charleston entered Guam’s San Luis d’Apra Harbor. Glass spotted a ship and prepared for battle, but it turned out to be a Japanese merchant vessel. After sounding for mines, the Charleston approached Fort Santiago, perched on a tall bluff overlooking the harbor. The fort was too high to be reached by the ship’s guns, yet sailing past it would expose the ship to potentially devastating fire. Glass fearlessly gave the order to proceed. As it turned out, he need not have worried; Fort Santiago had long since been abandoned.

The Charleston steamed ahead to Fort Santa Cruz, where the island’s main defenses were thought to be located, and opened fire. It waited for a response but got none; Fort Santa Cruz was abandoned as well. At this point four Spanish officials who had been watching from the beach got into a boat and rowed out to the Charleston . Upon boarding, they learned to their great surprise that they were prisoners of war. Guam had received no word from Spain since early April, and the officials were unaware that war had been declared.

By some accounts, the Spanish officials had thought the bombardment was a salute; others say they merely wondered what was going on. Glass explained the situation and then paroled the prisoners so they could bring his demands to the colony’s governor. With some foot-dragging, the governor surrendered Guam and the rest of Spain’s Ladrone Islands (now known as the Marianas) the next morning.

In the peace treaty signed that December, America kept Guam but returned the rest of the islands to Spain. The reason for this decision was not magnanimity but expedience: With the Philippines stubbornly refusing to be liberated, the Navy did not need any extra responsibilities, especially for the sake of a few dots on a map. Spain immediately sold the remaining Ladrones to Germany, and during World War I they were occupied by Japan, which eventually began erecting military installations. In December 1941, when Pearl Harbor was bombed and Japan captured Guam, the Americans wished their predecessors in 1898 had been more ruthless about holding on to the spoils of war. Not until July 1944 did the Marines retake Guam—this time in a manner and at a cost that was anything but comic.