September 11, 2008 — Agana Heights, Guam
By Jillette Leon-Guerrero
It wasn’t until 60 years later that my father told me of the story of Lt. JG Hamilton, a WWII pilot that crash landed near my family’s property in Machanano, Yigo.
I had never seen my father cry until that day.
At fourteen, that incident would impact the decisions that he made for decades to come.
I started looking for evidence of Lt. JG Hamilton shortly after I learned about it. As is the case many times, life got in the way and my enthusiasm waned with each dead end I encountered. I picked up the research again about a year ago. I still haven’t found him but am determined to continue looking.
For those of us born after WWII, it is hard to imagine what our parents and grandparents lived through. We know the stories. But do we really understand? We live in such different times.
When I previously asked my dad about his wartime experiences he was always reluctant to tell me. He is much like my brother who never speaks of his tour of duty in Vietnam during that war. I think I understand their reluctance and have never pushed too hard to have them speak about it. Yet I have always felt that the benefit of having their story told outweighs the benefit of keeping silent.
When my father finally opened up about it only two years ago I was enthralled. He was 11 years old when the Japanese invaded and 14 when the Americans arrived. Impressionable years. The most heart wrenching experience he told me was the case of Lt. JG Hamilton. He said that memory is burned into his brain and he will never forget it.
When the war started my father’s family lived in the capital city of Hagatna and like most families had a ranch elsewhere. In order to escape the fighting they moved to their Machananao ranch in Northern Guam where they were able to survive relatively well. It appears from accounts I’ve read and oral histories I’ve conducted that the Japanese officials assigned to northern Guam were not as brutal as those assigned to other areas.
Although my father was a young boy, he was employed by the Japanese as a bull cart driver. He was working with his older brother Juan who was cutting wood for the Japanese when they saw three American planes flying overhead. “First there were three circling around, then there were two and then only one,” he said. “And the last one was making a sputtering noise like it was out of gas – the engine was missing, something was wrong with it.” He said the plane came down low over the tree tops until it hit the ground and slid to a stop when it crashed into a tree.
“Juan told me to tie the caribou to a tree and stay put as he ran off to the plane. I tied the caribou to the tree and ran after him.” My uncle Juan and another worker – Jose Cruz - familian Papa - helped the pilot out of the plane and onto the wing. His face was cut real deep above the ear and he was bleeding. He took off his gloves and gave them to Cruz. He gave Juan his ID bracelet. My dad asked to see it. “It said, Lt. JG Hamilton” he says, “I will never forget that name – I handed the bracelet back to my brother.”
My dad said the pilot looked dazed but asked, “What are all these children doing here?” My dad said they were working the farmland.
Just as my dad handed back the ID bracelet the Japanese arrived. They tied his hands behind his back and took the pilot away. Later that same day they took Cruz away when they found him wearing the pilot’s gloves while working. My uncle Juan was taken away the next day for aiding the pilot. My dad said he heard that Jose Cruz and the pilot had been executed in Agana.
The Japanese took uncle Juan to an area around Skinner Plaza where they tortured him and made him kneel on the ground in front of the police station. I can barely imagine the turmoil, fear and sorrow that his family felt. As for dad, a14 year-old who looked up to his older brother, I simply can’t imagine what he was feeling.
It wasn’t until a week later when a Japanese police officer from the north went to the Agana station and saw my uncle kneeling. My uncle Juan often went hunting and would bring food to this policeman in Machanano. They would barbeque the meat and drink sake every weekend. This kindness was returned when he was able to secure my uncle’s release.
Once home my grandmother treated his raw back with gabgab (arrowroot) and eggwhite. Dad said, “he had no skin left on his back – it was raw.” He was still recovering when they came for him to work on the Tiyan airfield – another event that almost killed him.
I’ve heard my dad say several times, “I wish I hadn’t given the bracelet back to Juan.” Somehow he feels guilty for what happened to his brother. I guess that is why I want so desperately to find evidence of Lt. Hamilton. I think it would be healing for one of the last friendly persons that Lt. Hamilton saw to meet with a member of his family.
My efforts have yielded little. With time, memories fade. But for dad, the name of the pilot is burned into his memory. His first purchase after getting a job at the Coca Cola plant after the war was a watch. The brand of the watch was “Hamilton.”
In order to learn more about Lt. Hamilton I have contracted researchers at the National Archives in Washington D.C. I’ve corresponded with researchers who specialize in Missing Air Crews and I have scoured thousands of documents and photos. While I have found a few pilots named Hamilton, for some reason, the facts don’t fit. But I am not going to give up. I continue to search archives and post inquiries on WWII websites in the hope that someone will be able to help me identify this pilot and put my dad and a member of his family in contact with each other.
One thing that this research has taught me is the magnitude of the number of young men and women that died in WWII. When you hear casualty numbers it only tells part of the story. When you think that each number represents a single person who impacted the lives of hundreds and even thousands of people – many times in ways that they never knew - it is staggering.
Documents I’ve come across that report, “Four unidentified service members were killed” hurts my heart. But it was heartening to find that there are groups still looking for missing aircrews and POWs from WWII – right here in the Pacific. With all this time, they are still not forgotten. It felt good to know that others are searching as well.
I will continue to look for Lt JG Hamilton with the hope that one day I will succeed.