Wednesday, July 23, 2014

BY-PASSING LUTA



Luta (Rota) is unique among the four main islands of the Marianas because it never experienced a massive American invasion in 1944, as the other three islands did (Guam, Tinian and Saipan).  The Americans actually passed over Luta.  It waited for the war to end before taking it from the Japanese, leaving the Japanese forces and Chamorro people there to live off their own limited resources, cut off from the rest of the world, for one year.

This policy of leapfrogging over less strategic islands and hitting hard the more important islands, in terms of military strategy, was adopted by Admiral Chester Nimitz.  In the Marianas, it was Luta that was skipped. Palau, Yap, Chuuk, Ponape and Kosrae were also never invaded, though Americans did invade Peleliu and Angaur in Palau to eliminate the Japanese military presence there, then left after awhile, especially when the focus shifted to the campaign in the Philippines.  Americans also invaded Ulithi in Yap district and stayed for some months, using the atolls for military purposes.  The Americans also destroyed the Japanese naval presence in Chuuk Lagoon, making it the world's greatest naval underwater graveyard, but did not invade those islands.

When the Americans destroyed Japanese air and sea capabilities by June of 1944, Luta was left to struggle on its own.  No Japanese ships or planes from the rest of the Marianas could come to its rescue, not even to supply it with food.  The Japanese and Chamorros on Luta would have to live off the land from June 1944 till the arrival of the Americans more than a year later.

ISOLATED, BUT STILL TARGETS


The Shoun Maru, a Japanese ship used in the phosphate industry in Luta, takes a hit from an American submarine's torpedo in 1944

American air strikes on Luta began in May or June of 1944.  These attacks continued until the war's end. The Japanese had built just one air strip on Luta, up by Sinapalo (Shinaparu by the Japanese), and the U.S. had easily neutralized it.  So the only real reason why the Americans sporadically attacked Luta after the fall of Saipan, Tinian and Guam was simply to harass the Japanese and to target practice. Bombers leaving Guam, headed for Japan, who had to cancel the run, for whatever reason, could not return to Guam fully loaded with bombs, so the American planes dropped them on Luta!

But Chamorros, not just the Japanese, were also wounded and killed by American bullets.

Because of these American attacks, the Chamorros abandoned their homes in Tatachog village (the Japanese lived in Songsong) and took shelter in caves in the island's interior and along cliff lines.  They grew whatever they could, trying to avoid planting in open fields where they could easily be seen by American planes.  They shot sling stones at birds to kill and eat.  Water was available in the south, where there was a spring.  But other areas suffered in the dry season of 1944 going into 1945.  Even their dead they couldn't bury in a cemetery, but rather close to the caves where they lived.

The people on Luta also had to deal with two kinds of American bombs - fire bombs and time bombs.  Even when one jumped into water to escape the fire bombs, the surface of the water was on fire.  The time bombs were also deadly.  Some people, thinking unexploded bombs were a dud, picked them up, only to be killed when the bomb exploded at that same moment.  Smoke from the frequent bombing made the air thick and hard to inhale.

CHAMORROS - AMERICAN BULLETS AND JAPANESE TEMPERS

As if American bullets weren't enough trouble, the Chamorros on Luta also had to look out for the Japanese. There were over 2600 Japanese military personnel on Luta in 1944, and only 790 Chamorros.

In addition, there were over 4700 non-Chamorro civilians on Luta, made up of Japanese, Okinawans and Koreans.

The Japanese soldiers took whatever food they could from the Chamorros.  Some Japanese, especially officers, "borrowed" Chamorro teenage boys and young men as well to be their cooks and servants.  One Japanese officer came to tell a Chamorro mother "sorry," her son, whom he had taken to be his cook, was killed during an American attack.

The Japanese, so it was believed, also planned to round up all the Chamorros and kill them, lessening the number of hungry mouths to feed on the island.  But a senior Japanese officer convinced the Japanese leaders that the Chamorros should live and do all the planting of food while the Japanese attended to the defense of the island.

It was also a Japanese, so the story goes, who took the risk of leaving Luta under cover of darkness and sailed in a small boat to the Americans on Guam, begging them to capture Luta before the Chamorros died of hunger.  This Japanese man, it was said, was close to a Chamorro family and may have been in love with one of the daughters.

THE AMERICANS COME

Then, in the early fall of 1945, the Americans stopped dropping bombs from their planes.  Instead, they were dropping cigarettes and little food packets, which the Japanese said were time bombs.  But a few Chamorros picked them up, and, when they didn't explode but contained food instead, were relished by the Chamorros.

The Americans also started dropping leaflets announcing that the war was over.  Japan had surrendered on August 15, 1945.

Still, the Americans waited a while to go to Luta to claim it.  They finally arrived on September 2, 1945, two weeks after the end of the war with Japan. Marine Colonel Howard N. Stent was sent from Guam to accept the Japanese surrender of Luta.  When his ship, the USS Heyliger, a destroyer escort, arrived, Japanese officials came on board and signed the surrender papers.


Japanese Military Officers at the surrender of Luta to U.S. forces

When the Chamorros first met American soldiers, the Americans offered them packets of food.  Some Chamorros were hesitant to eat them, until the Americans themselves opened them up and ate it themselves. When the very hungry Chamorros started to eat all these new American rations, their stomachs were so bloated from hunger that they got sick.  After four or five days, though, they were able to eat normally.

American officials reported that the Chamorros were hungry but in good health.  It was clothing that they needed, and which the Americans provided.

By September 4, the Japanese soldiers on Luta, except for five of them too sick to travel, were shipped down to Guam for processing before being repatriated to Japan.

With the Japanese and others gone now, the Chamorros of Luta could go back to their fishing, farming and building new homes once again.

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