Wednesday, September 7, 2016


There are some people who had a place in Guam history who have gone and are all but forgotten.

One of these is Ben Zafra. Government worker. Forester for the Naval Government. Chief Commissioner of Guam from 1941 to 1960. Even during the Japanese Occupation.

But if you ask people if they ever heard of Ben Zafra, only the older people will say they have.

Ben was born Vicente Ulloa Zafra, the son of Román Zafra, the son of Dominga Zafra. Román's father is unknown. But we do know that Román was Filipino. He moved to Guam and was military health officer in the Spanish colonial government. He had some bad luck, though, being accused in the 1880s of having abandoned his post and fleeing from arrest. But, he was still living on Guam in 1897 and appears in the census, a free man.

Román's first wife was Chamorro, María Eustaquio. Together, they had a daughter named Angustia. María then passed away and Román married another Chamorro woman, Dolores Rivera Ulloa, the daughter of Manuel Ulloa and Vicenta Rivera. Román and Dolores' one and only child was Vicente.

Both Román and Dolores must have passed away before 1920 (perhaps in the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic) because Ben and Angustia are found in 1920 living with Eulogio de la Cruz. Cruz was a man of some means, and a Filipino married to a Chamorro. Perhaps Eulogio and his countryman Román Zafra were friends, and when Román died, Eulogio became the guardian of Román's children. Next door to Eulogio, in their own dwelling, were Eulogio's two sons, Francisco and José. Francisco later did business in Manila and Hong Kong and José became Commissioner of Talofofo. It seems certain that Eulogio made sure that Ben learned English and to read and write. He was identified as a messenger at the age of 17 in the 1920 Census. Angustia, on the other hand, never learned to speak much English.

In time, Ben started work in the Naval Government. By 1930, Ben was married to Oliva Castro. Their wedding, said one elderly lady who heard it from her mother, was a big event. Their wedding cake was so tall that they couldn't decorate it inside the house. They had to take the cake outside for that. Sadly, after just a few months, Ben and Oliva separated. In Chamorro, "ma na' na'lo si Oliva." "They returned Oliva to her family." By 1935, Oliva was found living in Sumay, away from Ben who was living in Hagåtña. They were legally divorced. They had no time to even have a child.

Ben evidently left Guam for a spell after that, as a merchant marine. He visited Hong Kong, Saigon and the U.S. mainland. He returned to Guam in 1935.

In 1941, five months before war, Ben was made Chief Commissioner. The commissioners were the village mayors, as we call them today. The Chief Commissioner was a liaison between the Naval Government and the village commissioners, but he could also, apparently, make some judicial decisions on minor issues.

When the Japanese occupied Guam, they asked him what his job was under the Americans. "Chief Commissioner," he replied. The Japanese then told him he was still Chief Commissioner whether he liked it or not. He was placed in the Japanese Navy Civilian Administration, called the Minseibu. Its offices were located in the Saint Vincent de Paul Hall adjacent the Hagåtña Cathedral.

The St Vincent de Paul Hall was turned into the headquarters of the Japanese Minseibu

His main job was clerical. Juan "Buko" Castro, a Saipanese interpreter, would write or speak instructions from the Japanese in Chamorro to Ben, who would then type them out as written notices for the public. Ben was paid 90 yen a month at first, till his pay was reduced to 75 yen a month. When the Americans started bombing Guam in 1944 and the Minseibu office caught on fire, Ben left Hagåtña and his job at the Minseibu.

After the war, Ben continued as Chief Commissioner of Guam till 1960.

Eventually, Ben found himself a second wife, Isabel (Beck) Perez, the daughter of Atanacio Taitano Perez, a prominent Chamorro government official in various capacities almost the entire first decades of the Naval Government period. They raised Beck's nephew, David Taitano Perez, Sr, the son of her sister Maria. The couple moved to California, according to one family member, to be closer to their nephew Daniel Perez Ploke, who was studying there. In 1964, Ben died in Alameda, CA.

Besides all this, Ben was well-known in the Guam community at the time as a sportsman. He was a good baseball player and a boxer. He was a tall man, easily 6 feet or more. He had huge hands. He was also a member of the Young Men's League of Guam, the first Chamorro civic organization.

Hawaii Church Chronicle, November 1959

Ben joined the Episcopalian Church in the 1950s, at Saint John the Divine Church, located at the time in Hagåtña. He is pictured above (left, holding flag) presenting the Guam flag to the church.

As Ben and Beck did not have any children, that family line is no more.


Ben's older sister, Angustia, better known as Nenita, who was single most of her life, finally married a Filipino man after the war in her senior years. They lived in Agaña Heights at her house. According to a family member, she could not speak much English and her Filipino husband could not speak Chamorro. So they used a lot of sign language. She died before him, and after her death he brought some family members from the Philippines to Guam. Angustia never had children.

1 comment:

  1. Nice article. I am his grand-nephew -- part raised by Beck Zafra. Just a couple corrections: Ben was married to Isabel before WW2, not in 1960. He and others of the Perez, Ooka, and other clans were epicenter among the Resistance, hiding the early GI's prior to Tweed (including my grandfather, John Ploke, Zentuji POW), though also having to appear compliant with the Japanese. Agueda Johnston (beloved to Tweed) was more like an adopted daughter of Atanacio Perez. She and Rosalie Perez were best friends and school teachers pre-war. Mrs. Johnston used to chaperone for the Perez girls. Johnny & Beatriz Ploke were godparents to one or two of the Johnston children. Tweed's radio parts were brought to him by a circle of school teachers in his memoirs. Isabel Zafra was a school principal. Johnston a teacher. Not many teachers other than them. Many relations. Many people in the Resistance. Atanacio Perez started under the first naval governor, William Coe, in 1899. Served as top native to all the governors. Continued on through retirement in 1934 as Secretary to the Naval Governor. Retired into just judiciary and bank board duties, headed the Resistance with others, and was among the first located by the Navy post-war to organize and rebuild the island along with Ben Zafra. In Tony Palomo's book, An Island in Agony, there is a fun blurb there about Uncle Ben having two Saipanese spies locked up before the invasion and threatening him. Not a good idea! Ben survived the war and died peacefully as an old man in his rocking chair in Fremont, California.