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Personal Histories of World War II in the Marianas

Living inside the cave meant that everyone had to carry out his or her conversations in whispers.

Prayer also became an integral part of their daily lives.

"We did nothing there but just sit and pray.

When we talked, we would always speak softly.

There was no noise whatsoever.

We also waited patiently if we will be able to have something to eat.

All of us also found ourselves praying all the time.

My mother would always pray 'Birhen del Carmen, Tampihan ni capamo.Blessed mother, please extend your cave and save us ."

Marie however does not recall hearing Mass during the time they were in hiding despite the presence of nuns and priests. "There were four openings in the cave where we hid. My family occupied one cave while the three remaining caves each went to the nuns, the priests and the Matsumotos and Reyes. This made it hard for us to gather together as a group to hear Mass so all of us just offered prayers on our own."

When the war broke, the Japanese considered the Mercedarian nuns and priests as U.S. spies. "The Japanese confined the missionaries to their convents and monasteries. Eventually, they were all taken to Chalan Galaide and then to Tapotchau. Sister Remedios, who was the caretaker of the missionaries, decided to bring them all to our property at Marpi Point. One of the nuns told us that they were so tired moving from one place to the other that upon reaching Tapotchau, they just decided to curl themselves like balls and roll their bodies downhill. All the missionaries were so muddy when they arrived at our place. Sister Remedios also said that while they were on the way to Marpi, they found one of the nuns lying on the ground, dead. The missionaries did not know what killed her; it may have been of a heart attack or a wound resulting from the constant bombing."

One of the wounded missionaries was Sister Angelica Salaberria who was hit by a bullet on the right side of her chest. "I remember when they came to Marpi, my mother, together with me and Sister Remedios, went down to the beach to wash the blood-soaked clothes of Sister Angelica. I was thinking at that time that had a Japanese soldier passed by, we would have been shot there. But I believe that it was God's providence that saved us."

The American soldiers who were tasked to look for the missionaries were also responsible for rescuing the Castros, the Matsumotos and the Reyeses. "The American soldiers were guided to our place by a family from San Roque who knew Sister Remedios was staying with us. To help them determine our exact location, the Americans shelled our cave and we felt a bit of dust come down on us. Except for some frayed nerves, no one got hurt. I also saw two American soldiers with rifles in their hands, pointing inside our cave, urging us to come out. As we were on our way out of the cave, I took with me a little basket that contained our family's jewelry but the soldier motioned to me to leave it behind and so I did."

Soon after the war, Marie together with the young ladies in the community, left Saipan for Pohnpei to attend a school run by the Mercedarians. She is one of the few Chamorro women who has lived through the war and was fortunate enough to pursue an education.

"It was 1948. I was 15 years old when I left Saipan together with some girls from the community who wanted to further their education. The Mercedarians, all of whom were of Spanish descent, ran the school in Pohnpei. I remember that it was Father Costigan, a Jesuit priest who helped the nuns determine the school curriculum.

It was while Marie was a student that she, together with the girls she went to school with, decided to become a member of the Mercedarian Missionaries of Berriz. Marie said she became a nun because that was what she thought her parents wanted her to be. "I wanted to follow what my parents wanted me to do. Personally, I am always thankful that I joined the order because the training had made me into a strong person. I used to rely on my mother a lot but when I joined the missions, I became my own person."

While some of the girls later decided to leave their spiritual calling, Marie stayed on and in due course, she trained to become an educator. Marie would eventually find herself two decades after, renouncing her vows but not after serving as an educator fondly remembered for her involvement in local community activities.

It was in 1953, after six and a half years of residence in Pohnpei, that Marie decided to come back to Saipan as Sister Soledad. The good nun stayed on Saipan for 12 years serving as a teacher during the early years of Mt. Carmel School. Among those whose lives she has touched as Sister Soledad are former Lt. Governor Jesse Borja, Annie Tenorio Sablan, Vicente Borja, Jesus Sonoda and Jean Sablan of Pacific Gardenia, former lawmaker Bennet Seman, former Commissioner of Education Elizabeth Rechebei and Donald Torres, to name a few.

In 1966, Marie decided to heed the challenge of the Mercedarians who were looking at members who showed potential of advancing their education. "I was a student of Latin and modern math under Sister Felicia when I decided to take the SATs. I was very ambitious and since I wanted to further my education, I decided to approach my Superior to find out how I fared in the exams. It was not the habit among the nuns to disclose how well their students were faring in their studies. I learned that I was one of the top 10 students who scored well in the SATs and as a result, I was chosen to go to the U.S. where I planned to study psychology. I, however, ended up taking education upon the advice of my superior."

For the 33-year-old Marie, saying goodbye to the sixth grade students she had come to adore was both painful and difficult. "I had requested Sister Ana Maria Puyo, Mt. Carmel's principal at that time, not to tell my students that I was leaving. I left without saying goodbye and I learned later from Sister Ana that the children cried upon learning that I have gone to the US."

Marie attended Donnelly College in Kansas City and ultimately, she received her Bachelor of Science degree in education from St. Mary's University, also in Kansas City. In 1977, Marie earned her masters in Education from Webster University.

A confessed lover of history, Marie started to re-connect with her wartime past when, during her trip back to Saipan in 1994, she met six veterans who happened to be on island to participate in the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Saipan. The veterans were members of the Seabees, U.S. Navy men who helped reconstruct Saipan and the Marianas following the end of World War II.

"I met these gentlemen while I was having breakfast one Sunday morning with my sister Rita and my brother in-law, David Sablan. One of the men happened to be a resident of Kansas City and David gladly told the veteran that I was also a resident of Kansas City, Missouri. As a result, Ken Frederick, the organizer of the Seabees 1996 reunion in Wichita, invited me to attend the event and from then on, I became an honorary member of the group. This was how I began my involvement with the Seabees."

From that time on, Marie would don the Seabees hat and uniform. She would always had her picture taken with the veterans as part of her role as honorary member of this branch of the US Navy.

Marie finds these gatherings both heartwarming and memorable. "In a 1998 gathering, I was asked by the veterans to recount my experience of my first Christmas party and the first ice cream I tasted. That became the highlight of the reunion. Last year in a reunion in Oklahoma, one of the Seabees who lives in Florida brought a picture with him of a little girl. The minute I came in, he approached me and asked me 'Marie, do you remember me?' I just looked at him while he started to remind me about the Christmas tree and the doll that he gave me for Christmas. 'You made my day.' I remember Ken Grubb telling me that as he recalled how I became the recipient of his Christmas gift more than a decade ago. From that point on, Ken became a very close friend."

It was during the group's 1998 gathering in Tacoma, Washington where Marie met Otto, another veteran who gave Marie his collection of World War II photos that he took on Saipan. "I pledged Otto that I will take care of the photos he gave me since it meant a lot to him. He had tears in his eyes as he handed me the pictures. His gesture meant a lot to me because like all the other veterans, Otto, who was at the prime of his life when the war happened, also underwent a lot of fighting for their country."

This year, however, Marie has decided to break her annual tradition. Since the 60th anniversary celebration of the Battle of Saipan coincides with the Seabees reunion in Seattle, Marie has opted to stay here and join in remembering one of World War II's bloodiest conflicts. "My Seabees friends understand. In fact, they sent me some pictures so they will be here with me in spirit."

Nowadays, aside from traveling the nation to take part in the yearly Seabees reunion, Marie for the most part of the year busies herself with socio-civic activities in her hometown in Kansas City, Missouri. She is a member of several organizations including the Catholic Alumni Club where she has served as its president and vice-president.

True to the ideals of being a Mercedarian missionary, Marie continues to raise funds for the order through the Ladies Auxiliary. Marie indulges her creative spirit in playing the piano through her involvement with the Organ Club. A proud member of the Democratic Party, Marie is now preparing for her role in the upcoming U.S. presidential elections being a supervisory judge for the Kansas City Board of Elections during Election Day.

Having lived through a war decades ago that caused the destruction of her native island and now, seeing another war being fought by Americans in the Middle East, Marie has this to say: "It is inevitable that war happens because we experience suffering and oppression. War is both good and bad because it opens people's minds and they get liberated. People, however, have to get on with life because this is what we are here for. I am against war. I want to see peace."  - (Terri Flores)

Source: Saipan Tribune

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