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Guam
A Conquest without Conflict

 

While Richmond Hobson and his volunteers were making their valiant attempt to block the harbor at Santiago by sinking the Merrimac, and while US Marines were engaging the enemy on the ground at Guantanamo Bay and Cuzco Well, the first American soldiers of the United States Army were on their way to the Philippine Islands.  The soldiers of the Eighth Army corps, under the command of Thomas McArthur Anderson, would require a five week voyage before arriving at Cavite in the Philippine Islands on July 1st.  It was a voyage to the far side of the planet, a world away from the action in Cuba.

 

 

The Philippine Expeditionary Force

The six troop transports carrying the first American combat soldiers to foreign shores left San Francisco on May 25th, the same day that President McKinley called for an additional 75,000 volunteers to bolster his war-time army.   The slow moving convoy was well into the Pacific two weeks later when the Marines landed at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba on June 10th.  

 

Past the Hawaiian Islands and westward toward the Philippine Islands, the convoy continued throughout the month of June.

 

By the 19th of June, more than half the journey had been completed, and the US Soldiers were into an open expanse of ocean just north of the equator, an area where there was little land and few inhabitants.  In fact, about the only land west of Hawaii before reaching the Archipelago was the small island of Guam. 

 

While President McKinley unabashedly admitted he couldn't find the Philippine Islands on a map "within 2,000 miles",  Guam was even harder to find.  The small island, almost alone in the vast western reaches of the Pacific Ocean,  is only 30 miles long and 4-8 miles wide.  With a total land mass of 212 square miles, it is one fifth the size of Rhode Island, our smallest state.  In June of 1898 Guam didn't belong to the United States anyway, so who was to care.  

Indeed Guam mattered to Spain, the country that had claimed the island since 1668.  How little importance the island held for Spain however, was quickly apparent by the size of the military presence on he island...some sixty Spanish marines under the leadership of Lieutenant Guitterez.

To be sure, though the US President and few American citizens had ever heard of Guam, US Naval planners had noted its position in the Pacific for years.  The southernmost of the Mariana Islands, situated neatly between the Hawaiian and Philippine Islands some 5,000 miles west of San Francisco and 1,600 miles east of Manila Bay, the tropical island was an excellent re-coaling point for a burgeoning navy.  With this in mind, on June 20th Commander Henry Glass of the USS Charleston (C-2) turned his ship from its normal duties as escort for the convoy of the Philippine Expeditionary Force, and cruised to meet the enemy at Guam.

The strategic position of Guam in the the Pacific is limited only by the nature of the land itself.  The northern half of the island is almost entirely a plateau of coral formation, while the southern half is hilly and of volcanic origin.  Inhabited primarily by the native Chamorro, little of the industrialized world had made its way to the island late in the 19th century.  The only decent anchorage for sea-going vessels lay on the western coast in the wide Apra Harbor.  It was into the Apra Harbor that Commander Glass steamed his mighty warship on June 20th.

While the troop ships remained in the open ocean, Commander Glass ordered his sailors and Marines to battle stations. As the Charleston entered enemy territory, the commander sighted the Spanish fort of Santa Cruz.  Quickly he ordered his guns into action, firing a salvo of 12 heavy rounds, unaware that the Spanish fort had been abandoned for years.  When there was no return fire, the guns of the Charleston fell silent, and the warship steamed menacingly into the harbor towards the city of Piti.

As the Americans neared the city, Commander Glass was surprised at the Spanish response.  A small boat was slowing making its way towards the Charleston containing one officer and three of his men.  When the four enemy had been taken aboard, Lieutenant Guitterez began apologizing in Spanish.  Commander Glass couldn't believe his ears as the enemy officer's words were translated.

"We weren't aware your ship was coming to Guam," the nervous officer explained with an embarrassed look on his face.  "That is why we weren't prepared to return your 12-gun salute when you entered the harbor."  It was incongruous... so remote was the tropical island and of so little importance to Spain, that the garrison at Guam had not yet even learned that Spain and the United States were at war.

Then it was Lieutenant Guitterez's turn to express surprise, as Commander Glass informed him that the broadside issuing from the USS Charleston had NOT been a SALUTE...but a hostile act commenced in the war between the two nations.  "You and your men," Commander Glass informed the stunned Spanish officer, "are now prisoners of war."


 

It was one of those rare anomalies of warfare, the conquest of Guam, a new chapter in that Splendid Little War that made it so unique.  When the reality of the situation had been made clear to Lieutenant Guitterez, he and his fellow POWs were paroled and told to return to the Island and inform the Governor Juan Marina of the situation.  Commander Glass requested that the Spanish governor himself then come aboard to formalize the surrender.

Despite the situation and caught totally unawares of events elsewhere in the world, Governor Marina balked.  The following day Commander Glass sent Navy Lieutenant William Braunersreuther into Piti to deliver an ultimatum to the Spanish governor, backing his demand for surrender by preparing a landing party of 30 of the Charleston's Marine guards.  Faced with this final threat from the American commander, Governor Mariana surrendered to Lieutenant Braunersreuther with his men.  That afternoon the United States Flag was raised at the abandoned Fort Santa Cruz as the troop ships sailed into the harbor, their bands playing the National Anthem.  Amid the roar of naval guns, this time in salute, Commander Glass claimed the Island of Guam for the United States...the first American possession in the Pacific.   (Not until the following August 12th would the Hawaiian Islands become possessions of the United States.)  The Island of Guam was taken without casualty, on either side.

Mission accomplished, Glass then quickly set his convoy on course for Manila.  In the years to follow, Guam would become a major military installation for the United States.  In World War II the price for control of the island would be far more expensive in American lives.  More than a century later, however, the Stars and Stripes still fly over the island of Guam.

The Philippine Expeditonary Force arrived at Cavite ten days later, but would see little action against the Spanish.  In the Pacific, the Spanish-American War was all but over.  Half a world away, however, some of the bitterest fighting remained... and unlike the tropical island of Guam, Cuba's freedom from Spain would come at a high price.

 

A Splendid Little War

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