Super Storm Impacts Linger at Guam’s War in the Pacific National Historical Park

Coastal battery at Guam’s War in the Pacific National Historical Park.
Photo by annamatic3000 via Wikipedia.

So, you think you’ve got weather and climate issues? Consider the plight of War in the Pacific National Historical Park in faraway Guam. The park, which celebrated its 30th birthday August 18, was so badly mauled by supertyphoons several years ago that its visitor center, bookstore, museum, and research library are all still out of action and its headquarters functions are currently being conducted out of the park’s maintenance facility.

Guam, the largest and southernmost island of the Mariana Islands (“Marianas”), is situated in the western Pacific about 3,300 miles southwest of Hawaii. Being less than 14 degrees north of the Equator, it has tropical island weather, and that includes typhoons. These powerful storms, which have the same basic characteristics as hurricanes in the Atlantic, can strike Guam any time of the year. However, they normally occur during the rainy season (May to November). The threat is greatest in October and November, and late-season storms are generally the most powerful.

On December 2, 2002, supertyphoon Pongsona roared into Guam and gave the island a tremendous beating.

A supertyphoon can be half the size of the Lower 48, and to say that it packs awesome destructive power is something of an understatement. An ordinary typhoon (Pacific hurricane) releases the energy of a 10-megaton nuclear bomb every 20 minutes, and a typhoon isn’t even upgraded to supertyphoon until its winds are clocked at 175 mph. The flooding and erosion from the associated storm surge can be even more destructive than the powerful winds.

Supertyphoon Pongsona wreaked havoc on the park, inflicting widespread damage from powerful winds, hurled debris, overwash, and erosion. The storm so severely damaged the park’s Haloda Building that the visitor contact facility, the T. Stell Newman Visitor Center, had to be closed, together with the park’s bookstore and museum.

The park received a bad pounding again in August 2004 when supertyphoon Chaba roared through, causing extensive overwash and erosion damage along the park shoreline.

War in the Pacific National Historical Park is not having an easy time of it. The park is still operating without a contact facility. There are no interpretive offices and no exhibits. There are no film presentations, even though they used to be available in English, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. The only way a visitor can reserve a picnic area, schedule a tour, or arrange a special event is to phone a ranger directly. Since the park no longer has a bookstore, books must be ordered by contacting the Arizona Museum Memorial Association's regional manager for Guam and Saipan. The park’s research library went to dead storage, so its resources remain unavailable.

This visitor services system is neither complete nor efficient, but it’ll have to do for now.

The tale of the destructive storms is written in the park’s visitation statistics. In the 12 months preceding Supertyphoon Pongonsa’s unwelcome visit in December 2002, the park recorded nearly 153,000 visitors. In the 12 months after the storm, there were fewer than 1,700, and no visitors at all were tallied in five of those months.

Blunted by Supertyphoon Chaba’s visit in August 2004, the park’s attendance recovery has been painfully slow. Annual visitation for 2004 was less than 12,000, and the totals for the next two years were just 30,000 and 40,000 respectively. It wasn’t until last year that attendance returned to pre-storm levels.

Indeed, the park’s 2007 visitation was a hefty 209,661. There were more visitors in the first five months of last year than in the preceding four years put together.

Although there is a strong U.S. military presence on Guam, with nearly 30% of the island allocated to military installations, tourism is a hugely important source of jobs, revenues, and taxes. The main tourist city of Tumon has more than 20 large hotels and an elaborate tourism infrastructure that includes duty free shopping, Las Vegas-style shows, and other delights. Some call Guam “America in Asia.”

It’s certainly true that its visitor demographics are overwhelmingly Asian. Some 80-90% of the island’s visitors come from Japan and a good share of the rest come from Philippines, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The Guam Visitors Bureau Online website has an international flavor, offering visitor information in English, Japanese, Korean, and several Chinese dialects.

There is a good deal for visitors to see and do while visiting Guam. The island itself is a scenic attraction, with volcanic mountains in the south, a forested limestone plateau in the north, a fringing coral reef, and diverse ecosystems that are preserved by the park.

These ecosystems include marine as well as terrestrial ones. Many visitors are surprised to learn that War in the Pacific National Historical Park has more water area (1,002 acres) than land area (926 acres).

War in the Pacific National Historical Park is one of the things that visitors just naturally want to see. In addition to the many natural delights of the shoreline, wetlands, and snorkeling and scuba areas (3,500 marine species and 200 coral species), the park has significant cultural resources. Some are 2,000-year old relics of the island’s indigenous people, the Chamorros.

But as the park’s name implies, its main cultural resources relate to Guam's role in the Pacific Theater of World War II . For a chronology of the War in the Pacific, visit this site.

When you visit the History and Culture page of the park’s website, you are told that:

The Pacific Theater of World War II involved one-third of the earth's surface but only 1/145th of its total land mass. It involved vast distances and new strategy, tactics, equipment, and weapons of war. Moreover, it involved not just Japan and the United States but Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Canada, China, France, and the Soviet Union as well. Caught in the middle were the people of the Pacific islands, upon whose homelands and in whose waters the battles were fought.

“Caught in the middle,” indeed. Guam (officially the Territory of Guam) was the only American-held island in the western Pacific before World War II. The Japanese invaded and occupied Guam in December 1941, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. They remained in control until American forces finally liberated the island in July 1944.

Today, people visiting War in the Pacific National Historical Park can visit seven different units and see over 100 historical sites, caves, bunkers, pill boxes, emplacements, latrine foundations, plaques, and structures relating to the war.

There is an interactive map of the park’s attractions at this site.

At Ga'an Point visitors can see a 20 cm short-barrel Japanese Coastal Defense Gun and a Japanese Twin Mount 25mm Anti Aircraft Gun. At the Fonte Plateau Unit on Nimitz Hill they can see a Japanese naval communications center at the site of one of the most vicious battles between the U.S. Marines and the Japanese. At the Asan Bay Overlook they can enjoy the panoramic view and see the Memorial Wall that contains 16,142 names of Chamorro and American casualties who suffered or died on Guam during World War II. They can visit many other sites too, including Liberator's Memorial, which honors the U.S. armed forces that participated in the July 1944 landing on Guam and commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Liberation of Guam.