World War I and Guam: At the Crossroads of Global History for 100 Years and Beyond

By Rear Admiral Shoshana Chatfield

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the start of U.S. military action in World War I. But did you know the war for America began in Guam?

In a beautiful natural harbor, SMS Cormoran, a captured Russian passenger liner converted by Germany to be a commerce raider sat at anchor awaiting a delivery of coal.

On the morning of April 7th, 1917, U.S. Navy Captain Roy C. Smith, the military governor on Guam, learned of the U.S. entry into World War I and sent two officers to tell the German ship’s captain that a state of war now existed between the two countries, that he and his men were to be taken prisoners-of-war, and that Cormoran must be given up to the Americans. Simultaneously, USS Supply moved into position to block the harbor and prevent Cormoran from departing.

USS Supply photographed before World War I, possibly during one of her long periods of duty as station ship at Guam. Donation of Captain Stephen S. Roberts, USNR (Retired), 2008. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

USS Supply photographed before World War I, possibly during one of her long periods of duty as station ship at Guam. Donation of Captain Stephen S. Roberts, USNR (Retired), 2008. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

The crew of Cormoran, anticipating the development, had already placed explosives in the ship’s coal bunker. Sailors at Guam saw the German crew preparing to scuttle the ship and shots were fired in an attempt to influence the actions of Cormoran and one of her small boats. Mere minutes after the notification, the explosion sent the crew of approximately 370 scrambling overboard. Several crewmembers died during Cormoran’s sinking while most were saved by small boats and USS Supply. This awkward engagement in Guam represents the first shots fired between the U.S. and Germany, as well as the first German prisoners of war captured by the United States forces.

Guam had been ceded to the United States at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898. In June of 1903, the Commercial Pacific Cable Company completed the first trans-Pacific telegraph cable connecting Hawaii and Guam. Guam quickly became a major communications hub as it was an early-warning station for typhoons headed to mainland Asia.

Its strategic relevance grew as advances were made in transportation and technology.

In 1932 when the Pan-American trans-Pacific aerial route was first proposed, no plane could make the trip directly so facilities had to be developed along the way. For the Honolulu-to-Manila route, stops were made at Midway, Wake Island and Guam.

The first Clipper – as it became known – took off from San Francisco on Nov. 22, 1935 and arrived in Guam on Nov. 27, marking further interconnectedness of our world. Passenger service began 11 months later and Guam became a recognizable name for many Americans.

View of the U.S. Naval Base in Apra Harbor in 1945.

View of the U.S. Naval Base in Apra Harbor in 1945.

On December 8, 1941, a Japanese attack led to the surrender of Guam, just days after Pearl Harbor was also struck. U.S. forces with the fierce support of local Chamorros were able to liberate Guam in 1944. The nearby Mariana Islands of Saipan and Tinian were pivotal in ending the Second World War in the Pacific as launching points for attacking the Japanese mainland. Guam’s strategic importance as a base for military operations was irrefutable. It possessed one of the only deep-water ports in Micronesia and its flat limestone heights in the north would become an ideal location for Andersen Air Force Base.

One century after Cormoran came to rest at the bottom of Apra harbor, Guam is literally and figuratively central to an Indo-Asia-Pacific maritime domain where the established and enduring international framework of norms, standards, rules, and laws is preserved. Consider that Hawaii is less than halfway to Guam from the West Coast, yet Guam is only about a 4-hour flight from Seoul, Tokyo, Manila and Hong Kong. Current forecasts indicate that 70 percent of the world population will call Asia home by the end of this century.

Not surprisingly, the strategic importance for the U.S. Navy here, where the Pacific Ocean meets the Philippine Sea, has only grown. In recent years, a fourth Los-Angeles class attack submarine, a second submarine tender and the command element of Task Force 75 have moved to Guam. These units join Naval Special Warfare Unit 1, Helicopter Sea Combat (HSC) Squadron 25 and Navy Munitions Command East Asia Division Unit Guam, which were already on-island.

Guam is equally important across the Joint Services: Andersen Air Force Base boasts one of the largest fuel and munitions storage areas in the Air Force and a continuous bomber presence that regularly projects power throughout the region. The Army has positioned a permanently-based THAAD battery on Guam and the Marine Corps is in the process of moving approximately 5,000 Marines here. The armed services are always looking for ways to improve our warfighting posture and forward-basing additional assets in the future remains a possibility.

In addition to the strategic value of this U.S. territory hosting and supporting our forward-deployed forces, Guam boasts the highest enlistment rate of any U.S. state or territory and maintains a capable and active National Guard component. Over the past 15 years, the island has regularly sent her sons and daughters to combat the Global War on Terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, and her families have grieved as they paid the ultimate price for our national security.

The Indo-Asia-Pacific region is home to five of seven treaty allies. Bilateral and multilateral training opportunities with our Pacific partners in the Mariana Islands Range Complex, the largest multi-role training range in the Department of Defense, is key in maintaining readiness. Along with our regional allies, and because of Guam, we are ready to fight and win tonight!

The Indo-Asia-Pacific region is interconnected like never before. Guam’s role in ensuring a stable and prosperous Pacific – and world – is more important today than it was 100 years ago when the world fell into crisis. On Guam, having a credible, capable presence in the middle of history is something we’re proud of – and committed to.

thumb_chatfield1Rear Admiral Shoshana Chatfield is the Commander of Joint Region Marianas, the Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Marianas and the U.S. Pacific Command Senior Military Official for Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau