Guam is the largest of the Mariana Islands, which extend north from Guam for a few hundred miles in the western Pacific Ocean, 1,300 miles east of the Philippines, and 1,400 miles south of Japan. It became a US territory in 1898, during the Spanish American War, when it was taken from Spain by the US Navy, without firing a shot, on their way to the larger prize, the Philippines. Since then it has been a major asset for US military control in Southeast Asia, referred to by some as “the tip of the spear.”
The first shots fired by the US in World War I were likely at Guam, in 1917, to take a German ship in the harbor (warning shots were all that were needed). In World War II, Japan took the island from the US by force in 1941, with an attack that started the day after Pearl Harbor. Japan occupied the island for 31 months, one of only a few pieces of American territory held by Japan in the war (others included islands in the Aleutian Chain of Alaska).
When the US took the island back in 1944, the battle took 26 days, claimed 1,700 American and 15,000 Japanese lives, and destroyed nearly all the buildings on the island. After the war, the US military took over a third of the 30-mile-long island, building what would become one of its most important global bases of operation.
Facilities include Andersen Air Force Base, a major nuclear bomber base at the island’s northern end; Naval Base Guam, with aircraft carriers, and nuclear submarines at Polaris Point; and a large inland ordnance depot. Marines from Okinawa are likely to move here, too.
The rest of the island, especially the main city of Tumon, is a military town and tourist destination, seeing a million tourists from Japan, as well as Russia and South Korea, coming to visit one of the closest American outposts to their shores, replete with the most popular American shopping and dining franchises. 168,000 people live on Guam, including more than 60,000 native Chamorros and 40,000 Filipinos, most of whom are American citizens by virtue of being born in the territory.
Northern Mariana Islands
The 14 islands in the chain north of Guam are governed as a US territory known as the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). The Marianas were first colonized by Spain when Magellan planted a flag there in 1521. After the Spanish American War of 1898, most of the Marianas were sold to Germany, which then lost them to Japan after World War I. The United States took them from Japan in World War II, after which they became part of a large group of islands in the north Pacific known as the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.
Over the years after the war, most of the islands in the trust became independent states, such as the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau. After being rebuffed by Guam for decades, the Northern Marianas elected to become a separate commonwealth and join the USA in 1975. This became official in 1986, when the UN dissolved the Trust Territories, and the 50,000 residents of the islands became US citizens.
90% of the population lives on Saipan, which after becoming part of the USA, developed into a major global garment production center, attracting another 45,000 workers, mostly from China. Clothing for major brands, such as Gap, Ann Taylor, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Liz Claiborne, and J.Crew, were made in sweatshops that, while “made in the USA,” were done so with labor rates and conditions far below normal USA standards. Despite persistent lobbying by the garment industry in Washington, which was fighting to maintain the one billion dollars in annual production, media exposure and political pressure eventually had their effect. The national minimum wage came to Saipan in 2007, and now most of the industry is gone, as well as the Chinese workers.
Three miles south of Saipan is Tinian, the second largest of the Northern Mariana Islands. With a population of just 3,000, most of Tinian’s development are the remains of a World War II airbase. The US captured Tinian from Japan in August 1944, built six runways on the island, and made it the busiest US airfield for the remainder of the war. The last of the hundreds of missions that flew from here to Japan were the atomic bombings of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and Nagasaki, three days later. The loading pits for the oversized Little Boy and Fat Man bombs remain amidst the vestiges of the base at the north end of the island.
American Samoa is the only populated place in the USA south of the equator. Its population is around 55,000, and is 92% Pacific Islander. It has the lowest per capita income in the USA, one of the highest rates of service in the military, and there is a heavy missionary presence. As much as 80% of its revenue comes from a single StarKist tuna cannery in Pago Pago, on the main island of Tutulia, where 98% of the population lives.
The other sparsely occupied islands in American Samoa include the Manu’a Islands, and Swains Island, located 220 miles north of Tutulia. Since 1856 Swains Island has been claimed by the American settler Eli Jennings, joining American Samoa in 1925. It is a mile-wide ring of beach and land, surrounding a brackish lagoon, and is generally inhabited by around a dozen people.
The Polynesian islands of Samoa were colonized in the 19th century, and divided up. The larger islands in the west (called Western Samoa at the time) went to Germany, and the smaller ones to the east went to the USA, in 1900, by a deed of cession, approved by native chiefs. For the following 51 years, American Samoa was controlled by the US Navy, which built a refueling base in the harbor at Pago Pago. In 1967, a local constitution was adopted, and elections began, providing a further degree of self-rule.
Unlike the other four US Territories with populations and governments (CNMI, Guam, USVI, and Puerto Rico), American Samoans are not US citizens by birth, but American Nationals, instead. This gives them more autonomy at home, where 90% of the land is shared in a native communal system, and helps preserve other cultural traditions, but is less convenient when outside the territory, as not being citizens limits the types of work they are allowed to do in the rest of the USA. Though they can have US passports, the documents are stamped with a statement that the bearer is not a US citizen.
After World War II, Germany lost Western Samoa to New Zealand, and in 1962 it became an independent nation. In 1997, it officially changed its name from Western Samoa to Samoa, and the International Date Line was moved to the east, so Samoa would begin its day with New Zealand. This further separated Samoa from American Samoa, which is on the east side of the date line, making it the last part of the occupied United States to see the end of the day. ♦