The influential voice of Beatrice Perez Emsley
Guampedia | .
published: July 13, 2017
Beatrice Perez Emsley (1929-1995) is best remembered as a survivor of the Japanese Occupation on Guam during World War II, and subsequently, as the voice of fellow Chamorro survivors with her powerful testimonies for the Guam War Reparations Commission in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Her experience of brutality and survival at the hands of the Japanese revealed the atrocities suffered by the Chamorro population and brought national and international attention to the issue of compensation for Chamorro survivors.
Born Beatrice Flores Perez on 16 December 1929, Emsley was raised in Yigo, Guam, and was twelve years old when the Japanese occupation began on 10 December 1941. Under Japanese military rule, life for many Chamorros had become difficult and uncertain. Emsley lived at her family’s ranch in Tai, Mangilao (where Father Duenas Memorial School now stands), along with her uncle, Baldumero T. Peredo, who worked at the Naval Hospital. In 1944, at the age of fourteen, Emsley worked as a house girl to Japanese soldiers for one month. She was paid thirty yen for her services.
The events Emsley described in her testimonies before the War Reparations Commission began in July 1944, just a few days before the American invasion that liberated Guam from Japanese rule. Emsley’s uncle was missing during the Japanese census of the ranch, where three other families also were seeking shelter. An officer threatened to have the families killed if Peredo was not found immediately. Emsley, whose mother had just given birth to a baby girl, volunteered to search for her uncle. She was given a signed paper of permission from the Japanese officer in order to pass security stations throughout Hagåtña.
By this time, Hagåtña largely had been abandoned as residents had relocated to their lanchos (ranches) or were hiding in the island’s jungles. Emsley bowed repeatedly toward Japanese soldiers and was finally chased away when she showed them her pass. She broke through thick jungle foliage, calling for Peredo, even searching a foxhole her mother thought her uncle might be hiding. Finally, she heard the sounds of his breathing.
Emsley found her uncle lying in a trench. He had fallen and badly wounded his leg. He was filthy and his leg was infected, leaving him unable to walk. Emsley pleaded with Peredo to attempt the walk back to the ranch. Peredo, however, insisted he could not, even if his niece dragged him. The minutes lost persuading Peredo to return with her placed the young girl and her uncle in a precarious position as the Japanese did not want any Chamorros to be in the area while they were preparing for battle with the Americans.
Within minutes of finding Peredo, Emsley heard the stomping footsteps of Japanese soldiers marching in Hagåtña. Suddenly, some of the soldiers pushed through the jungle, and she and her uncle were discovered. Emsley presented the soldiers with her permission pass, but the paper that once granted safety was pushed aside. The Japanese accused Emsley and her uncle of knowing the American Navy radioman George Tweed, the only American soldier who was able to remain hidden from Japanese forces and survive during the Japanese occupation. In spite of Emsley and Peredo’s arguments that they had never known Tweed, the two were taken by the soldiers toward San Ramon Hill, below where the Government House stands today, amid flares and bombing by American planes. When the flares had passed, they were forced into one of three tunnels cut into the hillside below where the Archbishop’s residence is currently located.
There Emsley discovered other Chamorros assembled by Japanese soldiers. She saw a group of seven men, among them Juan Cabrara, age sixteen. Later, they were joined by a group of three young women who were crying as the soldiers pushed them into the tunnel. For two days without food and water, the group of Chamorros were held against their will.
As the night waned and daylight approached the interrogation wore steadily on. The Japanese repeatedly accused the group of lying and slapped the Chamorros across their faces, even after the Chamorros agreed with the untrue accusations.
At dawn, the Japanese officers demanded the group line up and stand before a string of Japanese soldiers, dressed in full uniform and armed with bayonets. An officer divided the men and women into two groups. The men were led off into the jungle with the soldiers, while the women were ordered to wait and remain standing in a straight line. Before the men were led away, Emsley’s uncle reached out and pulled at her, but the two were forced apart by the soldiers.
In her formal testimony before the US Congress on 27 May 1993, Emsley recounted what happened next:
“All us four girls hear is like somebody chopping down the forest, and moaning for God, for mother, and I’m dying, and all that. Since then, Mr. Chairman, I didn’t have any feeling. I’m standing there like I’m just out in a cloud. So then after they finish and everything is quiet, they [the soldiers] come back and went by us and they all have a bloody uniform. Their rifle and everything are all [covered in] blood.”
Emsley then witnessed the Japanese soldiers execute the other Chamorro women. In her words from the 1993 testimony:
“They finally start calling Diana Guerrero, the oldest woman, who walked up to this officer, and the only thing I seen, and it start to get blurr[y], was he cut this front and start sawing off her breast. Then the sister next to her came running up to try to help. They do just everything they can with what they got. And the third one was Toni, because I was the youngest and the last. They march her up, and the only thing they did is sliced down her stomach and everything come out. When it comes to me, when they took me out, I was walking in air. As soon as they let go of me, I fall down to the ground.”
The Japanese officer’s attention focused on Emsley. After briefly questioning her, the officer pushed her head down and he hit the back of her neck with his bayonet. Emsley fainted from the impact as the bayonet cut through her neck muscles. The gash from the bayonet was four inches deep. The Japanese officers then pushed her into a nearby hole they had dug as a grave. Emsley’s body fell on top of the other women.
When Emsley awoke she found herself buried with the bodies of those executed before her eyes. Phasing in and out of consciousness, Emsley began trying to dig herself out. At one point, she recalled Toni, still alive, moaning beside her asking for water. The two managed to drink something wet on the ground nearby. Emsley passed out again and when she awoke, Toni had already died.
Emsley crawled out of the dirt grave during daylight, after the Japanese had left the scene and hidden themselves. She stumbled away from the area, half crawling when she was conscious and fainting after she had exhausted her limited energy supply. She went to where she had heard the other Chamorro men and recognized her uncle’s wounded leg because of the filthy pants he had been wearing. As she described in the 1993 statement:
“I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know what happened to me. I don’t know nothing. I just keep going.”
Time passed for Emsley. Making her way through the jungle she spotted a ranch and began approaching it. She hid when she heard Japanese soldiers already at the ranch removing whatever they could find. When the soldiers finally left, Emsley went around the other side of the building and found Juan Cabrara, who had also survived the attempted execution. Cabrara had suffered five deep bayonet wounds. Emsley called to the boy and asked if he had food or water. Cabrara called her to him and he gave her some coconut to eat. Together, the two continued to search for food, drinking swamp water to quench their thirst. At Carbara’s urging, they made their way to a house in Hagåtña where Cabrara knew his mother had left some rice and salted fish.
As the teenagers struggled along in search of help and medicine, they looked at the remains of the old Naval Hospital but could not find anything. Meanwhile, Emsley had developed a high fever and chills.
At the Hagåtña house, Cabrara began to prepare rice, leaving Emsley to watch it cook while he went out. Cabrara returned running, having encountered some Japanese soldiers and was now being chased by them. As Cabrara escaped the soldiers, a dog started to chase his pursuers. Reaching the house, he grabbed Emsley and the two ran to the back of the destroyed chapel in the San Antonio district, waiting quietly until the barking sounds stopped.
Emsley and Cabrara then made the long trek toward Manenggon where other Chamorros had been taken to a concentration camp set up by the Japanese. They found an abandoned ranch and were elated to discover six large drums of rainwater, as well as star apples and bananas. The two ate until, as Emsley recalled, she got a stomach ache. They set off again to search for their families and came across an abandoned house where they stayed for a few days.
The two were eventually found by one of Emsley’s uncles and another man who had left the Manenggon camp to search for food they had hidden away from the Japanese. Emsley’s uncle, however, did not recognize her at first. He brought the two teenagers with him to Yona where they met up with soldiers of the Third Marine Division, part of the invading American forces. The Americans, however, were unable to treat her or Cabrara’s wounds because of the fighting. The three Chamorros then made their way back to the Manenggon camp. After sneaking the teenagers into the camp, Emsley and Cabrara were finally able to receive medical care.
Two Chamorro nurses cleaned the survivors’ wounds for the first time. Emsley recounted that she felt maggots moving across the gash on her neck and that she guessed these maggots had eaten away some infection from her injuries. When American soldiers finally entered the concentration camp, Emsley was taken down the long trail to Asan where she was cleaned up and received more medical treatment for her wounds aboard one of the US ships.
Life after the War
Like other war survivors, Emsley focused on trying to pick up the pieces of her life and survive the devastating aftermath and reconstruction of the island. She attended school for a while, but could not continue as she had been too traumatized.
She eventually married Charles Emsley, a former private in the US Army. Together they had ten children, including Karen Emsley Guerrero. In spite of the trauma she had suffered, Guerrero recalled her mother’s forgiveness towards the Japanese officers and soldiers responsible for her attempted beheading:
“She always told us, ‘In order to be forgiven, you must learn to forgive.”’
Emsley became an influential community leader because of her emotional and candid War Reparations testimony in front of the US Congress. She spoke about her experiences openly, despite the tendency among other Chamorro elders to keep quiet about stories that reveal the harsher side of their lives during the Occupation.
Emsley died on 6 August 1995 at the age of sixty-five. She was honored with a state funeral attended by various local senators, military and Japanese officials. Over one hundred mourners were lead in prayer. Emsley was buried at the Guam Veterans Cemetery.
A symbol of Chamorro strength and resilience
Beatrice Emsley often is seen as embodying the Chamorro people’s suffering during the Japanese Occupation; she has been named the “symbol of Chamorro strength and resilience,” among other titles, by the media. The symbol, however, belies the broken woman who suffered from this experience the rest of her life.
Emsley struggled with a lifelong nervous disorder as a result of her near death and the violence she witnessed. She never did go back to school and relied on her mother to teach her how to manage her household. Interviewers constantly noted the detached way in which Emsley processed words when recounting her story. For example, Howard Handleman, while writing for the July 1964 issue of the Pacific Profile, wrote about Emsley: “The girl showed no emotion as she talked. Her almond eyes show neither a reflection of the terror that was past nor a hint of happiness (……).”
Emsley relayed her memories in a factual manner, recalling the names of people and friends she saw tortured, while her face remained a stoic mask. A reporter noted in a 1952 article in the Guam Daily News: “Beatrice tells her story to a Daily News reporter in a flat voice without emotion. Tonelessly she continues.”
This was an essential part of Emsley’s psychology – her defense tactic for surviving war atrocities and relaying her story. Emsley apparently built a wall between her present self and her memories.
But her experience as a survivor and as an advocate for war reparations for the Chamorro people remains her contribution to Guam history and its people. Her closing words of her 1993 testimony captures the conflicted feelings of so many Chamorro survivors – grateful for the American liberation, loyal to the American nation, but wanting to be acknowledged for their suffering and sacrifice: “All I am trying to ask Chairman Ron de Lugo – Recognize us, please. We are American.”