The Faces of Guahån

War in the Pacific National Historical Park

Tanya Sortor, PHP Education Coordinator & Ashton Williams, NPS Biological Science Technician

If you had a choice, would you rather learn about important historical events in a classroom, online, or at the place they actually happened? More and more, educators are discovering the power of place. Taking students out of the classroom and into the real world gives students a new and exciting way to not just learn history, but to experience it themselves.

This past school year, Pacific Historic Parks designed an education program titled Faces of Guahån. Over 1,300 junior high school students discovered the power of place at their national park. The Faces of Guahån program took students beyond their textbooks and immersed them in their local history for a powerful educational and emotional experience. Students went to Asan Bay Overlook to learn about World War II and the impact of occupation by the Japanese. Guahån is the CHamoru name for the island of Guam, and many students were direct descendants of the men and women whose names cover the marble walls of the memorial. Through songs, photos, sound effects, artifacts, games, and dramatic interpretations, students gained insight into the history of people that over the years has evolved but has not been forgotten.

The students began their experience by peering across the expanse of the overlook. From their vantage point, the students could clearly see where the Japanese defense forces had dug in, awaiting the upcoming battle. They identified the shore where the US Pacific Fleet of nearly 500 battle ships arrived with their tanks and guns. They observed the land where 1,700 American soldiers and 18,000 Japanese soldiers were killed in the battle for Guam.

With the imagery of the war fresh in their minds, the students began listening to individual accounts of the war and the occupation. News clips, sound effects, and artifacts helped students feel like they were living in the time of the Japanese occupation. One story in particular, that of young Beatrice Flores Emsley, was especially moving to the students. Listening to Beatrice’s account of imprisonment, torture, and attempted decapitation was an emotional experience for the students, especially because she had been the same age as many of the students in the program. The detailed descriptions of her experience—the confusion she felt when her family disappeared, the pain of the attempted decapitation, and the wriggling of the maggots that infested her wound—made the students squirm, cringe, and groan.

PHP staff shared stories and photos of their own family members who were affected by the war, and this prompted teachers and students to share their own family histories of occupation and imprisonment. Each shared story built upon the last and cemented the students’ connection to their history, their land, and their national park.

Then, the students chose a name on the memorial wall, made a wall rubbing transferring the name to their papers allowing them to take a piece of history home. Many students chose the names of relatives, while others chose the names of survivors whose personal accounts of suffering and bravery they had just witnessed. The students went home with a deep understanding of the horrors of war and the resilience and solidarity of the CHamoru people.

Pacific Historic Parks invites you to come and feel the power of place at your national parks. There are over 400 national parks and monuments across the United States and its territories for you to connect with, all with their own stories and experiences to share.