It's been 73 years since World War II veteran Donald Hughes set his first sights on Guam, while fellow liberator Gene Bell is back on island for the 19th time since helping to free the CHamoru from Japanese control.
Hughes and Bell have been announced as this year's Liberation Day Parade grand marshals, and they took time yesterday to share their Guam war experiences.
In 1943, Hughes, who grew up on a rural Wisconsin farm, said he joined the Navy at 18 to avoid being drafted into the Army.
"I volunteered for the Navy. I didn't want to sleep in foxholes," said Hughes, now 92.
The sailor boarded the USS Magoffin, piloting a vessel used to bring land units to awaiting shores.
Part of the naval forces sweeping the Pacific – reclaiming American territories from Japanese possession – Hughes said the Magoffin eventually docked in Guam to refuel for a few days, but he was never able to leave the ship.
"As a Navy man, I spent nearly all of my time onboard ship, which means that I didn't get to spend much time actually on Guam," Hughes said. "Compared to my view from the ship in the 1940s, I am struck today at how beautiful Guam is."
With just the sight of Guam in memory, Hughes moved on to participate in the famous Battle of Okinawa – although he said he never claimed any lives while there, either.
'This required a lot of courage'
The war veteran piloted a landing craft vehicle, a small vessel component aboard the Magoffin, which was used to transport approximately 36 land units to and from shore.
"This required a lot of courage on my part – driving that watercraft into enemy fire – but it was even more courageous when I tell you that I don't know how to swim!"
Mainly tasked with transporting troops and aiding a few minor ship services, Hughes also shot at enemy planes from the Magoffin's artillery mount, but other than that, this war veteran never hurt a fly.
Once Japan surrendered, Hughes and the Magoffin made their way around the rim of the Pacific, picking up hundreds of American land units from offshore bases in Japan, China, Korea and Vietnam.
"They had crews that were out there for three years, so they were very happy and ready to go home."
He made his way back to Wisconsin after discharging from the military in 1947.
Although he said he might not be able to make the long-distance trip back out to Guam again, Hughes is grateful and honored to serve as one of the Liberation Day Parade's grand marshals.
"I have always been proud of the service I gave to my country, but being here today and realizing what a difference we were able to make here on Guam and throughout the South Pacific, I am reminded of how important it was that we did our job well."
'The island was completely devastated'
Leaving his small Montana town of Kalispell for the warm waters of the Pacific, World War II liberator Gene Bell joins Hughes as grand marshal for the first time – although the veteran said he's visited Guam 19 times now, with four of those trips as a participant in the annual parade.
Bell joined the Marine Corps in 1943 at the age of 17, also to avoid being drafted for the Army, he said, laughing.
"I was dedicated to America and I wanted to do my duty and get it over with," said Bell, 91.
He made his way to Guam just about a week after the island was liberated in late July 1944.
His company, the 3rd Marine Regiment, was the first battalion to come after the initial liberation of Guam and came to conduct security operations.
"Can you imagine being in captivity for the three and a half years?" Bell said. "People didn't have real clothes. The island was completely devastated. It was unbelievable, there was absolutely nothing left."
Once the Americans were able to secure a roadblock between Hagåtña and Talofofo, Marines were tasked with doing a final sweep of the island, especially its interior, he said.
About three months after Guam was initially liberated, the Marines combed over 28 miles of the island, starting on the southern end and making their way up north.
'I love this island and I love the people'
With orders stating that at least 5,000 enemy troops were believed still hiding in Guam's jungles, Bell and his fellow Marines spent approximately two weeks in remote areas of the island, often discovering the bodies of Japanese soldiers who had committed suicide.
"We went through many villages and there were so many people who were grateful to all the Marines. They couldn't thank us enough – it was really something," Bell said. "But those were the toughest two weeks. Beating through the jungle with machetes, it was terrible."
Once the island was fully secured, the liberator said that he and other Marines were able to have fun on the island over the next few months.
Bell said he'd return for as many years as his health will allow.
"I love this island and I love the people here – that's why I've been back 19 times."