Episode 52 - Surprise Guam, It's America

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In 1868, Cubans and Spain entered in what was later known as the Ten Year’s War where Cuban rebels tried to gain their independence from Spanish rule. Despite Spain winning the war, Cuban revolutionaries continued to make plans for future independence. In 1895, Jose Marti, a revolutionary that had been exiled from Cuba, invaded Cuba in another attempt for independence.

Americans took great interest in the Cubans fight against Spain. Americans did about $100 million a year in trade with Cuba (about $2.75 billion today). The conflict was causing problems for Americans that owned sugarcane fields in Cuba and shipping firms that relied heavily on trade with Cuba were suffering losses. Americans also saw Cuba fighting Spain very similar to the American Revolution and saw Spain as a tyrannical oppressor.

President McKinley hoped to end the conflict peacefully and attempted to negotiate with the Spanish government for peace. The Spanish government refused to enter any negotiations of peace between them and Cuba, but told the United States that it would be willing to offer the Cubans more autonomy if they agreed to an end of fighting. The rebels refused, wanting total independence. Spain then recalled the current governor of Cuba and replaced him with another, which sparked large demonstrations. A United States Consul named Fitzhugh Lee asked the U.S. to send a warship to Cuba in order to keep American citizens living in Cuba safe from the fighting.

On January 24, 1898 McKinley sent the battleship USS Maine to Havana after letting the Spanish government know his intentions for the ship were to keep peace only. Though reluctant and wary of America’s intentions with the warship, the Maine was allowed to dock in Havana and the ship’s commanding officer refused to allow his enlisted men to go on shore. It seemed like the presence of the ship was calming tensions in Havana, and another battleship was requested to take the Maine’s place when it was time for it to return to the U.S.

On February 15, an explosion destroyed the USS Maine. 260 of the 400 man crew died during the explosion and 6 died later due to their wounds. Investigations found that more than five tons of powder charges had been ignited which tore apart the ship apart. The crew of a civilian steamer along with Spanish officials worked quickly to try to save as many survivors as possible and care for the wounded. When word reached D.C., the Navy Department opened an inquiry in the cause of the explosion and it lasted for about a month. It was concluded that a mine located under the ship had detonated, which then set off the powder charges. Though the Navy never concluded who put the mine under the ship, Americans were outraged and blamed Spain for the explosion. War between the U.S. and Spain was looking likely and President McKinley began to make preparations for an impending war by asking Congress to appropriate $50 million for national defense, which Congress approved unanimously. “Remember the Maine” became a rallying cry among Americans to avenge the explosion.

Congress then passed the Teller Amendment which stated that the United States would not establish permanent control over Cuba after they received their independence from Spain and authorized President McKinley to use as much military force, he though necessary to help Cuba gain their independence. When Spain heard of the Teller Amendment, they immediately severed all diplomatic relations with Spain and on the same day, the United States began a naval blockade of Cuba. Spain then responded by declaring war on the United States on April 24th. The U.S. then also declared war on Spain on April 25th, but they back-dated the declaration to be on April 21st so that they could say they declared war first.

The Spanish American War quickly expanded past Cuba and into the Pacific Ocean. Though America had promised to let Cuba become completely independent after the war, they made no such promises for Spain’s other colonies. McKinley had a large desire to gain control of Puerto Rico and the Philippines, both of which were under Spanish rule. Having a port in the Philippines would give America a strong foothold in the Pacific.

On May 1, Commodore George Dewey led a United States naval squadron into Manila Bay in the Philippines. In a matter of two hours, Commodore Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet that was anchored in the bay and then let his crew eat a second breakfast. Only 9 American seamen were lost in the battle while the Spanish lost around 370. After the victory, America sent three troop transport ships carrying soldiers left San Francisco on May 25th in order to secure the rest of the Philippines for the U.S. The ships stopped in Honolulu where they were joined by the cruiser the Charleston which was under the command of Captain Henry Glass. While in Honolulu, Captain Glass had received sealed orders from the Secretary of the Navy John D. Long which read:


Upon the receipt of this order, which is forwarded by the steamship “City of Pekin” to you at Honolulu, you will proceed with the Charleston and “City of Pekin” in company to Manila, Philippine Islands.

On your way, you are hereby directed to stop at the Spanish Island of Guam. You will use such force as may be necessary to capture the port of Guam, making prisoners of the Governor and other officials, and any armed force that may be there. You will also destroy any fortifications on said Island and any Spanish naval vessels that may be there, or in the immediate vicinity. These operations at the Island of Guam should be very brief and should not occupy more than one or two days. Should you find any coal at the Island of Guam, you will make such use of it as you consider desirable. It is left to your discretion whether or not you destroy it.

From the Island of Guam proceed to Manila and report to Rear Admiral George Dewey, U.S.N., for duty in the squadron under his command.

Very respectfully,

John D. Long


On the morning of June 20th, the ship convoy approached Guam. The Charleston entered into Agana Bay on the search for Spanish ships to destroy. Captain Glass kept waiting for a cannon bombardment from Fort Santiago as they sailed by, but the fort remained silent. The Charleston then got into range of Fort Santa Cruz, where there was only a Japanese ship docked in the harbor. Glass fired at Fort Santa Cruz with his 3-inch cannons, however no shots were returned. The only movement was a few local fisherman paddling away from the cannon fire as fast as possible.

A group of Spanish officials and civilians began to congregate on the shore. They had heard the cannon fire and though it was a salute from a foreign ship making their presence known. The officials were there to conduct customs and health inspections of the foreign ship, like they always did, and also ordered to have two of their antique brass cannons brought to the port so that they could return the cannon salute to be courteous. One of the civilians among the Spanish officials was an American named Frank Portusach who had moved to Guam and owned a store there. Spanish officials and Frank Portusach sailed out to the Charleston to greet it. Once aboard, the Spanish officials apologized that they couldn’t get their old cannons working in order to return the salute. Captain Glass informed them that it wasn’t a salute and that the United States and Spain were at war, which they were all unaware of, and that all of the Spanish military officers in Guam were now prisoners of war. Glass sent two of the Spanish soldiers back to shore to deliver a letter to Governor Juan Marina in which Glass demanded that the governor report to the Charleston immediately to surrender “the defenses of the Island of Guam.”

While waiting for Governor Marina’s response, Frank Portusach offered to provide supplies to the Americans. One of the soldiers later wrote that Frank sold fruit at extremely low prices. They could buy three bananas, two mangoes, or one pineapple for a penny, however a live monkey would cost them two whole dollars.

Governor Marina received the letter from Glass and after he got over the shock that Guam was under siege, he replied to Glass’s request of him coming aboard the Charleston to surrender Guam with his own letter that read:

“It would give me great pleasure to comply with this request and see you personally, but, as the military laws of my country prohibit me from going on board a foreign vessel, I regret to have to decline this honor and to ask that you will kindly come on shore, where I await you to accede to your wishes as far as possible, and to agree as to our mutual situations.”

That afternoon Frank Portusach received a letter from Governor Marina that read “If you render any assistance to the American men of war, you will be executed tomorrow morning at the beach.” Frank took the letter to the Charleston where he showed it to Glass. Glass reassured Frank that if the island was not delivered to the Americans peacefully by daylight the next day, Glass would shell the town. Glass and Frank then had dinner aboard the Charleston before Frank returned home.

The next morning Glass sent Lieutenant William Braunersreuther and Ensign Waldo Evans ashore to meet with Governor Marina. Marina gave Braunersreuther a letter that read “I am under the sad necessity of being unable to resist such superior forces and I respectfully accede to your demands.” At the time, the infantry of Guam only composed of 55 soldiers and two lieutenants.

After the surrender of Guam, Captain Glass went on land to inspect Fort Santa Cruz with a small group of men including three war correspondents. The American flag was then raised above the fort, a twenty-one gun salute was set off from the Charleston, and the bands aboard the transport ships played the “Star Spangled Banner”. Since Glass didn’t know if the U.S. wanted to keep Guam permanently or not, he had the flag lowered back down that afternoon and taken back to the Charleston.

Captain Glass asked Frank Portusach if he would “take care of the island until some other officers or man-of-war might reach Guam” since he was the only American there. Portusach agreed, making him the first American governor of Guam. The next morning Glass and the ship convoy departed without American troops ever having to leave their ships and continued on to Manila.

After receiving defeats in Cuba, the Philippines, and Guam, Spain opened up negotiations for peace and hostilities were halted on August 12, 1898 with the signing of a protocol of peace between the United States and Spain. Peace negotiations lasted for two months until the Treaty of Paris was signed on December 10, 1898. In the treaty, Spain renounced all claim to Cuba, ceded Guam and Puerto Rico to the United States, and gave sovereignty over the Philippines to the United States for $20 million. The United States became a protectorate of Cuba until they formed their own government and became completely independent on May 20, 1902. However, the new Cuban government was required to lease certain territory to the United States. In 1903, the United States began to lease a 45 square mile enclave named Guantanamo Bay in which the U.S. has complete jurisdiction and control through a perpetual lease that can be voided only by mutual agreement. The lease price is $3,386.25 annually, which the United States still pays each year, however when Fidel Castro came into power, the Cuban government stopped cashing those checks.

Guam has served as a fueling station and support center during several of America’s wars. During World War II, Guam was seized by the Japanese shortly after Pearl Harbor, but was taken back by the United States in 1944. There is currently an anti-missile until focused on North Korea installed in Guam. The United States often uses Guam for war games and joint exercises and according to the Andersen Air Force Base in 2014, Guam has “the largest munitions stockpile in the world” that is stored in igloos located “deep [in] the jungle, surrounded by brown tree snakes and wild boar.”

The 162,000 people that live in Guam, just like citizens of other U.S. territories, are considered U.S. citizens by birth. However, they are not allowed to vote for the president and like Washington D.C. citizens, they have no representatives in Congress.

In 1976, naval investigators came to the conclusion that the explosion that sank the U.S.S. Maine was likely caused by a fire that ignited the ammunition aboard rather than a Spanish mine or sabotage.


“The USS Maine Explodes in Cuba’s Havana Harbor”

“The Sinking of Maine” Naval History and Heritage Command

“Destiny’s Landfall: A History of Guam” by Robert F. Rogers

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