Past Exploration – Tracking Marine Corps History on Guam

(Pensacola, Florida; June 30, 2022) – World War II forever shaped the legacy of the Chamorro people and Guam after the Japanese captured the island from U.S. control in 1942.

The Japanese occupation was brutal, even reaching heights of such cruelty as a Chamorro death march across the island to relocation camps.  U.S. forces finally returned to the Marianas in 1944, liberating such legendary places as Saipan, Tinian, and Guam in horrific battles pitting the Marine Corps against desperately fanatical Japanese soldiers dug into caves and other sturdy fortifications.

Sixty years later I spent a little over three years stationed on Guam as a Navy Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class at the base photo lab.  One of my favorite hobbies was exploring the remaining World War II sites and artifacts around the island.  For several years I actually maintained a website documenting these sites.  The one thing I never expected was to be lucky enough to be involved in the discovery of a major wartime artifact!

My interest in history led me to develop a close working relationship with Jennings Bunn, Naval Base Guam’s Cultural Resource Manager.  I got to know Jennings so well that he handed me the keys to the base museum to act as a temporary caretaker once he retired in late 2005.  I was quite accustomed to receiving phone calls from him to cover the visits of touring World War II veterans, cultural exchanges between the Navy and the government of Guam, etc.

When he called early in the afternoon of July 7, 2004, I figured he’d be asking if I could come out and photograph another veteran’s visit.  This was the 60th anniversary of the various Marianas battles, so we were seeing a significant number of Navy and Marine Corps veterans pass through the island.  Well, he did want me to photograph a Marine Corps veteran…just not a veteran I was expecting!

The LVT-4 being dug out on the day it was discovered aboard Naval Base Guam, July 7, 2004. (Official U.S. Navy photo by PH2 Nathanael Miller / RELEASED)

Naval Base Guam had been slowly redesigning its access points to align with post-9/11 needs (remember, this was 2004; the 9/11 attacks happened only three years earlier).  A new main gate complex was being built.  During excavations near the public works building, one of the back-hoes slammed into something metal.  The work crew began digging around the rusty object and discovered an entire, nearly intact Marine Corps landing craft from 1944 buried deep in the sandy dirt.

By the time Jennings got me out there, the crews had uncovered most of the top of the craft.  We were also joined by local Marine Corps veteran and Guam historian John Gerber.  Gerber himself served during the Vietnam War, and was as passionate about Marine Corps history as I am about Navy history.  Gerber’s lifetime project was amassing a collection of World War II vehicles in order to found a Pacific War museum on Guam, enshrining the memories of that horrible conflict while honoring the men and women, both local residents and U.S. military, who liberated his island.

Gerber and Bunn told me the craft was sitting where the World War II shoreline had been.  The shoreline had been extended after the U.S. liberated the island in order to build a new pier.  Gerber theorized this particular landing craft had been incapacitated shortly after coming up the beach from the harbor (there was no way to know whether it was battle damage or the thing just clunked out).  The fast pace of wartime actions led the Marine Corps and Navy to simply leave the crippled landing craft in place and backfill over it during construction of the nearby pier.  Thus, this amazing relic was hidden literally under the Navy’s feet for 60 years.

Gerber told me the vehicle was an LVT-4 ‘water buffalo.’  The LVT-4 would be launched from an amphibious assault ship, then ‘swim’ to the shore before driving up on the beach to get the Marines into position while still offering them some protection from enemy fire.

The LVT-4 is nearly free by July 11, 2004. It’ll be lifted out of its grave a few days after this photo was taken. (Official U.S. Navy photo by PH2 Nathanael Miller / RELEASED)

Once the work crew had cleared enough of the vehicle, we realized the cabin was still closed.  Upon finally getting the rusty hatch opened, we were surprised to discover the pilot’s cabin was empty and free of dirt.  John Gerber lept at this priceless, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to climb inside, becoming the first man to enter the craft in 60 years.  Once down in the cabin, Gerber discovered a detail that allowed him to further identify the LVT-4 as one of the earlier ones built.

A combination of my own deep and obvious enthusiasm for history, coupled with the fact I was the official Navy photographer, led Gerber and Bunn to have me clamber down into the craft behind Gerber.  Thus I got to fulfill a lifelong dream myself—being one of the first people to explore such a relic from a bygone age.  The metal cab, now under the tropical sun, was heating up fast, but Gerber and didn’t care…even though we had to get up close and personal with each other in the tight space.

Gerber pointed out this particular LVT-4 was powered by a radial aircraft engine.  Pointing at a device I was used to seeing on WWII carrier aircraft, he told me that the flat, round aircraft engine was grabbed ‘off the shelf’ when the LVT-4 model was designed because that style of engine could fit in front of the operator, thereby allowing more space in the rear for the Marines (an improvement over previous LVT designs).  Later LVT-4s built during the war had a different type of engine mounted in front of the driver, so those with aircraft engines were the older versions.

Gerber eventually obtained the LVT-4 for his budding museum…provided it could be lifted from its grave in one piece.  The effort of lifting the rusty machine was going to be tricky because its fragile, corroded structure had to be supported very precisely, or else the machine would be torn into scrap metal by the stresses on its hull.

Sadly, I wasn’t there when it was lifted out of the ground a week or so later.  I was supposed to cover the event, but Jennings Bunn called me angrily the afternoon of the lift, telling me public works had pulled it out early in the morning without telling him.  That was a black eye on the Navy because he’d scheduled the local Guam news media to be present so they could also film the historic recovery, but the public works crew jumped the gun.  Fortunately, the craft was intact and eventually ended up in John Gerber’s collection.

Myself visiting the LVT-4 at John Gerber’s home on December 27, 2005. This was my last time seeing it; I transferred off the island in mid-2006. (Self-portrait by Nathanael Miller)

Sadly, John Gerber died in 2010.  However, he successfully established the Pacific War Museum in 2008 at the base of famous Nimitz Hill prior to passing away.  That museum stands as a tribute to the Marines who fought on the island in 1944, and to Gerber’s own lifelong mission to enshrine their memory. (   

I haven’t visited Guam since I left in the summer of 2006.  Getting back to the island and visiting the LVT-4 is on my list.  I made some great friends out there, explored some incredible places, and learned some amazing (and terrifying) stories.  Being able to have a small part in the discovery of a major artifact was one of the moments you just don’t think will happen—but then do!

Guam is a wonderful island, and the Chamorro people have an incredible culture.  Taking a week or so to explore this western Pacific treasure is more than worth the price of admission.  You can jump from secluded jungle waterfalls, stand atop magnificent seaside cliffs, discover a remarkable people, and learn things about the visceral reality of World War II that no movie can ever convey.

While there, take a day and visit the Pacific War Museum near Nimitz Hill.  This is a true labor of love by a Vietnam-era Marine who wished to ensure the memories of his predecessors would be preserved and honored.  And, while there, look for a partially-restored LVT-4 water buffalo.  Say hello to the old girl for me, and let it know I’ll be back one day to visit it myself!

The Pacific War Museum’s Facebook page is:

Check out my video on this topic at:

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

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