How Guam Became One of America’s Most Important Military Outposts


  • In June 1898, the United States Navy sailed to Guam to capture the island from the Spaniards.
  • The Spaniards, who did not know they were fighting the United States, returned the island without a fight.
  • Guam is still American territory and is now home to some of the most important military bases in the United States.
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In eight months of fighting in 1898, the United States secured its status as a world power by defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War.

Fought on two continents, the war had a number of significant moments for the United States military. This led to the independence of Cuba (with the United States as the dominant power there) and American control of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam.

While there were battles in Puerto Rico and the Philippines, Guam was taken without a fight. Indeed, the Spaniards on the island did not even know they were at war.

An important stop

Map of Guam in the Pacific

Guam was a milestone between the Americas and the Philippines.

Google maps

In 1898, the grand prize for Spain and the United States in the Pacific was the Philippines. Guam was a milestone between the Americas and the Philippines, but neither Spain nor the United States paid much attention to it.

The Americans had already positioned Commodore George Dewey’s Asian squadron off China in anticipation of an attack on the Spanish fleet in Manila. But after a May 9 meeting of the US Navy War Board, which was formed to develop a strategy for the war, it was decided that Guam should also be taken to support operations in the Philippines.

To seize it, Secretary of the Navy John Long gave sealed orders to Captain Henry Glass of the USS Charleston, a protected cruiser en route from California to Manila.

In Honolulu, Charleston was joined by three troop transports. As reported, Glass only read his orders after leaving Hawaii on June 4.

“You are hereby ordered to stop at the Spanish island of Guam,” read the orders. “You will use whatever force is necessary to capture the port of Guam, capturing the governor and other officials, as well as any armed force that may be there.”

Glass was also ordered to destroy any Spanish fortifications or warships he encountered.

Complete surprise

Charleston Navy Cruiser in Agana Guam Harbor

USS Charleston at the entrance to the port of Agana, Guam, June 20-21, 1898.

US Navy / Rear Admiral Ammen Farenholt

Although orders said the operation “should not take more than a day or two,” Guam’s defenses were not fully known, so en route the Charleston crew spent days in shoot practice targets in the ocean.

Charleston arrived off Guam on the morning of June 20. Encountering only an abandoned fort and no Spanish ships in Agana, the capital, Glass ordered his ship to proceed to the port of Apra.

Much to the crew’s disappointment, the only vessel was a Japanese merchant ship. Charleston fired several shots at Fort Santa Cruz to see if it was occupied, but it was also abandoned.

Spanish authorities quickly sailed to meet Charleston in two small boats, one of which had an American flag on its topsail.

On boarding the Charleston, the Spaniards apologized. They had interpreted the Charleston gunfire as a salute, and they told the Americans they couldn’t respond in kind due to a lack of gunpowder.

Captain Henry Glass monument in Guam

The Captain Henry Glass monument in Guam. via Getty Images

It turned out that the island had not communicated with Manila since April 14 – 11 days before the United States declared war on Spain – and no Spanish Navy ships had visited Guam. in 18 months.

Glass told the Spaniards that their countries were at war and that he was taking control of the island. He asked the governor of Guam, Don Juan Marina, to return the island in person aboard the Charleston.

The delegation returned and Marina requested to speak to Glass on the island instead, as he was not legally allowed to board a foreign warship.

The next day, Glass sent an emissary to demand the Spanish surrender and gave them half an hour to comply. Twenty-nine minutes later, Marina surrendered.

The island’s garrison, which numbered less than 60 men, was disarmed and taken prisoner aboard one of the transport ships, as were Marina and other Spanish officials.

The Americans then headed for Manila, where they assisted Dewey for the remainder of the war.

An important base

B-29 on runway at Harmon Field Guam during WWII

A B-29 bomber over the runway at Harmon Field, Guam, April 13, 1945.

PhotoQuest / Getty Images

After the surrender, Glass personally examined Fort Santa Cruz, where he hoisted the American flag.

The fort itself “was totally useless as a defensive work, without guns and in a partly ruinous state,” Glass wrote in a report to Long.

Glass described the island’s other forts as “of no value” and that the only cannons that could be found were obsolete cast iron cannons used for saluting “but now doomed as dangerous even for that purpose”.

While the Spanish had neglected Guam, the United States made it an important base.

The Japanese captured it on December 10, 1941, but the United States recaptured it in a bloody 21-day battle in the summer of 1944, and used it as a base for B-29 bombing missions for the rest of the war.

Air Force Cope North Guam

A formation of eight planes over Guam during Exercise Cope North 21, February 9, 2021.

US Air Force / Senior Airman Duncan C. Bevan

Guam is now home to around 170,000 people and its importance to the US military has only grown.

It is now the “most critical US location west of the international deadline,” Admiral Philip Davidson said before retiring as head of the US Indo-Pacific Command earlier this year.

The main bases in Guam are Andersen Air Force Base, which often hosts US long-range bombers, and Guam Naval Base, which houses a squadron of submarines and is frequently visited by other warships.

It also hosts some 7,000 US military personnel, with more arriving as the Marine Corps moves 5,000 Marines from Okinawa as part of a realignment plan. Their new home, Camp Blaz, is the Corps’ first new base in 68 years.

US Navy 7th Fleet USS Blue Ridge Guam

U.S., Australian, Japanese and South Korean warships in the Port of Apra at Naval Base Guam, May 22, 2019.

US Navy / Mass Comm Specialist 2nd Class Jasen Moreno-Garcia

Guam is unincorporated U.S. territory, which means people born there are U.S. citizens but have limited political rights while they live there.

The American presence there has often angered locals, such as when thousands of American sailors were quarantined there after a COVID-19 outbreak aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the spring of 2020.

The US military presence also makes Guam a target.

North Korea has specifically threatened it in the past, and the island is seen as a focal point of Chinese plans to neutralize US bases in the region in the event of conflict.

The Chinese DF-26, its first conventionally-armed ballistic missile capable of reaching Guam, has been dubbed the “Guam Killer”.


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