History

The ‘Ghost of Guam’ — How George Tweed Evaded Japanese Capture for Years

August 23, 2022Matt Fratus
Radioman 1st Class George Tweed evaded capture from Japanese forces on the island of Guam for more than two-and-a-half years. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

Radioman 1st Class George Tweed evaded capture from Japanese forces on the island of Guam for more than two-and-a-half years. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

On the morning of Dec. 8, 1941, nine Japanese fighter planes approached Guam from the east, flying high above the clouds overlooking the tiny Pacific island. The formation swooped down toward the coast, unleashing their guns on the American garrison below.

The strike came just hours after Japanese forces surprised the US Navy at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, leaving around 2,400 Americans dead. Although 155 US Marines, 400 US sailors, and a local force of 200 native guardsmen were present on Guam to defend the tiny island, it was only a matter of time until the full military might of the imperial Japanese armed forces overwhelmed the Americans.

In the coming days, all but six American service members were killed or taken prisoner. Among those who initially evaded capture was a 40 year old sailor: Radioman 1st Class George Tweed. For the next two years and seven months, Tweed evaded the Japanese, outlasting the other Americans, who were eventually caught and executed. Tweed survived, beating all odds. The unbelievable saga was later immortalized by newspapers back home, which dubbed Tweed an American hero and labeled him the “Ghost of Guam” for disappearing without a trace only to emerge a survivor. Although Tweed was paraded as a hero in the public limelight, the sailor’s success wouldn’t have been possible without the sacrifice of the Chamorro: the indigenous people of Guam who sheltered the American across 11 different hideouts while the Japanese hunted him.

Tweed, a native of Portland, Oregon, entered the US Navy in 1922 and served in various radioman roles for 16 years before his arrival in Guam in 1940. Two months before the attack on Guam, US intelligence had determined a strike against American bases in the Pacific was imminent, and as a precaution, everyone not deemed mission-essential left the island for Hawaii.

ghost of guam

Marines coax a Japanese navy man into surrendering on Guam, July 1944. Wikimedia Commons photo.

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On the morning of the attack, after the first bombs were dropped, Tweed took a car and drove 11 miles to the opposite side of the island, giving him enough time to come up with a plan for what to do next. Tweed worried that, if he immediately fled into the jungles, he’d be accused of desertion. This fear led him to travel to the Governor’s palace, where a commander and aide to the governor informed him that the Naval Base Guam would soon be surrendered. The commander provided Tweed with two clear options: Surrender with the rest of the Americans or flee into the jungle. Unwilling to spend the remainder of the war in a prisoner-of-war camp, Tweed escaped on foot into the bush.

Tweed quickly realized he wouldn’t survive for long on his own and would have to rely on support from the Chamorro people. He developed a relationship with the Chamorro and promised to return after the war with humanitarian support courtesy of Uncle Sam if they helped him find food and shelter.

The Japanese typically offered 100 yen for information leading to the capture of Americans. According to Tweed’s book, Robinson Crusoe, USN: The Adventures of George R. Tweed, RM1C on Japanese-held Guam, the Japanese offered a larger reward of 1,000 yen for his head, since he had valuable radio experience. Although Tweed relied on his intuition and wits to avoid Japanese sympathizers, the inexperienced American was untrained in evasion tactics.

ghost of guam

Group of Chamorros on Guam in the mid-1940s. Wikimedia Commons photo.

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“There was only one time that I ever went to a party,” Tweed later confessed for the first time in an interview in 1985. “The only reason why I did then is because everybody knew where I was anyway.”

Tweed used his radio to stay informed about world news and would relay the information to locals in exchange for intelligence about Japanese troop movements and supplies. After about eight months, the Japanese began closing in on Tweed's position, so he moved from the middle of Guam to the northern part of the island to stay with a trusted ally named Tommy Tanaka. Tanaka, a half-Japanese, half-Chamorro man, was in his mid 20s and hated life under Japanese occupation. He aided Tweed despite the risks, believing the Americans would soon return to Guam in force.

“Every day we put him out in the jungle and we make sure it’s safe,” Tanaka told Islan Guam. “Then, in the evening, we brought him dinner and a place to sleep. I couldn’t sleep well because I was scared.”

Tanaka’s home wasn’t ideal for a permanent stay. The jungle wasn’t dense like in other parts of the island, and word began to spread that an American was in the area, so Tweed moved on. Eventually, he was introduced to Antonio Arturo, the son of a Spanish rancher. Arturo brought Tweed through the jungle, following a hidden deer trail to a cave dwelling on top of a cliff perched hundreds of feet above the Pacific ocean. The cave dwelling became Tweed’s new home for another year and nine months. He built a makeshift “kitchen area” in the mouth of the cave, furnished with homemade chairs and a table, but slept in the back of the cave, which offered greater protection from weather and Japanese patrols.

ghost of guam

The US Navy destroyer USS McCall underway circa 1938. Wikimedia Commons photo.

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In April 1944, after he'd spent more than two years in hiding, the United States officially declared Tweed dead.

However, Tweed's Japanese pursuers knew he remained alive somewhere on the island and became more agitated by his elusiveness. They threatened to kill anyone who aided the American, including entire Chamorro families.

In June of 1944, during the Second Battle of Guam, Tweed watched the US Navy bombard Japanese positions. On July 14, Tweed decided he was done hiding. Using a semaphore (a method of visual signaling), Tweed attempted to contact US naval destroyers positioned two miles offshore. However, the flags were too small to be seen from a distance. Tweed then tried taking a small mirror, which he had been using to shave once every two weeks, and directed the sun's glare toward the bridge of the USS McCall.

The destroyer initially mistook the flashes of light for Japanese guns firing at their position. All of the weapons on the McCall reoriented toward Tweed, but before they fired, Tweed picked up his semaphores to signal his position once more. In order to prove he was an American and this wasn’t a trap, Tweed identified a concealed gun battery at Point Adelup. He then added through his transmitted messages that all Japanese forces were killing downed American pilots on Guam. Once the Navy determined Tweed's signals were authentic, they dispatched a whaleboat from the USS McCall to rescue him. Tweed was then brought aboard without incident and was able to provide naval commanders a detailed log of enemy troop movements and concentrations. Tweed also gave valuable intelligence describing how the Japanese were preparing for an amphibious invasion, which helped military planners adjust their tactics for retaking the island. For his incredible efforts, Tweed was awarded the Legion of Merit with Combat V.

After the war, Tweed’s story was sensationalized in Western media. Tweed told reporters tall tales about how the US Marines defended the garrison down to their last bullet and how Tweed narrowly escaped 50-person search parties on several occasions. Tweed returned to Guam on Sept. 16, 1944, to thank the Chamorro for their help. However, the gesture wasn’t well received by all of the Chamorro. Many believed that Tweed didn’t properly thank them for their sacrifices. A demonstration of more than 100 spectators “hissed” and “booed” Tweed for his portrayal of them, saying he'd discounted the risks they'd taken to save his life. In 1946, with the help of General Motors, Tweed sent a brand new Chevrolet automobile as a gift to Arturo, as he'd promised to when Arturo was hiding Tweed from the Japanese. He retired from the Navy as a lieutenant in 1948. Tweed tragically died in an automobile accident in 1989. He was 86.

Read Next: The American Aviator Who Crash-Landed Into a Soccer Game, Then Stopped for Beers While Evading Nazis

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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