A cashier at a gas station in southern Guam waits on customers, while the Guam and U.S. flags hang in the window.

A cashier at a gas station in southern Guam waits on customers, while the Guam and U.S. flags hang in the window. (Jennifer Svan / S&S)

GUAM — Flight attendant Robyn Chapman looked toward the airplane’s passengers with concern.

Section 2’s screen, projecting the airline’s “safety features,” wasn’t working — so a third of economy passengers had to move to see the video. That’s not what bothered Chapman. The problem: Moving this many people was not a problem at all.

“I’d say we’re about 40 percent capacity,” said Chapman, on a recent Tokyo-to-Guam flight.

Two months ago, the plane was about 80 percent full, she added.

The flight illustrates the tropical island’s economic health. As more tourists stay away, the airline’s empty seats translate into empty tables at Guam’s restaurants, empty rooms in Guam’s hotels and empty wallets in a place that depends on tourism for much of its income.

So the largest island between Hawaii and the Philippines called in … well, not the cavalry. More like the Navy. And the Air Force. Marine contingents are welcome, too. Guam, in short, is betting the U.S. military can cure its economic flu.

Liberal on liberty

The medicine was evident in late February, as Guam hosted the USS Carl Vinson, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier on a scheduled Pacific cruise. The carrier’s first visit to Guam “brought in about $3.5 million to $4 million,” said Carl Peterson, a Guam Chamber of Commerce member.

Small wonder pro-military and pro-American signs cover walls and displays in Guam’s Tumon tourist district and outside mom-and-pop shops across the island. Red, white and blue hanging in storefronts lends a small-town America feel to this rock 3,400 miles southwest of Hawaii.

Guam’s native Chamorros assert that their patriotism runs deeper than the dollar. Liberation Day, to commemorate the Marines’ 1944 landing on Asan Beach, which ended Japanese forces’ brutal occupation, is among the island’s biggest celebrations.

“We have had more casualties of our Chamorron men and women in past wars, per capita, than any other state,” said Delegate Madeleine Bordallo, Guam’s non-voting representative in Congress.

Filamore Palomo Alcon, owner of the Guam Gallery of Art in Chamorro Village, was in the Air Force for more than eight years. An American flag went up next to his cash register after Sept. 11, 2001.

“Before I joined the Air Force, I would have died for my island before I died for my country,” he said. “After Sept. 11, I would die for my country.”

Few servicemembers shop for the local souvenirs and artwork Alcon sells, he said, but their presence still helps business.

“They spend money in the nightclubs, in the restaurants, in the hotels,” a trend that creates more jobs. “If the local people have jobs, they’re going to patronize my place.”

In only their second weekend on the island, Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Laylle and his buddy Petty Officer 3rd Class Dustan Ducote already are pumping money into the local economy.

On a breezy Saturday evening in the Tumon district, the two Seabees said they’d spend $100 or more before they called it a night: souvenirs for Ducote’s son, hamburgers and fries at an oceanside café and maybe the bars or strip clubs later on.

“You need a morale booster,” said Laylle, 27, from New Orleans.

‘Flagged’ down

Peterson said the island also hopes to dredge its port so it can court a rather large new resident: a permanently stationed nuclear aircraft carrier.

“It’s our big issue,” he said, referring to speculation that a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier will be assigned to the Pacific after the conventionally powered USS Kitty Hawk at Yokosuka Naval Base is decommissioned in 2008. Japanese law prohibits nuclear-powered vessels from being stationed there.

Peterson said the committee is pleading: “Put it here.”

Guam’s Chamber of Commerce wrote key military leaders, government officials and the president in May 2002, outlining the island’s strategic significance and how that could benefit the U.S. and Guam governments.

“The people of Guam … fully endorse the Chamber’s goal of diversifying our economic base by attracting more military units,” the Chamber wrote, noting that “Department of Defense spending is Guam’s second largest industry and integral to future economic growth.”

For instance, Navy Capt. Joseph Mulloy, commander of the three-sub squadron based at Polaris Point, Guam, said each vessel contributes “about $6.5 million” to the local economy — including sailors’ salaries and visits from friends and family.

The new customer

A dozen Japanese tourists disembarked a Cocos Island Resort shuttle boat on a mid-March afternoon.

“We used to get 200 to 300 hundred a day,” said cashier Jennifer Cruz. “Now, we get less than a hundred.”

Now, 30 to 40 servicemembers are expected any given weekend. With more than 13,000 servicemembers already living on Guam, the resort wants more of them. It advertises its military discount in the local paper, she said, and it recently threw in a free lunch for GIs.

More servicemembers also mean more facilities. Leonard Kaae said the 350-employee Black Construction Corp., where he’s senior vice president, works on five military projects. On March 14, it was awarded a sixth: a $4 million effort involving building a loading-unloading system at the military’s Delta Echo pier.

Local contractors also will benefit from about $235 million in military construction projects, underway and planned, at Andersen Air Force Base, said Col. Tom Finnegan, vice commander of Andersen’s 36th Air Base Wing.

The buildup also has helped Guam real estate brokers. About 99 percent of Norma del Carmen’s customers are military members and their families, she said, adding that Guam has one of the largest overseas housing allowances. Landlords set their prices accordingly; beachside rentals can average more than $2,000 per month, she said.

Business boomed after the two submarines arrived.

“It’s really the military that drives up the rental rates and has kept the market so strong,” she said. “Not a week goes by that I don’t do a referral, or I don’t do a showing.

“I’m very grateful. Guam does really need it.”

author picture
Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up