One night in 1944, 16-year-old Vicente “Ben” Blaz ’51 and his friends snuck out of the labor camp where they were being held, in search of food. Along the way, they ran into members of the 9th Marine Regiment, who were preparing to liberate Guam from Japanese occupation.
Guam, an island in the western Pacific Ocean, is a U.S. territory. Its indigenous people, the Chamorro, are American citizens, and because the island was of vital strategic importance during the Second World War, they were some of the only American civilians to experience foreign occupation.
“A lot of the most educated people don’t realize some of the things that American citizens went through and endured, and continued with increasing support for the United States afterwards,” says Vince Blaz, Blaz’s grandson.
Blaz was forever grateful to the Marines for liberating Guam, his grandson says—so much so that he joined them. After attending Notre Dame, he rose through the ranks of the Marine Corps, at one point commanding the very regiment that had liberated Guam, and ultimately became a Brigadier General, the highest rank any Chamorro has attained. He later served several terms as Guam’s delegate to Congress.
The Marines, in turn, are grateful to Blaz: In 2018, the Corps announced that a base under construction in Guam will be named after him—a fitting honor for the late military veteran and public servant.
“We know he deserves it for everything he did for the island and the military,” says Ben Blaz’s granddaughter, Rachael Blaz. “It’s a huge honor for our family.”
A Formative Education
Though Blaz’s education was on hold during the war, after 1945 he raced through middle and high school, learning English from the Marines, their songs, and their newspapers, Vince Blaz says.
And he showed such potential that a visiting priest secured a scholarship for him to attend Notre Dame, where he majored in chemistry, befriended priests and fellow Catholics who helped strengthen his faith, took the most challenging courses he could find, and joined ROTC.
His classmates helped him when he had trouble marching in formation, and they invited him to their homes during breaks, Vince Blaz says: “He met a lot of special folks there.”
A Distinguished Military Career
After he graduated, Blaz began a long career in the Marines. He served in the Korean War; it was at a recruiting depot in San Diego afterwards that he met his wife, Ann, Vince Blaz says.
He served with the 9th Marine Regiment, the group that had liberated Guam during World War II at three points in his career, Vince Blaz says: as a legal officer in Osaka, Japan; as an operations officer during the Vietnam War; and as commanding officer in Okinawa, Japan.
In 1977 Blaz rose to the rank of Brigadier General—the first person from Guam and the first person of color to do so. Over his 29-year career, he was awarded the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, the Navy Commendation Medal, and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry. In 1988, he received the Rev. William Corby Award, which honors Notre Dame graduates who have distinguished themselves in military service.
Blaz retired in 1980 and returned to Guam, where he farmed and taught at the University of Guam for a couple of years. In 1984 he was elected as a delegate to Congress.
A Public Servant
In Congress, Blaz worked to return unused military land to Guam—even now, the military occupies nearly a third of the island. Returning the land to Guam’s people helped “close the books on the issue of excess lands since the military has repeatedly indicated that it has no further use for them,” Blaz said at the time.
He also helped educate the country about Guam’s role in World War II and secure reparations for citizens affected by World War II. And helped reorganize the island’s judicial system and fought to improve education benefits for veterans.
Blaz’s greatest passion was political equality. Guam has a measure of self-government, but as an unincorporated territory like Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa, only certain constitutional rights apply to its citizens.
Though he did not succeed in establishing Guam as a commonwealth, Blaz raised awareness of the importance Guam and the U.S. military have for each other. A phrase he coined—“equal in war but not in peace”—is often used to describe the disconnect between Guam’s high rate of military service and the rights its citizens lack, compared to other American citizens.
Sam Mabini, a career and technical education postdoctoral fellow at North Carolina State University, was the director of Guam’s labor department, a senator in the legislature, and a higher education administrator. In high school, she met Blaz during his congressional campaign, and she says he expressed Guam’s political inequality with particular clarity.
His famous statement resonates when she thinks about a variety of issues, namely the recent denial of visas to skilled foreign workers that Guam needs to build military and civilian infrastructure.
“His statement, ‘Equal in war, unequal in peace’ still resonates in Guam as the island continues to contend with important federal policies that put Guam at significant disadvantage,” Mabini says.
A Lasting Legacy
Blaz served four terms in Congress before losing a reelection bid and retiring with his family in Fairfax, Va. He died in 2014 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and his impact on Guam can be felt today.
“Chamorros are recognized as extremely patriotic soldiers in the U.S. military,” Mabini says. “I believe Congressman Blaz was the epitome of this. His name and legacy continues to be recognized and highly regarded by citizens of Guam.”
Madeleine Bordallo, a former Guam delegate to Congress, also spoke highly of Blaz’s legacy in a statement announcing the naming of the Marine base after him.
“Gen. Blaz embodied the values and spirit of Guam, the Chamorro people and the U.S. Marine Corps,” she said. “He served our country and island with distinction, and he was a true patriot and statesman.”