Uncovering history: Goose Creek woman was a POW in World War II
Sherry Dixon was 50 when she first learned about her mother’s terrifying past.
One day they were talking and Dixon’s mother, Catalina Bernidita Borja-Aquiningoc Wilson, 79, a Goose Creek resident, told her about war-scarred memories of her childhood.
She was a prisoner of war between the ages of eight and 11, and was put in a Japanese concentration camp on Guam during World War II.
Dixon was so compelled by her mother’s stories she kept asking for more and jotted notes. Her mother said she should write a book. Dixon took this to heart and last July published a fictional account, “Natural Destiny.”
Wilson’s nickname in Guam was “Bernie,” as she is called in the book, and her U.S. nickname was “Cathy.”
Dixon said her mother would tell her a partial story, such as witnessing an execution, but stopped there. In her book Dixon fills in the details.
She said the book took 30 days to write. Once Dixon put down the first chapter the rest flowed out as if it was waiting to be written. She then went through 33 rewrites with her editor.
“I learned a lot about the history of Guam and a lot about my mom,” Dixon said. “My mom is loving and kind and generous. She was accused of being Japanese when she arrived in the U.S. People were prejudiced toward her. She looks very Asian.”
Her mother left Guam six years after the war.
“She had strong role models,” she said. “The book has a lot of life lessons, a lot of faith messages.”
Dixon is still unsure why her mother never shared her experiences.
“She was a good Catholic girl,” Dixon said. “It’s amazing to me she was able to keep it hidden.”
Dixon said her father didn’t even know the stories until he read the book. He was in the U.S. Air Force. They married and moved to the United States.
Dixon said her mother always had a job until she retired. She said another reason she may have kept the memories secret is because they are “horrific.”
Her mother cut her hair short like a boy at age eight because it was in the way when she “ran with the boys.”
When the Japanese military invaded Guam on Dec. 8, 1941, she survived but the rest of her family did not. Her captors thought she was a boy and to make things easier her caretakers kept her hair short.
This meant she had to work in a rice field, which could be seen as a blessing. Other girls were put in the “comfort house,” where girls could be heard being whipped and crying.
“My mother didn’t know what was gong on but she knew it was bad,” Dixon said. “She saw her first execution at age nine.”
In the book her character is forced to watch an execution but learns to “look and not see” as a coping mechanism.
“It became a long time before my mother could trust anyone.”
Dixon said the Japanese began executing people when they realized they would lose the island – the executions assured that there would be no witnesses to the horrific actions.
“It’s a good story for adults, children and humans,” she said. “Out of adversity you can see the good . . . people see that a child can overcome this kind of thing.”
Dixon said the Berkeley County School District has approved the book.
She said she only self-published it because her mother’s dementia was becoming worse and she wanted her to read it as soon as possible instead of waiting 24 months for a traditional publishing company.
In the meantime the Guam governor read the book, which sheds light on a relatively unknown facet of history.
The book eventually got passed to the White House. Dixon received a thank you letter from President Barack Obama on May 2.
“No story of this kind has been written about it,” Dixon said.
Dixon, who works at Boeing and lives on James Island, has done all the marketing for the book by word of mouth. She has spoken at schools and civic organizations such as the Summerville Rotary Club.
Dixon has completed the fourth chapter of a sequel, “Choices,” about her mom’s arrival in the U.S., which she expects to complete by year’s end.
Dixon is looking forward to the upcoming month because on July 21, 1944 Guam was liberated by the United States and Guamanian people everywhere celebrate.
“Guam was a fueling point for the U.S.,” she said. “That’s why the Japanese wanted it. Americans arrived in the nick of time. They care so much about Guamanians, who are so grateful for liberating them.
“It’s a piece of history that can’t be forgotten.”
For more information visit www.sherrysdixon.com.