Vicente T. “Ben” Blaz, who survived a Japanese prison camp during World War II and later became a Marine Corps brigadier general and Guam’s representative in Congress, died Jan. 8 at Inova Fair Oaks Hospital in Fairfax County. He was 85.
The cause was acute respiratory failure, his son Tom Blaz said.
Gen. Blaz was 13 when he was captured by Japanese forces who overran the U.S. territory of Guam on Dec. 8, 1941, one day after the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He was one of many native Chamorros, as natives of Guam are often called, held in a detention camp and pressed into forced labor, building airfields for the Japanese.
He was later held in a Japanese prison camp, where he saw fellow inmates beheaded.
“As a boy, I stood behind barbed wire,” he told The Washington Post in 1977. “There was a pervasive sense of personal insecurity. That probably is more damaging to your feeling of well-being than hunger.”
In 1944, he was freed when U.S. Marines reclaimed Guam from the Japanese. He asked a young Marine how he could go to the United States.
“The first thing you have to do is learn to speak English,” he recalled the Marine saying. Gen. Blaz spoke primarily the local Chamorro language at the time. “He taught me a few words and told me, of all things, to listen to the radio, and talk as they do.”
After graduating in 1951 from the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana, Gen. Blaz joined the Marine Corps. He served during the Korean War and was an artillery officer in the Vietnam War, where he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal.
He held several jobs with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and once served under Lemuel C. Shepherd Jr., a Marine general who led the U.S. forces that recaptured Guam in 1944.
When he was promoted to brigadier general in 1977, Gen. Blaz became the first person from Guam and the first non-white Marine to reach the rank of general. At the time, he was director of information for the Marine Corps, in charge of rebuilding the image of the Marines after the Vietnam War.
After retiring from the military in 1980, Gen. Blaz returned to Guam to farm and to teach. He made an unsuccessful bid as a Republican for Guam’s non-voting congressional seat in 1982. Two years later he won a closely contested election, defeating Antonio B. Won Pat, who had served as Guam’s delegate since 1973, when the territory first received representation in Congress.
Gen. Blaz, who was a member of the Armed Forces and Foreign Affairs committees, was the only retired general serving in Congress at the time. He had few legislative victories in his limited role in Congress, but he was instrumental in reorganizing the judicial system on Guam and was a strong advocate for improved educational benefits for veterans.
Gen. Blaz served four terms before losing a reelection bid in 1992 to Robert A. Underwood.
Vicente Tomas Blaz Garrido was born Feb. 14, 1928, in what is now Hagatna, the capital of Guam, and grew up in a farming community. Guam, which is about 30 miles long, has a population of about 140,000 and is the southernmost island in the Marianas chain. It became a U.S. territory after the Spanish-American War in 1898.
In 1947, Gen. Blaz received a scholarship to attend Notre Dame. After a 22-day boat trip, he arrived in San Francisco and told a cabdriver to take him to Notre Dame. He was dropped off at a Catholic girls’ school with a similar name, where he presented his papers to the nuns. They put him on a train to Indiana.
While serving in the Marine Corps, he received a master’s degree in public administration from George Washington University in 1963. He had a home in Fairfax County since 1969 and was a member of St. Mary of Sorrows Catholic Church in Fairfax.
His wife of 58 years, Ann Evers Blaz, died in May 2013. Survivors include two sons, Tom Blaz of Fairfax and Mike Blaz of Fairfax Station; two brothers; a sister; and five grandchildren.
After Congress, Gen. Blaz wrote a memoir and books about Guam and also made a series of historical and cultural television documentaries about his native island.
In Congress and later in life, Gen. Blaz became known for a rueful description of the people of Guam, U.S. citizens who serve in disproportionate numbers in the military but do not have full representation in Congress: “Equal in war, unequal in peace.”