Guy Gabaldon, from East Los Angeles Kid to Pied Piper of Saipan:

Guy Gabaldon grew up so poor he didn’t know his family was in poverty. Living on the streets of East Los Angeles in the rough Boyle Heights neighborhood, Guy Gabaldon learned to live by his wits. He was shining shoes on skid row by age ten, making up to a dollar a day to help his parents with their seven children. He belonged to a street gang where he always took on the biggest kid. Once when he had his nose broken in a fight, he went to the hospital to get it fixed, the night he got out of the hospital he got into another fight and got it broken again.

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Marine Private Guy Gabaldon

When Gabaldon was 12, he met twins Lane and Lyle Nakano, children of Japanese immigrants. Guy became fascinated by Japanese culture, especially by their discipline, hard work and honesty. The Nakano family took Guy in to live at their house, he went to Japanese school with their kids and became one of the family. Little did Guy know that this serendipitous relationship would lead him to one of the greatest feats of World War Two heroism as a Marine on the island of Saipan.

After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Guy Gabaldon’s adopted family, the Nakano’s were deported from their homes in Los Angeles and sent to the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp in Wyoming. Gabaldon went to Alaska where he worked in a cannery, counting the days until his seventeenth birthday when he could join the military. Gabaldon’s brothers were in the Navy, one having served on the USS Lexington when it was torpedoed. While working at the cannery, Guy Gabaldon dreamed of his military service: he would join the Navy, go through training then join the submarine service where he would see the most dangerous action.

What Guy Gabaldon did not know was that his perforated eardrums and small stature of 5 feet 3 inches disqualified him from the Navy. When the Navy doctor gave Gabaldon what he thought was good news by being rejected, Gabaldon could not believe the Navy would turn down the “fightingist little Chicano from East LA”. Undaunted, Gabaldon remembered a Marine Corps ad looking for Japanese speakers. Although his Japanese was limited, he lied and said he could “read, write and speak Japanese like a native”; hedging on a bet that even his limited Japanese was better than any Marine recruiter’s.

Because of the need for interpreters Gabaldon’s size and perforated eardrums were overlooked and he was sworn into the US Marine Corps. He was eventually assigned as a scout to Headquarters and Service Company, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division.

In combat on Saipan, the now 18 year old Gabaldon got a chance to make his difference in the war. Though Gabaldon had barely qualified as a marksman, he quickly became one of the top killers of the enemy in his company. Fighting in the jungle was close and fast, if you took time to aim it would be too late. Gabaldon got right in with the Japanese, firing from the hip since he was too close to miss. The men fighting against Gabaldon were tough veterans of Manchuria, men who had seen combat and were recently transferred from China to the Pacific.

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Guy Gabaldon (left) during training

Gabaldon began taking unauthorized walks from his post to scout out the enemy lines. With his knowledge of the language he decided to try to talk some Japanese soldiers into surrendering. Gabaldon’s method was to approach a Japanese cave, shoot the guard, and yell to the Japanese inside that they were surrounded. Gabaldon would tell them he did not want to kill them and that they would be treated well as prisoners if they surrendered. If men rushed out with weapons, he would shoot, if they came out slowly he would take them prisoner. Gabaldon was able to capture 7 Japanese soldiers on his first trip but after he returned to his lines, instead of praising him, his commanding officer reprimanded him for leaving his lines and ordered him not to do it again. Disobeying his orders, Gabaldon made another trip the next day and came back with 50 prisoners. Seeing his success, his commanding officers gave Gabaldon authority to come and go as he pleased.

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Guy Gabaldon with some Japanese civilians he talked into surrendering

Using what he called “backstreet Japanese” Gabaldon appealed to the Japanese soldiers convincing them that surrender was honorable and that killing civilians went against the Bushido code. One of the biggest challenges he faced was convincing Japanese soldiers that they would be treated well and not tortured and murdered after being taken prisoner.

On Saipan, Gabaldon also encountered the Japanese civilian population. Urged by the Japanese military to commit suicide rather than surrender, Gabaldon witnessed the horror of them killing themselves because they were convinced the Americans would rape and murder them. When Gabaldon saw women and men flinging themselves off the cliffs he yelled at them in Japanese to stop, but they were too afraid and desperate to listen. He heard the cries of children begging their parents not to kill them, only to see the children tossed down onto the rocks below.

On July 7, 1944 with their backs to the wall, the Japanese launched the largest Banzai charge of the war. From dawn till the end of the day, thousands of Japanese charged the American lines. When the day was over, the Americans counted 4,311 bodies of Japanese soldiers.

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Japanese prisoners taken by Guy Gabaldon

On the morning of June 8, 1944, Gabaldon captured two Japanese prisoners on the Banzai cliffs where soldiers and civilians had leaped to their deaths. It took a long time to convince the Japanese that they could surrender honorably and would not be killed as prisoners. Gabaldon convinced one soldier to return to a cave at the bottom of the cliffs to try to get other Japanese soldiers to surrender. The other soldier stayed with Gabaldon because he was afraid if he went and his fellow soldiers did not agree with him, they would kill him. Gabaldon understood the man’s feelings.

As Gabaldon watched the other soldier disappear, he began to worry if the soldier went to talk his men into surrendering or into coming back to kill him. Gabaldon began to think about who was the real prisoner. He knew there were hundreds of Japanese below him and he could only take two or three out before they killed him. The other soldier returned with twelve armed men and for the first time Gabaldon began to wonder if he was too young to demonstrate the kind of authority he needed to show. The Japanese could see he was alone, Gabaldon knew he could not try his ruse of telling the Japanese they were surrounded and to drop their weapons. Gabaldon thought the only thing that could save him was to use his head. He figured if the Japanese wanted to kill him, they would be pointing their rifles at him.

When the men approached him, Gabaldon asked them to sit down, to show them he was in control. Gabaldon offered them cigarettes and told them: “I am here to bring you a message from General Holland ‘Mad’ Smith, the Shogun in charge of the Marianas Operation. General Smith admires your valor and has ordered our troops to offer a safe haven to all the survivors of your intrepid attack yesterday. Such a glorious and courageous military action will go down in history. The General assures you that you will be taken to Hawaii where you will be kept together in comfortable quarters until the end of the war. The General’s word is honorable. It is his desire that there be no more useless bloodshed.”

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Gabaldon recovering from wounds

The Japanese muttered amongst themselves and Gabaldon told them of the American Navy’s firepower lying offshore ready to kill them. Gabaldon was still not sure if the Japanese would take his offer or kill him, but the fact that they came to talk was a good sign. Gabaldon reassured himself with the thought that if they wanted to kill him they would have done so by now.

The Japanese officer, a Lieutenant, took a cigarette. He asked Gabaldon if the Americans had a well-equipped hospital. Gabaldon answered yes, and that they will get food and medical care. The Lieutenant took a puff on his cigarette and looked at the American ships. Gabaldon could tell he didn’t want to die, otherwise he would have killed himself in the Banzai attack the day before. After thinking it over, the officer told Gabaldon he would become his prisoner.

Gabaldon could not believe what he pulled off. The Lieutenant left four of his men and went back to the caves to talk to the rest of the people there. Gabaldon sat down and talked with the Japanese soldiers about home and family. Gabaldon told them of being raised by Japanese in California and of his love for his foster family. He told them his belief that ordinary soldiers like them just followed orders and had nothing to do with starting wars. The Japanese soldiers agreed.

An hour later, the Japanese officer returned with 50 men. Gabaldon was scared; it was the first time in the war he did not have the drop on the enemy. The men looked proud and undefeated, like they were not convinced about surrendering. They sat in front of Gabaldon to hear what he had to say. The Japanese asked for food, water and medicine right away to treat their wounded. Gabaldon could only promise them that they would get it all when he made contact with his troops. The Japanese told him there were hundreds of people below, including civilians who needed help urgently. The Japanese below started leaving their caves and came towards Gabaldon. There were hundreds of them, more than Gabaldon could count. The Japanese were getting nervous and Gabaldon knew if he couldn’t convince them of his ability to help them fast, they would kill him and return to their caves.

One of the Japanese pointed and told Gabaldon there were Marines on the cliffs. Gabaldon had a Japanese soldier waive his skivvies on a stick. The Marines saw it and got in their jeep. Soon hundreds of Marines were heading their way to help Gabaldon as he separated the soldiers from the civilians and tried to form some kind of order from the chaos. By the end of July 8, Guy Gabaldon, an 18 year old Marine private had attained the surrender of over 800 people.

Guy Gabaldon continued taking prisoners and saving civilians on Saipan and later on Tinian. After the Tinian operation he returned to Saipan where he was wounded by machine gun fire during the mopping up of Japanese guerrilla resistance. Guy Gabaldon is credited with single handedly capturing over 1,500 enemy soldiers and civilians and was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but in what is thought to be prejudice on the part of the Marine Corps was only awarded a Silver Star.

In 1957, Gabaldon appeared on the popular TV show This is Your Life and Hollywood made a movie about his exploits called Hell to Eternity. With popular interest in Gabaldon growing, the US Marine Corps elevated his award to a Navy Cross. In 1998 a campaign to get Gabaldon a Medal of Honor was started but never succeeded. Guy Gabaldon died in 2006.

For More About Guy Gabaldon See:

Hell to Eternity

PBS War Letters , East L.A. Marine : The Guy Gabaldon Story

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