Seeing the images of Marines holding babies and young children in the evacuation of Kabul brings to mind another Marine, Guy Gabaldon, who saved 1,500 Japanese during the intense World War II fighting in the South Pacific. 

Guy Gabaldon was a Marine Japanese interpreter who fought on both Saipan and Tinian. He was credited with saving the lives of more than 1,500 Japanese, both military and civilian, on the islands by going out alone and urging them to surrender. 

Known as the “Pied Piper of Saipan” Gabaldon was recommended for the Medal of Honor but the award was downgraded to the Silver Star. In 1960, it was finally upgraded to the Navy Cross.

 

A Life on the Ghetto and Japanese Influences

Guy Gabaldon was born in Los Angeles, California on March 22, 1926, to a family of Mexican descent, and was one of seven children. Growing up in the slums of East Los Angeles he helped his family out during the Depression by shining shoes on Skid Row as a child.

However, by the age of 12, he had moved out of his home and became a self-described waif on the ghetto streets before being taken in by the Nakano family, who were of Japanese heritage. The family and Gabaldon clicked and he considered them his extended family. He attended language school every day with their children and learned to speak Japanese. He also learned about their customs and culture. This knowledge would come in handy during the war. 

Shortly after Pearl Harbor, the Nakano family was sent to the Heart Mountain relocation camp, the Japanese-American Internment camp in Wyoming. One of his adopted brothers, Lane Nakano, enlisted in the Army and served in the famous 442nd Infantry Regiment. (After the war, Nakano starred in the war film Go For Broke, about the 442nd.)

Because he was just turning 16, Guy Gabaldon traveled to Alaska to work in a cannery. Finally, on his 17th birthday, he enlisted in the Marines.

 

The Invasion of Saipan

Battle of Saipan
Marine LVTs during the Battle of Saipan. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Gabaldon went through his basic training at Camp Pendleton, California. Because of his ability to speak Japanese, he was sent to and completed the Enlisted Marine Japanese Language School at Camp Elliot in San Diego. He was then assigned to Headquarters and Service Company, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, as a scout and observer.

The U.S. had been island hopping in the Pacific, cutting off Japan’s supply of oil and natural resources while edging closer to the Japanese homeland. Saipan and Tinian in the Mariana Islands were strategically important. Their control would allow American B-29 Superfortesses to bomb the Japanese islands.

The U.S. Navy began the bombardment of Saipan on June 13, 1944, and the invasion began at 0700 hrs on June 15. Three hundred LVTs brought ashore over 8,000 Marines by 0900. A day later the Army’s 27th Infantry Division landed and began advancing on the As Ito airfield. 

By early July, the U.S. forces had pushed Japanese forces into a pocket with nowhere else to retreat. The Japanese commander, General Saito, organized a final banzai charge on July 7.

Saito said, “There is no longer any distinction between civilians and troops. It would be better for them to join in the attack with bamboo spears than be captured.”

At dawn on July 7, the Japanese, with 12 men carrying a great red flag in the lead, conducted the largest banzai attack during the Pacific campaign with 4,000 troops. After the pitched 15-hour battle, the casualties on both sides were enormous.

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On July 8, Marines cautiously approached the sea cliffs on the north side of the island. There, they were met with an unbelievable surprise. Down below on the flats of the cliffs, they saw a lone Marine (Guy Gabaldon) sitting with hundreds of armed Japanese surrounding him. But rather than killing this lone American, the Japanese watched incredulously as the Marine organized the Japanese into groups of POWs, as more Japanese were streaming up from the caves.

 

Guy Gabaldon, the Lone Wolf of Saipan

Gabaldon was already well-known for his lone-wolf trips alone beyond the lines in seeking out Japanese prisoners. 

“The first night I was on Saipan, I went out on my own… I always worked on my own, and brought back two prisoners using my backstreet Japanese.”

His commander threatened him with a court-martial if he did so again, but the next night Gabaldon went right back out and sure enough, he returned with 50 more Japanese prisoners. After that, he was permitted to go out on his own. 

Guy Gabaldon Japanese
Gabaldon (right) with Japanese civilians he got to surrender on Saipan. (USMC)

On that fateful morning, he stayed in a hidden position and listened to hundreds of Japanese soldiers and civilians prepare for a final banzai charge. After capturing two soldiers, he used them to persuade more Japanese to surrender.

In a 1998 interview in Los Angeles with the War Times Journal, Gabaldon recalled, “I talked with them at length trying to convince them that to continue fighting would amount to sure death for them. I told them that if they continued fighting, our flamethrowers would roast them alive.”

He persuaded one of the soldiers to return to the caves below and try to convince the Japanese to surrender. He assured them that they would be treated with respect if they did so.

Next came 12 armed soldiers. There was a tense silence as each side didn’t know how to proceed. Gabaldon invited the soldiers to sit and offered them cigarettes and K-rations. A Japanese lieutenant asks him if the Americans had proper medical facilities as they have many wounded. He assured him that they had. 

Leaving four soldiers with Gabaldon, the lieutenant went back with the eight other troops. Soon after a steady stream of Japanese begin to pour into the area. Gabaldon was in near panic as he was alone and the Japanese are expecting food and medical care. Just then, a Japanese soldier told him, “Marine-san, look at the American soldiers!”

Up above, the group of incredulous Marines looked upon the scene below them. They rushed down to help Guy Gabaldon secure the prisoners.

That morning alone, Gabaldon, who then became known as “The Pied Piper of Saipan,” captured 800 Japanese.

However, many Marine veterans of the earlier campaigns didn’t believe the story and openly questioned Gabaldon’s version of the events. Yet, his own company commander Captain John Schwabe recommended him for the Medal of Honor, stating that the tough slum kid from East LA had captured 10 times the amount of POWs than Alvin C. York had in WWI. 

He repeated his feat during the invasion of Tinian. Eventually, he was credited with capturing more than 1,500 Japanese troops and civilians.

 

Post-Military Life and Fame

Guy Gabaldon Latin-American WWII troops
Gabaldon at a Pentagon ceremony honoring Latin-American troops from WWII. (U.S. Army)

In 1957, he appeared as an invited guest of This Is Your Life, a popular television program aired by NBC in the 1950s. Hosted by Ralph Edwards, the show highlighted some of the extraordinary lives of both celebrities and ordinary Americans. 

Hollywood soon came calling and made a film on his story. However, they whitewashed his Mexican heritage and had actor Jeffrey Hunter portray him on the screen. He unsuccessfully ran for Congress as a Republican in California in 1964. 

He later penned and self-published the book Saipan – Suicide Island. 

Guy Gabaldon was honored by the Pentagon in September 2004, in a ceremony that recognized the contributions of Hispanic American World War II veterans. Many veterans groups lobbied to get his Navy Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor, but those efforts have thus far failed. 

He died on August 31, 2006, in Old Town, Florida, and was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. 

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