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War & Locale: World War II -- Pacific Theater
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By Ruchika Joshi
Guy Gabaldon said he stopped counting how many people he was taking prisoner in Saipan during World War II. But in a 1957 episode of the television program, "This Is Your Life," his fellow Marines credited him with single-handedly capturing more than 1,500 Japanese soldiers and civilians.
He was hero at 18. In 1960, a movie was made of his life, called "Hell to Eternity." But the role of Gabaldon was changed from being a short Mexican American from East Los Angeles to the tall, blue-eyed Jeffrey Hunter.
"But Jeffery was jealous that he didn't have my good looks - hijole!" Gabaldon later wrote to the Project.
Gabaldon was honored in Washington, D.C., by an organization called Heroes and Heritage, devoted to recognizing Latinos in the U.S. military, for his WWII exploits in Saipan.
Gabaldon has enjoyed a hero's welcome many times before, getting the keys to the cities from many cities, including Osaka, Japan. He has made hundreds of speeches to students and veterans groups. The honors cap a lifetime of remarkable adventure for this East Los Angeles native. And little in his childhood and youth would have foretold that his wild ways would eventually pay off.
Born in 1926, Gabaldon was raised in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood of East Los Angeles. The fourth of seven children, he recalls a happy childhood.
"They say we were poor," he said last summer in an interview. "I didn't know that - we always had beans and tortillas."
His father worked as a welder and a machinist for the Pacific Freight Express at the time and his mother stayed home looking after the children.
His life of adventure began when he was only 10 years old. Shining shoes on the mean streets of downtown L.A., Gabaldon made almost $1 a day - which was considered a lot back then. He shined shoes from Skid Row, to Main Street to Broadway and Hill. His parents were only vaguely aware of what he was doing during the day.
"It was a different era and I don't think parents were worried so much about a 10-year-old kid going out and maybe staying out all night," he said.
It was almost natural then that Gabaldon was taken under the protective wing of local policemen. Usually he would be asked by them to keep a watchful eye on rough characters doing the rounds on Skid Row. Never once was he mistreated by the cops at that age.
"Sometimes they would buy me an ice cream or give me a candy or something," he said.
He was a carefree 10-year-old with unlimited access to the world. There were times when he'd walk in to the bars on Main Street, run errands for bar girls and make a nickel or so. Once in a while, if he was lucky, he would even be able to grab a beer. The bottom line was that he was street smart and this instinct would hold him in good stead during World War II.
A Japanese foster family
Growing up in a tiny house, Gabaldon spent much of his time on the streets. Boyle Heights' diverse population, which included Jews, Russians, Armenians, Chicanos and Mexicans, was harmonious. He was 12 when he met two Japanese American brothers: Lyle and Lane Nakano. All three of them were around the same age and went to the same school. Gabaldon was drawn to the Nakano boys because they excelled in school work, were honest and never got into trouble with the law. Fascinated by their traditions and customs, he began spending a lot of time at their home and eventually moved in with them. He was a surrogate son for the Nakanos - in a manner of speaking - and Gabaldon's parents didn't object to this.
"Perhaps they thought it was good for me," he said.
Staying with the Nakanos was the turning point in his life. He learned to speak Japanese from the first-generation parents. This would be a powerful weapon during the war.
It was around this time that he started getting into trouble. The tough crowd in Boyle Heights distracted him from his Japanese foster brothers and he began to indulge in nefarious activities: he and his buddies sneaked cigarettes, went "joyriding" in cars "borrowed without permission," Gabaldon wrote to the Project, and generally were mischievous. Things started getting out of hand and one day Gabaldon was caught by the cops and sent to juvenile detention for two weeks. His mother went to court and pleaded with the judge to release him with the assurance that she would send him to New Mexico with relatives.
New Mexico with grandfather
Gabaldon's 80-year-old paternal grandfather lived alone in the cold country up in New Mexico, between Gallup and Grants. He was a tough old man who used to run a bar in a place called Tinaja, between Grants and Gallup, near Enscription Rock. Nearly blind, he owned a cantina. He gave Gabaldon a little Palomino mare and a .22 shotgun and a .44 that he kept close to his bed. Gabaldon found the gun-keeping strange but soon found out why it was necessary. It was around 2 a.m. when young Guy heard noises in the bar. He walked up to the door and, through the crack, he saw his grandfather dealing cards with a bunch of tough rancheros.
"It was like something out of a John Wayne western - you could smell the spittoons and the chewing tobacco!" he said, marveling at the scene.
Grandfather Gabaldon had some pretty rough characters coming in at odd hours - no wonder he'd make sure that the shotgun was loaded.
In the meanwhile, his uncle, Sam, who was a postmaster at San Rafael, would drive with young Gabaldon to Grants every morning to pick up the mailbags. Often he'd be allowed to drive and, before he was 13, he got his driver's license.
After spending a few months in New Mexico, Gabaldon was back in Boyle Heights with the Nakanos. He stayed with them for almost seven years until the U.S. entered the war in 1941 and the Japanese family was sent to an internment camp.
Joining the Marine Corps
Lyle and Lane Nakano enlisted in the Army and served in the 442d Regimental Combat Team, a regiment of U.S.-born Japanese, and were sent to the European front.
Gabaldon tried to enlist also, but, at 16, he was underage.
He later joined the Marine Corps. Boot camp qualified him to be a scout observer. After rigorous amphibious training, a year later, he was made Marine Private in the 2d Marine Division in the Saipan-Tinan Operation in the South Pacific. The date was June 15, 1944, and he was 18 years old.
Early in July 1944, Gabaldon conducted what would become his most famous exploit. According to a 1990 article by James Burbeck for the War Times Journal, Gabaldon went off on his own, on an "evening patrol." He had done this in the past, to convince Japanese soldiers to surrender. This time, as the day dawned, he realized that enemy troops were gathering around him (for what would prove to be one of the largest suicide charges of the war.) The next day, after the end of "banzai charge," he was cut off from retreat. Gabaldon captured two Japanese guards and persuaded them to return to the caves below, where other soldiers and civilians were camped, Burbeck explained in his article.
"I used to wonder at times, 'Who's the prisoner?'" Gabaldon told the Project. "I was in among hundreds of Japanese [who] are my prisoners-they would have made Chicano-meat out of me," he said. "I'd have killed two or three and that would have been the end of it."
As Gabaldon explained to Burbeck, he worked to convince the Japanese with his "street Japanese" and confident air that if they surrendered they would avoid torture and death and receive medical attention and food rations. Soon a Japanese officer and some of his men were the first of many to surrender to Gabaldon en masse. Other Japanese-many women and children-jumped off nearby cliffs, in order to avoid the torture they had been warned by Japanese officers that they would await at the hands of the Americans.
Gabaldon had conducted other similar missions on his own-without permission from his superiors-but this was his greatest success. He has been credited by comrades with capturing 800 Japanese on that one day, though he said the Hollywood version took artistic liberties. Some consider the tales of "the Pied Piper of Saipan" just a tall tale, according the Burbeck's article, but his comrades confirm his exploits.
Later, Gabaldon was wounded on Saipan and shipped to a naval hospital in Hawaii. When he arrived, before he boarded the hospital ship, he saw his brother Art's ship, the PY23. After an emotional reunion, Gabaldon boarded the ship back to California and his brother shipped out again.
"I won't be able to see him for a year and a half," he thought. "I'm going home and he'd been overseas three years and still stuck on to this ship."
After he reached the U.S. mainland, he went out to celebrate and then stayed with relatives. He was surprised when he received a call from Art-he had been able to return home as well.
"So I arrived one day before he did," Gabaldon said.
After leaving the Marine Corps, Gabaldon left for Alaska and then Latin America. At the time, he was married to Dunkya Tsikunoff, a Russian girl who was a former schoolmate. He later married Ohana Suzuki.
Gabaldon was awarded the Silver Star Medal for his efforts during World War II. In 1961, he was awarded the Navy Cross.
In an interview with National Public Radio in September 2006, Col. John L. Schwabe, Gabaldon's commanding officer on Saipan, said Gabaldon's efforts were voluntary.
"I recommended him for a Congressional Medal of Honor," he said. "I thought it was just an unbelievable feat, for a kid like that to do something like that."
Gabaldon did not, however, receive the distinction.
"Of course it was because I am a Chicano-no other reason," Gabaldon said.
While others have campaigned on his behalf for the Medal of Honor, Gabaldon is more concerned with why he was originally nominated for a Medal of Honor, received a Silver Star Medal, and then a Navy Cross. He said it indicates that officials did not bestow the honor warranted at the beginning.
However, he said at this point he doesn't want to receive the medal, since he did not give his life during his service.
"I don't deserve the Medal of Honor-I enjoyed what I was doing," he said. "Medals of [Honor] should be awarded posthumously."
During his time in the war, he held the medal in high regard as well.
"There was a time where [in] Saipan, where I wanted the Medal of Honor posthumously," he said. "Yeah, it sounds crazy, but I wanted to die for it."
He wanted to prove the mettle of Chicanos: "I'll give my life and show you," he said.
Jenny Achilles contributed to this article.