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Filmmaker: Pacific War Hero Deserved Higher Honor
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Filmmaker: Pacific War Hero Deserved Higher Honor

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Filmmaker: Pacific War Hero Deserved Higher Honor
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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It was during some of the bloodiest days of World War II that a young Marine private from East Los Angeles did something that remains unmatched. He persuaded 800 Japanese soldiers to surrender in one day just by talking to them.

For a while he was known around the world as the Pied Piper of Saipan. A filmmaker is trying to make sure that Marine's act of heroism isn't forgotten, as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES: His name was Guy Gabaldon. And in the years after World War II he was just another regular Joe, living in Southern California, driving a truck, and then one night in 1957 Gabaldon became famous.

(Soundbite of TV show, "This is Your Life")

Unidentified Announcer: This is Your Life - a program for all America. And now here he is, Mr. Ralph Edwards.

GONZALES: Most of the people who had TV sets were watching that night, tuned into the little guy who did something really big.

(Soundbite of TV show, "This is Your Life")

Mr. RALPH EDWARDS (TV show host): Tonight, Guy Gabaldon of Gardena, California, this is your life.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONZALES: Gabaldon's story was perfect for television because it seemed like a drama, only it was real. It happened on the island of Saipan in 1944. Gabaldon, a Mexican American, single-handedly persuaded over 1,000 Japanese soldiers to surrender.

Mr. STEVE RUBIN (Filmmaker): And never in the history of the United States military has one soldier captured so many of the enemy.

GONZALES: That's filmmaker and military historian Steve Rubin. He says Gabaldon's secret weapon was the fact that he spoke Japanese. He learned it as a kid growing up in East Los Angeles surrounded by Japanese Americans or Nisei.

The TV show "This is Your Life" served as their reunion. The first voice you'll hear is Gabaldon's boyhood friend Lyle Nakano.

(Soundbite of TV show, "This is Your Life")

Mr. LYLE NAKANO (Gabaldon's boyhood friend): Guy with his Nisei friends would go up north, pick lettuce, and he learned to speak Japanese that way and was talking to the fellows all the time.

Mr. EDWARDS: Yes.

Mr. NAKANO: And I can say this, he certainly learned his lessons well.

GONZALES: Lyle Nakano's twin brother Lane.

Mr. LANE NAKANO: Guy was always trying to prove that he had a lot of guts. And he had them. For one thing Guy always stood by his friends.

GONZALES: Gabaldon had a perforated ear drum and was rejected by the Army. The Marines didn't want him either until they learned that he spoke basic Japanese. And that's how he wound up on the island of Saipan as a military scout at the age of 18.

(Soundbite of audio)

Mr. GUY GABALDON (World War II hero): My ability to speak Japanese was very limited, but it wasn't difficult to say, (foreign language spoken), raise your hands and come on out.

GONZALES: A few years ago on NPR's TALK OF The NATION, Gabaldon explained how he persuaded so many Japanese soldiers to surrender.

Mr. GABALDON: At night I'd usually go to the caves - Saipan is just full of caves — and I'd get to one side of the mouth of the cave and I'd say, You are completely surrounded. I've got a bunch of Marines here with me behind the trees. If you don't surrender, I'll have to kill you. And usually it worked. Not always. I'd have to throw grenades in and kill. And I'd get maybe 10, 15, 20 at a time and one day I got 800.

GONZALES: There had never been anything like it - 800 surrenders in one day. That's why Gabaldon's commanding officer, John Schwabe, dubbed him the Pied Piper of Saipan.

Mr. JOHN SCHWABE (Gabaldon's commander): In asking him what he was saying to them he would tell them that he would give them water and give them medical attention and if they didn't come out they'd probably get their ass shot off.

(Soundbite of music)

GONZALES: Hollywood eventually latched onto Gabaldon's story, and it turned into a movie called "Hell to Eternity." The film featured incredibly realistic combat scenes, but it took lots of liberties with Gabaldon's personal story. For example, the 5-foot-4-inch Marine was portrayed by the 6-foot-1 actor Jeffrey Hunter.

(Soundbite of movie "Hell to Eternity")

Mr. JEFFREY HUNTER (As Guy Gabaldon): You could say that maybe I'd try to talk them into giving up.

Unidentified Man (Actor): Gabaldon, are you out of your mind? You're looking to get your head blown off.

Mr. RUBIN: The biggest glitch in the movie is that Guy Gabaldon is basically portrayed as a Caucasian living with Japanese Americans.

GONZALES: Filmmaker Steve Rubin.

Mr. RUBIN: And that was completely inaccurate. His Hispanic heritage, his ethnicity, his whole background, was completely obliterated and plays absolutely no reference in the story.

GONZALES: Rubin was just a young kid when he saw the movie, but the story stuck with him. He was intrigued by the American Marine who spoke Japanese. And then years later, through a series of coincidences, Rubin met the man himself.

Mr. RUBIN: The phone rang at my home about 8:30 at night and lo and behold it's Guy Gabaldon calling me. And he was very apologetic. He said I'm sorry to call you so late. And I said, Guy. It's like hearing from Davy Crockett. And I was just blown away that I was on the telephone with one of my childhood heroes.

GONZALES: Gabaldon and Rubin became fast friends and the filmmaker soon decided to make a documentary about Guy's life. Now the film is out. It's called "East L.A. Marine," and Rubin uses it to ask a basic question: why was Gabaldon passed over for the Medal of Honor, even after his commander recommended him for it.

Mr. RUBIN: Many people are recommended for Congressional Medals of Honor because of the number of enemy they kill. Guy, in a different way, saved thousands of Marines' lives by capturing an enemy that refused to be captured. And it's true in the Pacific war, very few Japanese were ever captured. For Guy to capture almost 1,500 Japanese is unthinkable.

GONZALES: While Gabaldon died in two years ago at the age of 80, Rubin argues it's still not too late to recognize him with the nation's highest military honor. But regardless of what happens, the filmmaker takes satisfaction knowing this: Gabaldon's story won't just fade away like so many old soldiers already have.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: One of the things you'll find in the new documentary "East L.A. Marine" is Guy Gabaldon sharing lots of memories about how he captured so many enemy troops. Here's one.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GABALDON: I took off on my own and went into Japanese territory, and I came back with a couple of prisoners. And my commanding officer, Colonel John Schwabe - he was a captain then - Captain John Schwabe, one hell of a nice guy - he says, don't you ever do that again. He says, This is the Marine Corps and there'll be teamwork here. You're not a prima donna. You're not going to work on your own. I said, Yes, sir. Very good, sir. And that night I filled my pockets with ammunition and I went back into Japanese territory.

MONTAGNE: You can watch video clips from the documentary "East L.A. Marine" and also the feature film "Hell to Eternity" at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

From NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION.

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