Filmmaker: Pacific War Hero Deserved Higher Honor In 1944, a U.S. Marine single-handedly captured more than 1,000 Japanese soldiers on a Pacific island. Guy Gabaldon's secret weapon? The diminutive Mexican American spoke Japanese. Two years after his death, a film questions why he didn't get a Medal of Honor.
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Filmmaker: Pacific War Hero Deserved Higher Honor

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Filmmaker: Pacific War Hero Deserved Higher Honor

Filmmaker: Pacific War Hero Deserved Higher Honor

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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.


U: 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.


MONTAGNE: Tonight, Guy Gabaldon of Gardena, California, this is your life.


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.

MONTAGNE: And never in the history of the United States military has one soldier captured so many of the enemy.

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


MONTAGNE: 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.


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

GONZALES: Lyle Nakano's twin brother Lane.

MONTAGNE: 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.


MONTAGNE: 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.

MONTAGNE: 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.

MONTAGNE: 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.


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.


MONTAGNE: You could say that maybe I'd try to talk them into giving up.

U: Gabaldon, are you out of your mind? You're looking to get your head blown off.

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

GONZALES: Filmmaker Steve Rubin.

MONTAGNE: 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.

MONTAGNE: 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.

MONTAGNE: 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: 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.


MONTAGNE: 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.



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