'The Pied Piper of Saipan' Captured Hundreds of Enemy Troops at Age 18

Japanese prisoners after their surrender on Saipan in 1944. (National Archives)

The Army might teach its soldiers the most useful skills for fighting on the battlefield, but it can't possibly teach every such skill. During Guy Gabaldon's service in the Pacific Theater of World War II, the skill that came in most handy was his fluency in the Japanese language.

Gabaldon was born in East Los Angeles, California, to Mexican-American parents. As the fourth of seven children, he didn't spend a lot of time at home. He spent much of his youth shining shoes, running errands and staking out shady characters for the Los Angeles Police Department. It earned him enough money to run around downtown Los Angeles until all hours of the night.

"My childhood in the slums had much to do with my attitude in battle," he said in a 1998 interview. "I was a 10-year-old lad living as a waif in the ghettos of Los Angeles, shining shoes on Skid Row. Fighting in the Pacific tropical jungles and living in the East Los Angeles ghettos had a lot in common -- you had to be one step ahead of the enemy or adios, mother!"

One day, he met Lane and Lyle Nakano, a couple of Japanese-American teens around his age. Young Guy was immediately drawn to Lane and Lyle because they worked hard, got good grades and were never in trouble. He was so drawn to the twins, in fact, that he would leave his family to live with theirs.

Living with the Nakanos for seven years gave Gabaldon an affinity for Japanese culture. In the three years before World War II came to the U.S., he learned a lot about Japan, its customs and its culture. He even picked up the language.

The Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. The Nakano family would soon be interred with thousands of other Japanese-Americans. Lane and Lyle joined the Army's 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and teenage Guy would be forced to find his own way. In March 1943, Gabaldon turned 17 and joined the Marine Corps.

In little more than a year, he trained as an infantry scout and for amphibious landings. By June 1944, Gabaldon was a private in the Pacific, headed for an amphibious assault on the island of Saipan.

Guy Gabaldon in the Pacific Theater of World War II. (Department of Defense)

The United States envisioned Saipan as a staging area for submarines and for the new B-29 Superfortress bomber to strike targets on the Japanese mainlaind, effectivley cutting off the home islands from the rest of occupied Japanese territory. The Americans landed amid accurate artillery fire, but the Japanese were taken by surprise. Although U.S. troops took heavy casualties in the landings, they advanced quickly.

Fighting on Saipan would last 24 days, in spite of attempted Japanese counterattacks on the island and in the resulting Battle of the Philippine Sea, in which the Japanese Navy lost three aircraft carriers. Isolated and expecting no resupply, the Japanese defenders fought desperately and suicidally against the Americans.

On July 7, they launched the largest Banzai charge of the war, as 4,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians temporarily overran both the U.S. Army and Marine Corps lines. The charge lasted more than 15 hours and raised the casualty count above the 30,000 mark.

The night of the massive Banzai charge, Gabaldon wandered out of camp and off on his own, something he called an "evening patrol." It was a dangerous act, one for which he'd nearly been court-martialed in the past. This time, his patrol would be very different.

As he walked, he could hear enemy soldiers walking in the jungles around him. He realized they were preparing for an assault, but he was already cut off from the rest of the Allied forces. Gabaldon found himself behind the lines when the massive banzai charge came. Fifteen hours later, he was still there, but he wasn't alone: He had captured two enemy soldiers.

Guy Gabaldon speaking at Pentagon ceremony honoring Hispanic World War II veterans, September 2004. (Department of Defense)

"I never ceased to be amazed at the stupid carelessness of the Japanese," Gabaldon said. "Time after time, whenever I got the drop on them, they had left themselves completely exposed. The first time it happened, I suspected a trap, but later I realized that they were just plain 'baka' [stupid]."

Gabaldon was able to convince his Japanese prisoners to go into the caves, where their compatriots were hiding, and help talk them into surrender. If the hundreds of troops below didn't go for it, they were all likely going to die.

"It was in the morning of 8 July that I took two prisoners on top of the Banzai Cliffs," 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 flame throwers would roast them alive."

In a 1990 article by James Burbeck, Gabaldon said it was his dialect of "street Japanese" that helped convince the enemy troops they would be treated with respect and would avoid torture or death at the hands of the Americans. An hour after sending his two prisoners into the caves on Saipan, the Japanese slowly emerged.

On Saipan, Gabaldon convinced at least 800 Japanese soldiers -- some sources cite as many as 1,500; his Navy Cross citation lists 1,000 -- to give themselves up, rather than fight to the death or commit suicide. He ensured they gave up in an orderly way and that they received food and medical care from Allied forces.

After the surrender on Saipan, Gabaldon was wounded in a machine gun ambush and was sent back to Hawaii. His commanding officer recommended him for the Medal of Honor for the mass surrender, but the Navy instead awarded him a Silver Star. In 1960, Gabaldon's award was upgraded to a Navy Cross.

In 1998, a number of fellow veterans pushed hard for an upgrade to his Navy Cross, but nothing came of it.

"Hell to Eternity," a movie about Gabaldon's life and service, premiered in theaters in 1960, with the Mexican American Gabaldon portrayed by Scottish American actor Jeffrey Hunter.

Gabaldon died of heart disease in 2006.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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