Sunday, June 6, 2004

Guy Gabaldon, seated in center, poses for a photo with actor Jeffrey Hunter, left, who portrayed him in the 1960 movie "Hell to Eternity," with Vick Damone and David Janssen.

‘Pied Piper’ returning
to Saipan

The Chicano recipient of the
Navy Cross will revisit the site
of a historic WWII battle

Some say "The Pied Piper of Saipan" never got the proper credit for single-handedly capturing 1,500 Japanese prisoners in World War II.

But Guy Gabaldon shows no bitterness.

"Life has just been a beautiful experience," says a man who has piloted his own plane throughout the South Pacific, skippered longline fishing vessel and worked, as he put it, as "a spy in Mexico."

He corralled more than 800 prisoners on July 8, 1944. Gabaldon was only an 18-year-old Marine Corps private first class who had learned the language while growing up with a Japanese family in East Los Angeles.

"The first night I was on Saipan, I went out on my own," said Gabaldon, who now lives in Old Town, Fla. "I always worked on my own, and brought back two prisoners using my backstreet Japanese.

"My officers scolded me and threatened me with a court-martial for leaving my other duties, but I went out the next night and came back with 50 prisoners. After that I was given a free rein."

His pitch simply was that the Japanese would be treated humanely.

This week Gabaldon will return to Saipan, a 46 square mile island the size of San Francisco, to participate in 60th anniversary of the World War II battles for Saipan and Tinian. He will discuss his battlefield experience on June 14. Also attending the formal commemoration ceremony on June 15 will be retired Gen. Paul Tibbets, who on Aug. 6, 1945, took off from Tinian in the cockpit of the B-52 bomber Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The Arizona Memorial Museum Association is a major sponsor of the commemoration.

Many World War II veterans, like Jerry Barnett, who lives part-time in Waikiki, also plan to attend the commemoration ceremonies. Barnett, 77, made his first parachute jump after attending basic training on Sept. 2, 1945, the day the surrender documents were signed by the Japanese on the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

"It's the sense of history," said Barnett, who also spends time working as a volunteer at the USS Arizona Memorial and the National Cemetery of the Pacific. "I like to see where these battles occurred, not to glorify them, but to pay my respects.

"I didn't take part in those battles," said Barnett who served with the Army's occupational forces in Germany in 1946, "but I respect those who did."

The Mariana Islands -- specifically Saipan, Tinian and Guam -- were considered key strategic Japanese strongholds in World War II, since they were located only 1,250 miles from Tokyo.

The Mariana assault, under the code name Operation Forager, was carried out by the 5th Amphibious Corps. The 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions landed on Saipan on June 15. The U.S. Army's 27th Infantry Battalion later joined those units. The battle of Saipan turned out to be one of the bloodiest confrontations of the Pacific War. It cost the lives of more than 3,000 American Marines and Army soldiers, 30,000 Japanese soldiers and 900 civilians before the island was secured on July 9, 1944. On Aug. 1, after nine days of fighting, Tinian Island, just five miles to the south of Saipan, was under U.S. control.

Gabaldon was recommended for the Medal of Honor by his commanding officer, Capt. John Schwabe, now a retired colonel. However, the Marine Corps initially downgraded the award to a Silver Star and then upgraded it to the Navy Cross -- one medal lower than the Medal of Honor -- just as a movie on his exploits, "Hell to Eternity," was released in 1960.

"I hate to use the race card," Gabaldon said in a phone interview, "but it is so obvious. I don't think the Marine Corps ever awarded the Medal of Honor to any Chicano in World War II.

"It was only with a twinge of conscious that they upgraded my Silver Star to a Navy Cross, and to me that indicated they knew they had made a mistake."

He said the campaign to award him the country's highest medal for valor continues with an ongoing congressional investigation on why he was denied the medal, since he captured more than 10 times the number of prisoners taken by Sgt. Alvin York, who won the Medal of Honor in World War I.

Besides the Hispanic communities in the western United States, Gabaldon, who spoke at the National Archives during the dedication of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Memorial Day weekend, said he has the support of several congressional members.

"The fight continues," said the World War II hero who loves to fly and sail. "I don't want it. It's not false modesty. I enjoy what I was doing. It was a game to me. I didn't enjoy killing."

Gabaldon returned to Saipan after the war and lived there for more than 40 years with his wife, the former Ohara Suzuki, whom he met while working in Mexico.

"I loved the sea," said Gabaldon, who also had the government contract at one time to haul milk on his 95-foot boat from Tinian to Saipan. "God has given me everything."

In 1990, he wrote a book -- "Saipan: Suicide Island" -- about his wartime exploits.

He said there is another movie in the works, with talk of Antonio Banderas in the lead role.

Referring to the 1960 movie, Gabaldon said, "I had a lot of fun shooting it. But Jeffrey Hunter (who portrayed Gabaldon) doesn't resemble me. He's tall with blue eyes. Me, I am a short Chicano."

Gabaldon said Hollywood "toned the story down. It gave me a sidekick -- actor David Janssen -- but that wasn't true, I always worked alone."

Gabaldon said it's hard to single out any one point in his life, which included being adopted by a Japanese family when he was 12.

"I came from such a large Latino family that no one objected when I moved in with a Japanese family. They were my extended family. It was there I learned Japanese, since I had to go language school with their children everyday."

But when the war broke out his Japanese family was relocated to a detention camp in Arizona and he went to Alaska and worked in a fish cannery and as a laborer until he decided to enlist in the Marine Corps at the age of 17.


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