“The Pied Piper of Saipan” almost didn’t get into World War II. Guy Louis “Gabby” Gabaldon was just 5 feet 3 and had a perforated eardrum; the Navy rejected him.
But when the Marines learned he could speak Japanese -- gritty slang picked up on the streets of Boyle Heights -- that was a different story.
That’s how Gabaldon came to capture more than 1,100 Japanese single-handedly, leading soldier and civilian alike to safety.
“Japanese prisoners were a bit of an oddity at that time,” said Steve Rubin, who produced the documentary “East L.A. Marine: The Untold True Story of Guy Gabaldon,” which is to have its premiere this weekend at a Veterans Day celebration at Cal State Fullerton. “The credo of most soldiers of the Japanese army was kill or be killed. Capturing one Japanese was considered a feat. Bringing in 1,100 was unthinkable.”
Rubin and Latino community activists are lobbying for Gabaldon to receive the Medal of Honor. “No one has been more ignored and with such an untouchable record in military history,” Rubin said.
Gabaldon is among about 500 World War II veterans profiled in a new book, “Undaunted Courage -- Mexican American Patriots of World War II,” which was produced by Latino Advocates for Education Inc.
“Latinos have fought in every war since the American Revolution and were never given due credit,” said Orange County Superior Court Judge Frederick P. Aguirre, founding president of Latino Advocates. “Our preliminary studies estimate over 500,000 Hispanic Americans served their country during World War II, in which more than 9,170 gave their lives.” One dozen received the Medal of Honor.
Gabaldon, 79, lives in Florida now. He walked around his old neighborhood last week, marveling at how familiar it remained.
He grew up during the Depression, one of seven children, in a small house on Chicago Street.
“Not much has changed,” he said. “Back then we had Russians, Latinos, Japanese and Jews all living on the same block.”
As a youngster, Gabaldon always had to prove how tough he was. He jumped from second-story windows, hopped freight trains and got into fistfights.
He seemed destined for trouble. But a film, and friendship, helped turn his life around.
In 1936, at age 11, he saw “The General Died at Dawn,” an action-packed thriller starring Gary Cooper as an American in China who tries to smuggle money to help the Chinese fight a ruthless warlord.
“I hoped maybe some of [Cooper’s] goodness would rub off on me,” Gabaldon said. “But instead it was two Japanese American twin boys, Lane and Lyle Nakano, and their family who did that for me.”
Gabaldon and the Nakano boys met at Hollenbeck Junior High School (now a middle school). The Nakanos lived on 1st Street, a few blocks north of the Gabaldons. “I found myself fascinated by my adopted family, their customs, language and even food,” he said.
He lived with them, off and on, for the next five years. “Back then, no one cared if you stayed away from home for a few days or not,” he said.
Despite their influence, his street fights continued.
“I went to Andrew Jackson, a high school for bad boys, where I got my nose, ribs and knuckles broken getting into fights,” he said.
During the day, he worked as a shoeshine boy on skid row. At night, he and some of his “bad boy” friends would dive off the Hollenbeck Park bridge into the lake. “We never knew how dangerous it was, until we found stakes sticking up from the lake bed after they drained it,” he said.
The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, drawing the United States into World War II. The next year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the detention of Japanese Americans.
The Nakanos had to leave.
“I wanted to go to the internment camp with them, but they wouldn’t let me,” Gabaldon said.
Then 16, he dropped out of school and went to Alaska to work in the fishing industry. The next year, in 1943, he joined the Marine Corps.
He was assigned to the 2nd Regiment of the 2nd Marine Division as an intelligence scout and observer. A few months before his unit was shipped to the Pacific, he went home on leave.
“In 1943, that’s when I got into a fight at a bowling alley at Whittier and Lorena in East Los Angeles, with a bunch of zoot-suiters,” he said. “I always liked a good fight, but I don’t know why they picked on me, except that maybe I was the only guy around in a uniform. They broke my jaw and put me in the hospital for two months. It was the best duty I ever pulled.”
In June 1944, nine days after D-day in Europe, he landed on Saipan, a 25-mile-long rocky outpost in the Northern Mariana Islands, more than 1,200 miles southeast of Tokyo.
On the first day of combat, the enemy proved stubborn. “I had to throw hand grenades,” killing 33 Japanese soldiers, Gabaldon said.
In succeeding days, he disobeyed orders and scouted the island alone. He persuaded a handful of Japanese soldiers and civilians to surrender, bribing them with cigarettes and food.
Gabaldon said he would capture about six soldiers and civilians at gunpoint but release three, telling them to spread the word about good Americans and fair treatment. He would also tell them that if they didn’t return, he’d kill the other prisoners.
“Of course I didn’t,” he said. “But it worked.”
That’s how he captured 800 in a single day and earned the sobriquet “the Pied Piper” from his commanding officer, Capt. John Schwabe.
The wounded prisoners hobbled on crutches made of bamboo spears. Soldiers turned over their ancient samurai swords. He made the men strip to their loincloths, making them less likely to cause trouble or conceal weapons.
Still, many believed the propaganda that Americans were butchers and rapists. Civilians began leaping from cliffs in mass suicides. “I watched, helpless, as a mother threw her baby over the cliff, then herself,” Gabaldon said.
Gabaldon was wounded by machine-gun fire after the island was fairly secured. He received the Silver Star for valor.
He left the Marine Corps as a private first class and came home to Boyle Heights, where he married June, a Russian American girl from the neighborhood. They had six children but later divorced.
He then married Ohana Suzuki, a woman of Japanese descent living in Mexico. They had five children, and he became a successful pilot and importer south of the border.
Hollywood discovered Gabaldon in 1957, after the television program “This Is Your Life.” Three years later, his life story inspired the 1960 movie “Hell to Eternity,” which depicted Gabaldon as an Italian American played by blue-eyed Jeffrey Hunter. The film stirred complaints about Hollywood’s failure to portray Latinos’ heroism in American wars. The controversy encouraged the military to upgrade Gabaldon’s Silver Star to the Navy Cross.
In 1970, while Gabaldon and his wife were living in Mexico, federal immigration authorities arrested Ohana at the California border and accused her of being an illegal immigrant. A furious Gabaldon mailed his Navy Cross to President Nixon, along with a note: “You’re on your last leg, Tricky Dick,” The Times reported in 1978.
In the mid-1970s, Gabaldon and Ohana moved to Saipan. He held various jobs there, including police chief, tour guide and drug-abuse counselor for teenagers. He also wrote his autobiography, “Saipan: Suicide Island,” which was published in 1990.
Sometime while Gabaldon was living out of the country, an FBI agent returned the Navy Cross to Gabaldon’s father.
After living on Saipan for two decades, the couple returned to California in 1995 and moved to Florida in 2003.
Three years earlier, in 2000, then-Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones upgraded Gabaldon’s rank from private first class to corporal.
“He told me to keep my nose clean and maybe in another 50 years, I’d be a sergeant,” Gabaldon said.
“Undaunted Courage -- Mexican American Patriots of World War II” can be purchased at www.latinoadvocates.org.