“The first night I was on Saipan, I went out on my own. I always worked on my own, and brought back two prisoners using my backstreet Japanese.”
— Guy Gabaldon
It’s true, on his first night on Saipan, Marine PFC Guy Gabaldon ventured out on his own and captured two Japanese using what he called “backstreet” Japanese. Gabaldon grew up on the hard streets of Los Angeles, one of seven Hispanic-American children born into poverty. By the age of 10, Gabaldon was hopping on the backs of streetcars to ride downtown to Skid Row where he shined shoes. In East L.A., he joined the Moe Gang, named for the Three Stooges character. The gang was racially mixed, first-generation Japanese Americans called Nisei, Hispanics, Italians, Jews, Russians, and Armenians. His best friends were the Nisei boys, they fought together, hopped freight cars together, went on adventures together, and chased the girls together. He was soon spending more time with the Nakano family than he spent in his own home. He learned the Japanese culture, enjoyed the food and customs, acquired his “backstreet” Japanese language, plus admired the Samurai Bushido culture. The first two enemy soldiers Gabaldon captured on Saipan were just the beginning; in all, Gabaldon was credited with capturing approximately 1,500 Japanese soldiers, plus hundreds of civilians he saved from self-destruction. And this is his story.
A troubled young man of mixed emotions, he was sent to a high school for incorrigibles but dropped out after completing his sophomore year. The country was at war. In 1942, he tried to join the Navy with his two brothers. Too young, the Navy wouldn’t have him. He ended up in Alaska working at fish canneries during salmon season. At 17, he again tried to join the Navy to serve on submarines. Having suffered a perforated eardrum during a street fight, the Navy turned him down a second time. However, the Marines were looking for Japanese interpreters. Gabaldon told a Marine recruiter, “I read, write, and speak Japanese as well as any Japanese.” It was a big fat lie. His “backstreet” Japanese was elementary, at best, but the Marine recruiter fell for his lie, and Gabaldon was soon en route to Camp Pendleton for basic training.
Teased for his short stature, his boyish looks, and for being a poor shot, he barely qualified as a marksman, the minimum qualification for a Marine. He rejected the theory that seven weeks were needed for training, calling it “seven weeks of concentrated harassment,” didn’t agree that hard training saved lives, plus considered Marine basic training as an “excuse for sadism.”
Apparently, none of this mattered. Gabaldon completed basic without much trouble, took a 30-day leave before reporting to Camp Elliot in San Diego for language school, and hung out at a bowling alley while on leave trying to score with Russian girls whose boyfriends were overseas. During language school, his favorite haunt remained the bowling alley. Obviously trying to make it with the wrong Russian girl, her “big Russian” boyfriend shattered Gabaldon’s jaw in a fistfight. While recovering at the Long Beach Naval Hospital, Gabaldon still partied heavily on the weekends. The Marines booted him out of language school and trained him as a mortarman.
In December of 1943, Gabaldon shipped out for Pearl Harbor in a replacement battalion and again tried to pass himself off as an interpreter. Once again, the Marines rejected his offer. He trained for five months on the big island, considered his first sergeant a racist redneck from Oklahoma, and believed the old school Marine hierarchy to be racist to their core. He did have good words to say for his commanding officer, Capt. John Schwabe, a veteran of Guadalcanal and Tarawa, whom Gabaldon considered “capable, sympathetic, and fair.” In May of 1944, Gabaldon’s division quietly slipped out of Pearl Harbor in a large convoy; destination unknown.
June 11, 1944: The second largest naval armada ever gathered set out from Eniwetok atoll in the Marshall Islands: 535 vessels with an invasion force of 70,000 men had set sail for the island of Saipan, one of four islands in the Marianas archipelago. The island had been occupied by Japan since the end of World War One, and was the first targeted island with a civilian population.
At 0845 on June 15, the 2nd and 4th Marine divisions landed on a 4-mile stretch of Saipan’s southwest coast. Despite a furious pre-invasion barrage by American ships and aircraft, Japanese soldiers greeted the Marines with a hail of mortar rounds, rifle and machine gun fire, and a beach littered with land mines.
A young Marine officer, John Chapin, penned a brief history of the beach scene, an excerpt: “Jap and Marine bodies lying in mangled and grotesque positions; blasted and burnt-out pillboxes; the burning wrecks of landing craft that had been knocked out by Jap high velocity fire; the acrid smell of high explosives; the shattered trees, and the churned-up sand littered with discarded equipment.” The Marines suffered two thousand casualties the first day.
Gabaldon landed later that morning and said he would always remember the smell that assaulted him approaching the beach. “The Jap bodies were already starting to rot. If I were to live a thousand years I would never forget that sweet stink. It was a madhouse…bullets kicking up the sand, dead Marines all over the place….it was almost every man for himself until late that afternoon when we established our first lines. It took us almost eight hours to gain the first mile, and that was under extremely heavy opposition.” Small scale Japanese counterattacks hit the Marines during the night, then at 0300 on the morning of the 16th, a massive counterattack hit the leathernecks. Weary and wounded Marines at long last repulsed the attack as daybreak broke. Approximately 700 Japanese dead littered the beaches.
Marines were told to “dig in” near the small airstrip they had captured. Guadalcanal and Tarawa veteran, Capt. Schwabe, ordered his Marines to stay in their foxholes until morning light. Gabaldon, however, after a quick meal of “canned scrambled eggs and beach sand” decided to leave his position and venture into “no man’s land” to “see what it was all about.”
He reached a trench filled with dead Japanese from the pre-invasion shelling. Carefully crawling around the trench, he came upon three Japanese soldiers who were still alive and watching the Marines. Gabaldon ordered them in Japanese to raise their hands. One of the soldiers raised his rifle to fire but Gabaldon shot him dead. Of the incident, Gabaldon stated, “I killed my first Jap. I felt nothing, neither pride in killing him or the fear that he may have killed me.” The other two Japanese soldiers quickly surrendered.
Japanese prisoners were hard to come by. They had been ordered to fight to the last man and kill ten Marines before being killed themselves. Gabaldon expected to be applauded for bringing in two prisoners, but Capt. Schwabe was angry as hell and threatened Gabaldon with a court-martial if he left his post to pull another Lone Wolf stunt. Schwabe told Gabaldon, “Don’t you ever go off on your own again, understand?”
The following night, Gabaldon took a carbine off a dead Marine, discarded his heavier M-1, stuffed ammo clips into his pockets, and crawled off into the darkness, again. Approaching a dugout filled with Japanese, he smelled Japanese food and decided to wait until dawn to act. With sunrise, Gabaldon tossed a couple fragmentation grenades into the dugout, a smoke grenade, then took prisoner a dozen Japanese soldiers who came out to surrender. Ordering his prisoners to strip, he ran them back to American lines shouting, “Don’t shoot! Don’t fire! These are prisoners!”
Perhaps exasperated, Capt. Schwabe did recognize that the Lone Wolf was bringing in valuable intelligence with his supply of captives. Also recognizing Gabaldon was going to continue his nightly forays anyway, Schwabe gave Gabaldon permission to continue acting alone as long as he wanted to, or until he got killed.
The Japanese dug in, hiding in caves and assaulting the Marines and the Army’s 27th Infantry Division at night. The fighting was bloody and excruciatingly slow. Landscapes gained infamy with names like Death Valley, Hell’s Pocket, and Purple Heart Ridge. The 4th Marine Division alone suffered 6,000 casualties. Still, acting on his lonesome, the Lone Wolf, now known as the Pied Piper of Saipan, continued his freelancing. He claimed his work became a game, to see how many captives he could bring in.
One night, calling out in his backstreet Japanese, he ordered a cave-full of Japanese to surrender. Gabaldon wasn’t confident of his spoken words, stating he had either demoralized them or enraged them. One enraged soldier came out to fight; he was shot dead by Gabaldon. Claiming 100 Marines were with him, the remaining nine enemy soldiers surrendered. Gabaldon loaded his quarry into an ox cart, then returned to camp, with his carbine pointed at their backs. He started bringing in more and more prisoners in larger groups. Some of the Marines bet on his nightly “take.” One of his friends bet he’d bring in more than 50 one night. Gabaldon brought in 52. Gabaldon would admit, “It was foolish, I knew that. I must have seen too many John Wayne movies. I couldn’t stop. I was hooked.”
Gabaldon was also an avid looter. Among his booty: Japanese watches, medals, swords, diaries, and lemon sodas, plus tins of crabmeat, rock candy, bottles of sake, and a phonograph with 78s and two canteens of sake. Another night he blew a safe in a bank that had been leveled by American artillery and made off with bags full of yen. He wore a .32 caliber Japanese officer’s pistol in a shoulder harness, decorated himself with Japanese medals; wore aviator sunglasses and a baseball cap with the brim turned up. He looked like a movie character concocted by Hollywood.
Another night he stole a truck and loaded 15 naked prisoners into it. An officer tried to take the truck from him, Gabaldon refused, then the officer demanded to know his name. The reply came, “I’m a scout and interpreter.” The officer tired of the conversation and ordered him to “get outa here,” that they already had the best interpreter on the island, and his name was Gabaldon.
Not all Japanese surrendered to Gabaldon. He killed 33, by his own admission. He shot three dead so he could appropriate the Harley-Davidson they were riding. Two soldiers came out of a cave swinging their swords. He emptied a 15-round clip into his attackers.
Yet, Gabaldon often displayed empathy, perhaps due to his L.A. upbringing among his Nisei buddies. Many times he pleaded with enemy soldiers to surrender, telling them he understood the demands of Bushido; that they had fought honorably and bravely, and deserved to go home to their families after the war. He would bluff with lies of hundreds of Marines backing his actions, would kill one or two if necessary to drive home a point, yet they came out singly, by the dozens, then scores, then hundreds of them, naked, waving their white skivvies, then marching off to an American POW camp with the Pied Piper of Saipan.
The horror of Saipan began to unfold. Civilians had been told the Americans would kill them, then roast and eat their child if they were taken alive. Massive suicides commenced. Hiding behind enemy lines, Gabaldon watched wounded Japanese soldiers hurl themselves over a cliff, soon to be recognized as Suicide Cliff. Hundreds of civilians followed, some with small children clinched to their chests.
Gabaldon took two prisoners and pleaded with them to appeal to others not to join the victims of Suicide Cliff and to surrender into a safe and honorable captivity. The enemy soldier left then returned with 12 other Japanese soldiers, still armed, and still in fighting condition. Gabaldon began to worry about who was the real prisoner. They could easily kill him. He said, “Dozo o suwari nasai,” (please sit down). They did so. As he offered cigarettes to the enemy soldiers, Gabaldon told them he was his shogun’s (General Smith) emissary. A Japanese lieutenant took a cigarette, then asked if his wounded would receive good treatment. Gabaldon assured they would. The lieutenant gazed at the massive American fleet offshore, then said, “So da yo! Horyo ni naru! (So be it. I become your prisoner). He left, returned with 50 more soldiers, then got reassurance his many wounded would receive medical treatment.
Gabaldon was surrounded by armed enemy soldiers, what else could he do? He reassured the lieutenant, the lieutenant left, then returned with hundreds of soldiers and citizens, dozens seriously wounded. And there stood Gabaldon, a small-framed Chicano kid from L.A in a white T-shirt, wearing aviator glasses, and a baseball cap with the brim turned up. The group became fidgety, until they spotted a few bewildered Marines staring at them from a nearby hill. Gabaldon told one of the captives to wave his white skivvies on a stick. The astonished Marines hopped in a jeep and drove down the hill, followed by more Marines. They took the captives to the command post; 800 more followed. The last bunch arrived around 2200 that night. Gabaldon ate a K-ration, then went to bed.
Others surrendered the following day, others threw themselves off Suicide Cliff; others were sealed in caves when they refused to surrender. Gabaldon pleaded with a mother with an infant in her arms not to jump. She threw her child, then herself over the cliff. That image stuck with Gabaldon for the rest of his life.
Gabaldon also served on Tinian, took another 183 prisoners, returned to Saipan and was wounded in the arm and side by machine gun fire on a secured Saipan. He was awarded the Silver Star, but was clearly disappointed it wasn’t the Medal of Honor, someone even stole his war souvenirs.
Later in life, Gabaldon married a Japanese woman and returned to Saipan. He established a seafood business and ran a youth camp. They lived on the island for 20 years. He returned to California in 1995, then moved his family to Old Town, Fla., in 2003. The Navy eventually upgraded Gabaldon’s Silver Star to a Navy Cross on Nov. 23, 1960, second only to the Medal of Honor. A campaign continues in Congress to upgrade Gabaldon to the Medal of Honor.
The Pied Piper of Saipan passed away on Aug. 31, 2006 in Old Town. Gabaldon was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. Shortly before his death he said during an interview, “Yes, I fought the war the way I wanted to, when I wanted to, and where I wanted to.”
Hard to argue with the man’s words.