The Greatest Marine of WWII? June 28, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback
Guy Gabaldon was perhaps the most remarkable American Marine of the ‘greatest generation’, a man who went to the grave, in 2006, with the knowledge that he had saved hundreds of lives, most of them Japanese soldiers and civilians, toying with or in some cases literally running towards suicide (cliffs). If this introduction suggests a mild mannered humanitarian, who had, accidentally, been placed in a marine uniform, think again. Gabaldon had grown up in on the wrong side of Los Angeles in a poor Mexican family and had belonged to a street gang there. Gabaldon, in fact, never lost his rough edge. Take this extract where Gabaldon describes the fighting spirit of his enemies.
I never ceased to be amazed at the stupid carelessness of the Japanese. 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. Good soldiers, hell – they lost every battle against the Marines…
But Gabaldon had two qualities that would turn him into a life-saving machine: a childhood friendship and a chronic resentment of authority. The ‘childhood friendship’ was really just a freak of his biography, but as a child he had lived for a time with a Japanese immigrant family the Nakanos, after getting to know their twin sons at school, and there he had picked up some crude Japanese. In 1941 the Nakanos were taken away to internment camp and Gabaldon, incredibly, tried to go with them. But he was dissuaded and the tough LA kid, only 5 foot 4, ended up serving his country as a marine. In fact, aged nineteen he found himself in the appalling campaign on Saipan. It was here that his ‘resentment’ of authority saved hundreds of lives in the local Japanese community.
After killing a score of Japanese in a grenade attack, Gabaldon went on what he referred to as ‘lone wolf’ missions in the jungle at night. He began to talk to the men he was about to kill, arguing with them that suicide was absurd and that if they only gave up they would be treated well. Having spent time with the Nakanos he understood not only Japanese but also Japanese culture and stressed the dignity of surrender. The first night he captured two men and the second fifty: the man who became known as ‘the Pied Piper of Saipan’ had found his vocation. And most impressively when told to stop doing his negotiation act he simply ignored the order: he described the thrill of bringing in prisoners as a ‘drug’. He also had come to a conclusion: ‘my actions had proved that God takes care of idiots’.
His greatest moment of triumph came 8 July 1944 as the Saipan campaign was rolling up. After an insanely brave and insanely ineffective banzai charge the last of the Japanese troops on the island had taken to hiding in caves and cliffs on the coastal fringes of the island. GG went to work talking to two Japanese sentinels.
I pointed to the many ships we had lying off shore waiting to blast them in their caves. ‘Why die when you have a chance to surrender under honorable conditions? You are taking civilians to their death which is not part of your Bushido military code.’ The big job was going to be in convincing them that we would not torture and kill them – that they would be well treated and would be returned to Japan after the war. I understood that their Bushido Code called for death before surrender, and that to surrender was to be considered a coward. This was going to be a tough nut to crack. It was either convincing them that I was a good guy or I would be a dead Marine within a few minutes. I knew that there were hundreds of die-hard enemy at the bottom of the cliffs and if they rushed me I would probably kill two or three before they ate me alive. This was the final showdown. Can I pull this off? I had beat the odds so far, but now the odds are almost insurmountable against being able to get these suicidal Nips into surrendering. I finally talked one of my two prisoners to return to the bottom of the cliffs and to try to convince his fellow Gyokusai Banzai survivors that they would be treated with dignity if they surrendered. I kept the other one with me, not as a hostage, but because he said that if he went to the caves with my message and they did not buy it, off with the head. I couldn’t help agreeing with him. The one that descended the cliff either had lots of guts or he was going to double-cross me and come back with his troops firing away. Who was the prisoner, me or the Japs? This was the first time that I was caught in this type of predicament. I had many close calls in shoot-outs and forays into enemy territory, but this was mixing it with those bent on killing seven Marines to one Jap.
This passage tells you all you need to know about Gabaldon. On the one hand, we have this bluff LA-er who seems to think he is in a war movie rather than a war and who uses all the clichés of his trade, not least rather insensitive language for ‘the Nips’. But read this again and you’ll see that GG understood the Japanese – ‘Bushido Code’ etc – and as importantly he didn’t feel that visceral hate for the Japanese that many US servicemen honed through their battles: take his respect for the prisoner who goes down to negotiate and his understanding of the man who refused.
Here he comes with twelve more military personnel, each with a rifle. This is it! This time I can’t tell them to drop their weapons, I can’t tell them they are surrounded. I am now a prisoner of the fanatical Manchurian campaign veterans. They don’t say a word. They just stand there in front of me waiting for the next move. They’re not pointing their weapons at me, but on the other hand, they don’t have to. If I go to fire they would have the drop on me. They’d chop me down before I fire a round. I must keep my cool or my head will roll. ‘Dozo o suwari nasai!’ (Please sit down). I must make them feel that I have everything under control. This is the first time that I think of being too young to demonstrate authority, but what else can I do? ‘Tabako hoshi desu ka?’ (I offer them cigarettes). Okay, let’s get down to serious business. I’m building up courage within myself. ‘Heitai san,’ (Fellow soldiers!). ‘I am here to bring you a message from General Holland ‘Mad’ Smith, the Shogun in charge of the Marianas Operation.’ ‘General Smith admires your valor and has ordered our troops to offer a safe haven to all the survivors of your intrepid Gyokusai attack yesterday. Such a glorious and courageous military action will go down in history. The General assures you that you will be taken to Hawaii where you will be kept together in comfortable quarters until the end of the war. The General’s word is honorable. It is his desire that there be no more useless bloodshed.’ The Japs didn’t know General Smith from General Pancho Villa. But they respected the word, ‘Shogun.’ ‘Heitai san, Amerika no Kaigun no Kampo de anata tachi minna korusu koto ga dekimas.’(The American Navy with its firepower can kill all of you). I point to the hundreds of ships off shore. I am making headway. They mumble among themselves, but the very fact that they came to talk with me shows a breakthrough. They could have easily shot me from behind the rocks on the edge of the cliffs. This scam has to work or adios mother. The one in charge is a Chuii (First Looey). He reaches over and accepts a cigarette, a break. They’re coming around. I try something else, the Japanese adage I learned in East L.A., ‘Warera Nihonjin toshite hazukashii koto o shitara ikemasen.’ They smile, probably at my poor pronunciation. They know that I am not Japanese. I look like a typical Chicano. The Chuii asks me if we have a well equipped hospital at our headquarters. Madre mia, they are going to buy my proposition. I tell him, ‘Tabemono, nomimono, chiryo o agemasho. Amerika Oisha takusan orimasu. Anata no heitai ga kegashita ka?’ (we have fine, well equipped doctors – do you have many wounded?) The Chuii gazes at the ships just a few hundred feet off the cliffs. He has to know that to resist is sure death for all, me included. I can see that this guy does not want to die or he would have done himself in last night during the Gyokusai attack. ‘So da yo! Horyo ni naru!’ (So be it! I become your prisoner!) My thought was, ‘Guy, you short-ass bastard, you did it!’
And he had. Within half an hour eight hundred Japanese soldiers and civilians had surrendered to a single American marine. It is difficult not to admire Guy Gabaldon.
Japanese lives were not worth a great deal to Americans in the summer of 1944, but even Gabaldon’s superiors realized that this US-Mexican had saved not just Japanese soldiers and civilians but also munitions and the lives of those Americans who would have had to winkle the Japanese out. He was recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor but awarded the Silver Star, which was only later, after many protests, upgraded to the Navy Cross: he lost that medal in 1978 when he sent it with a furious note to Richard Nixon; his Japanese wife had been arrested by US immigrant officials.
Gabaldon did have another form of immortality though. In 1960 a film was made of his life: Hell to Eternity. It is a curious but worthwhile bio-pic skating over many of the ambiguities of the war but offering an unlikely erotic striptease. Interestingly though the director felt unable to give Gabaldon’s role to an Hispanic actor. In fact, Gabaldon was played by none other than a towering Jeffrey Hunter (pictured together with GG at the head of this post). Gabaldon, in any case, enjoyed his celebrity and he was still boasting and pontificating and opining when he passed away in 2006.
It must be nice to go to sleep at night and count the faces of those you saved like others count sheep. More humanitarian heroes from war: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
30 June 2013: Tacitus from Detritus sends this in, quoting from POW Baseball in World War Two. What a title! There was a Japanese engineering officer who was assigned to bridge repair work in the Phillipines soon after their conquest. He needed laborers. So he took a detachment of 150 American POWs from the worst of the camps, O’Donnell, and treated them as junior level employees. The darnedest thing was, he got away with it. Oh, he had to be careful, but when locals just “happened” to have food fall off their carts where the Americans were, all concerned just smiled… The most remarkable events were two occasions were, with a sort of wink and nudge from the locals, the Japanese were “invited” to local festivals. Of course it was expected that the American laborers would come too. A day off was declared. There was a light lunch, then attending Mass. Next up was a baseball game in which Japanese and Americans both played. The Japanese commander, a Captain Wakamori, actually pitched. Then, at a time when most US POWs in Japanese camps were being beaten and starved, all concerned sat down for the main meal of the day including suckling pig, roast chicken and fresh fruits. This happened at a place called Caluan. They moved to another town next, but the doctor from Caluan came over to look after the Americans. Another attempt to have a local fiesta there fell a bit flat when some higher up brass arrived and got very unhappy with how well the Americans were being treated. It was a brief, civilized interlude. Then the Americans were sent back to the camps at the end of the work detail, enduring all the horrors of same. Captain Wakamori was said to have graduated from an elite Japanese University and to have had good command of english. I have wondered more than once just what happened to this man. He did not save hundreds of lives, but given the dismal, hellish world of the Pacific War, his conduct stands so high above the general conduct that he deserves recognition.’ Tacitus and I wonder if there is anyway to identify Captain Wakamori? Then KMH reminds us of Sergeant York in WW1. Thanks Tacitus and KHM!!
30 July 2013: MC writes in with a personal memory: Between 1958 and 1962 I lived in Jacksonville, North Carolina right next to Camp Lejeune, a major Marine Corps base. When From Hell to Eternity came out, a friend and I went to see it and Guy Gabaldon appeared on stage afterards to answer questions. He said that the movie was true, more or less, though they had Hollywoodized some parts of it. (I recall a scene where Gabaldon sees a civilian woman about to jump from the cliffs and suddenly her face morphs into that of the Japanese woman who helped raise him. I also don’t recall very much from the film about Gabaldon getting soldiers to surrender, mostly it was about the civilian suicides which were to be repeated on Okinawa. One of the banzai charges on Saipan was fronted by a large group of locals who had to charge the American forces or be killed by the Japanese. Anyways…) We listened to Gabaldon; we were teenagers looking for the halo of light that surrounds a real hero. Afterwards, my friend, whose father was a career NCO, shrugged and said, “Just another jarhead.” Sic transit something or other. Thanks MC!!