Guy Gabaldon Became the “Saipan Pied Piper” and His Life Was Turned into a Movie


Several revered heroes of World War II fought against the Axis powers. Jimmy Doolittle led the first raid on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor. James H. Howard was an ace pilot who was credited with a dozen victories during the war.

Guy Gabaldon was also a WWII hero, but for a very different reason. This is the story of how the Navy became the Pied Piper of Saipan.

Gabaldon learned to speak Japanese in his youth.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Guy Gabaldon was born in Los Angeles in 1926. He grew up in Skid Row in a multi-ethnic neighborhood. At the age of 12, he was taken in by a Japanese family called the Nakanos. According to the future war hero, the Nakano have become like a second family. And Gabaldon said he learned to speak Japanese by taking classes with the Nakano children.

The Nakanos were sent to an internment camp like many other Japanese-American families when World War II broke out. Gabaldon, who had gone to Alaska to work in a cannery, returned to California at the age of 17 to join the army. Prior to being assigned, he attended the Navy Enlisted Japanese Language School at Camp Elliot in San Diego.

The situation in Saipan.

A dead Japanese soldier lies in the waves during the Battle of Saipan
Via Getty Images

The defense of Saipan, the largest island of the Northern Mariana Islands, was of crucial importance to the Japanese army. The heavily garrisoned area was one of the last lines of defense before opposing armies could enter the Japanese mainland. Due to the proximity of the fighting, many civilians were also in the area.

The Battle of Saipan, which began on June 15, 1944, was going incredibly badly for the Japanese army. Military leaders told troops on the ground that there was no surrender. In fact, they were told either to kill seven enemy combatants or to commit suicide. And many Japanese soldiers have opted for suicide. The practice has become so common that jumping spots on the island have become known as Suicide Cliff and Banzai Cliff.

The Marine becomes the Pied Piper.

Guy Gabaldon with Japanese civilians
Image via United States Marines/Public Domain

Gabaldon arrived in Saipan in the thick of the fighting in 1945. On his first day, he convinced a handful of Japanese soldiers to surrender to the Americans. The Marine was reprimanded for leaving his post and threatened with a court martial. Yet the following night Gabaldon again crossed over to the Japanese side and returned with 50 prisoners.

According to the Marine, he approached a cave, shot two guards and shouted in Japanese, “You are surrounded and have no choice but to surrender. Get out and you won’t be killed! I assure you that you will be treated well. We don’t want to kill you! After the second night, Gabaldon says his commanding officer allowed him to continue operating as a “lone wolf.”

Gabaldon continued his actions on the island of Tinian, bringing the total number of Japanese surrenders to 1,500. At Tinian, Gabaldon was seriously wounded in a machine gun ambush but recovered from his wounds. His commanding officer, Captain John Schwabe, recommended him for the Medal of Honor. Instead, the Marine was awarded the Silver Star. The Marine Corps later elevated Gabaldon’s Silver Star to the Navy Cross.

Some have questioned the story

Guy Gabaldon Abroad
Image Via Wikimedia Commons

In the years following World War II, some people began to wonder if Gabaldon could really have convinced 1,500 people to surrender. Robert Sheeks, who also served in Saipan, claimed that Gabaldon was a self-promoter who exaggerated the impact of his efforts. Author Gerald Meehl also conducted interviews with other soldiers who claimed the Navy was abusive to the Japanese. Ultimately, however, Gabaldon’s claims were backed up by both his commanding officer and military intelligence.

Television and cinema.

From Hell to Eternity movie poster
Photo by LMPC via Getty Images

Gabaldon was discharged from the army due to his battle wounds and moved to Mexico. His story became known to the general public in 1957 when he appeared on the NBC television show This is Your Life. The former Marine was on TV again in 1960, appearing on To Tell the Truth.

Holywood was also eager to tackle the story. In 1960 a film based on Gabaldon’s exploits was released. The film, From Hell to Eternity, starred Jeffrey Hunter. Gabaldon worked on the film as a consultant.

Later life and legacy.

Guy Gabaldon at a ceremony honoring Hispanic World War II veterans
Image via Wikimedia Commons/public domain

In 1964, Gabaldon attempted to enter politics, losing an election for a Californian seat in the United States Congress. He returned to Saipan in 1970, running a seafood business and a children’s camp. He wrote a book about his experiences, titled Saipan: Suicide Island in 1990. Gabaldon died in 2006 at the age of 80 and was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery.


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