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L.A. THEN AND NOW

'The Pied Piper of Saipan' Stood Tall During WWII

November 13, 2005|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

"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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 18, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
"Then & Now" -- In some editions of Sunday's California section, a photo caption with the "L.A. Then & Now" column misidentified Marine Maj. Gen. Carson A. Roberts as a major.

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.

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