Guy Gabaldon, who received the Navy's highest honor for capturing more than 1,000 Japanese civilians and soldiers on the island of Saipan during World War II, died Thursday at his home in Old Town, Fla. He was 80.
The cause was a heart attack, documentary filmmaker Steve Rubin said.
Gabaldon's wartime experience was the basis for the 1960 Hollywood movie "Hell to Eternity," a memoir, and most recently, Rubin's documentary, "East L.A. Marine: The Untold True Story of Guy Gabaldon."
It is also at the heart of a campaign aimed at persuading Congress and the president to award Gabaldon what supporters say he deserves: the Medal of Honor. In July, the Los Angeles City Council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa honored Gabaldon.
The actions that earned Gabaldon the nickname "the Pied Piper of Saipan" took place in June 1944 on the 25-mile-long island in the Northern Marianas in the western Pacific Ocean. Marine Pvt. Gabaldon killed 33 Japanese soldiers on his first day of combat, he said. Later he changed tactics.
Disobeying orders, Gabaldon went behind enemy lines by himself looking for Japanese. He "daringly entered enemy caves, pillboxes, buildings and jungle brush, frequently in the face of hostile fire," reads the citation that went along with his Navy Cross. The goal was to get the Japanese to surrender.
Years later, Gabaldon called his actions foolish, but back then he had reasons to believe he would succeed.
Many years before, in Boyle Heights, a Japanese American family had taken in Gabaldon -- a wayward boy, prone to trouble -- and raised him. He experienced Japanese language, food and culture firsthand.
During the war years the family was sent to an internment camp and Gabaldon joined the Marines. He used his limited Japanese language skills in his contacts with Japanese soldiers and civilians.
"I think it was his bravado and his cockiness that really helped his success," Rubin said.
Gabaldon persuaded some of the Japanese on Saipan with promises that they would receive food, water and medical care. To others he issued threats. "He was just a tough little Hispanic kid that just had a lot of guts," said John Schwabe, an attorney in Portland, Ore., who was a captain and Gabaldon's commanding officer. Gabaldon's action saved lives on both sides and was instrumental in "helping to shorten the campaign," Schwabe said.
Gabaldon was wounded by machine gun fire after the island was secured.
Schwabe said he nominated Gabaldon for a Medal of Honor, but the Marine never received it and instead was honored with a Silver Star. But his 1950s appearance on the television show "This Is Your Life" led to the making of "Hell to Eternity" and an upgrading of his medal to the Navy Cross.
Gabaldon worked as a technical advisor on the movie that cast him, a short Mexican American, as a tall Italian American. He was proud of the film, Rubin said.
"I think that movie was very inspirational to a lot of baby boomers," Rubin said. "It was one of the first World War II combat films to portray a sense of humanity in war.... The fact of the matter is Guy ended up saving not only hundreds of Japanese lives but American lives as well ... with a little touch of humanity."
Decades later in his memoir, "Saipan: Suicide Island," Gabaldon wrote an expanded account of his wartime experiences, including an incident in which he killed "three enemy soldiers on a motorcycle and [took] the bike for my own -- a Harley Davidson, at that."
"The incident I describe here may turn some stomachs, but that's the way it happened, blood, guts, splattered brains, and no compassion when killing the enemy," he wrote.
" ... I lie down, get a good hold of my piece, hold my breath, take careful aim at the head of the guy on 'my' bike, and fire," he wrote. "I immediately pump the remaining 14 rounds in the clip at rapid fire into the other two and punch another 15 round clip in my carbine while running towards them, blasting away and seeing the reaction of their bodies leaping like shot rabbits every time I hit them. Standing over them, I shot each one in the head, just to make sure -- there were incidents of apparently 'dead' [enemy soldiers] 'reviving' and killing Marines. But these three were real dead."
After the war, Gabaldon found other battles to fight.
He said that in 1961 he gathered a force of 1,000 Americans to travel to Cuba to wage war against Communist leader Fidel Castro. The trip was blocked by then-Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, who "called me a vigilante," Gabaldon told a Times reporter in a 1978 article. Years later Gabaldon advertised for men willing to go with him to Nicaragua to "help fight the Communist take-over."
An angry Gabaldon mailed his Navy Cross to then-President Nixon, with a warning: "You're on your last leg, Tricky Dick." In a letter he condemned discrimination against Mexican Americans, saying he had been refused a hotel room. His wife had been treated rudely by American guards at the border with Mexico, he told The Times.
For many years Gabaldon and his family lived in Saipan, where he worked at various jobs, including police chief and drug abuse counselor.
But Gabaldon's longest battle was for the Medal of Honor. He and many of his supporters attributed his failure to receive the medal to racism against Latinos.
"I hate using the race card," Gabaldon told the Fresno Bee in a 2000 article. " ... The U.S. Marine Corps was composed of nothing but rednecks before World War II."
The effort on Gabaldon's behalf will continue, said Mimi Lozano, president of the Society of Hispanic Historical and Ancestral Research.
"To me he's the symbol of an American hero, and he's a Latino," she said. "And what a wonderful thing to share with our young people. He did what he did out of compassion."
Gabaldon is survived by his second wife, Ohana, and several children.