View Full Version : Campaign aims to get dead Hispanic Marine the Medal of Honor

05-05-08, 06:34 AM
Campaign aims to get dead Hispanic Marine the Medal of Honor

By Adrian Sainz

4:51 a.m. May 4, 2008

MIAMI – Armed and alone, U.S. Marine Guy Gabaldon roamed Saipan's caves and pillboxes, using his Japanese language skills to convince enemy soldiers and civilians to surrender during the hellish World War II island battle in the summer of 1944.

Warning the Japanese they would die if they stayed in the caves, Gabaldon told them Marines were not torturers as they had heard, but instead would feed them and give them medical care. Many agreed, and Gabaldon, 18, led them back to U.S. lines.

By the time the battle ended, the 5-foot, 3-inch tall Gabaldon had lured more than 1,000 Japanese out of the steamy caves. He was praised as being both brave and compassionate, and he received a Silver Star – later upgraded to a Navy Cross. His actions were recounted in a 1957 episode of “This is Your Life” and a 1960 feature film called “Hell to Eternity.”

Now, more than 60 years after Saipan and almost two years after his death, a campaign has been launched to persuade U.S. officials to give Gabaldon the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award. The new documentary “East L.A. Marine” is part of that effort, and a Web site urges supporters to sign a pro-medal petition. The film asks whether Gabaldon's Hispanic heritage has prevented him from receiving the medal; others have blamed his tough and outspoken nature.

Meanwhile, critics question whether Gabaldon deserves the medal, saying his story does not measure up to other feats of gallantry and sacrifice on Saipan.

“It's a much bigger issue than any of us realize,” said Steve Rubin, who directed the documentary, which will be available May 6 on getguythemedal.com for $19.95. “Guy is a symbol not only of a hero in war, but a man who treated people humanely. He killed people, sure, but having grown up essentially as a Japanese, he treated them as human beings.”

Guy Louis Gabaldon grew up in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, his father a machinist whose relatives were Spanish conquistadors. One of five children, Gabaldon became close with a Japanese-American family at age 11 and made friends with Japanese boys.

In his diverse neighborhood, Gabaldon earned a reputation for fearlessness, jumping out of second-story windows and hopping freight trains.

“He was a real ornery little guy,” friend Manuel Paulin says in the documentary. “He was always picking a fight with somebody.”

Gabaldon learned the Japanese-American vernacular and absorbed the culture by delivering Japanese newspapers and picking crops with other Japanese-Americans.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the U.S. went to war, and more than 100,000 people of Japanese heritage, including many of Gabaldon's friends, were sent to internment camps.

“He got very upset when the government put the Japanese in concentration camps,” said his second wife, Ohana Gabaldon, who lives in Old Town in central Florida.

Gabaldon was accepted into the Marines in 1943 as a scout observer and, with knowledge of Japanese, an interpreter. Gabaldon hit the shores of Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands on June 15, 1944.

Saipan and neighboring Tinian were part of the American island-hopping campaign to oust the Japanese from Pacific islands. Tinian later became the launching point for the B-29 bombers that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The battle was notoriously bloody, with bodies strewn throughout the small island, infesting it with flies hovering over rotting corpses. Combat was often in close quarters in cane fields, jungles and caves, and more than 3,200 Americans and 23,800 Japanese were killed, according to a 1994 Marine Corps pamphlet, “Breaching the Marianas: The Battle for Saipan.”

Civilians, some prisoners of Japanese soldiers, hid to avoid capture by the Americans. Fearing torture and murder, Japanese civilians blew themselves up with grenades or jumped off Saipan's cliffs to avoid capture.

Gabaldon did his share of killing. One day, he ventured behind enemy lines on his own and brought back a gaggle of Japanese prisoners. Gabaldon was scolded by his commanding officer, Col. John Schwabe, but went out by himself again and returned with more Japanese.

Satisfied that Gabaldon knew what he was doing, Schwabe let him continue his one-man mission.

“He would go up to the mouth of that cave and jabber, jabber, jabber, and pretty soon somebody would dribble out,” Schwabe said in the documentary.

On Saipan, the U.S. military's civilian captives included women and children. They were hungry and sick, suffering from afflictions ranging from shell shock to leprosy, according to the Marine pamphlet.

By the battle's end, Gabaldon had rounded up 1,000 to 1,500 Japanese – including a purported 800 in one day.

“Working alone in front of the lines, he contributed materially to the success of the campaign and, through his efforts, a definite humane treatment of civilian prisoners was insured,” says a Marine Corps document detailing Gabaldon's credentials for a Silver Star.

In the documentary, Gabaldon discussed his motivation.

“Being raised in the barrio, every day is a fight,” Gabaldon said. “You're fighting to survive in the barrio and I think that might have had something to do with my personality, my makeup. I knew I was doing something that had never been done in World War II.”

Gabaldon was later wounded and evacuated to an Army field hospital in January 1945, according to the document provided by the Marine Corps History Division.

Schwabe, in a May 1960 letter, said there was confusion after Saipan over who was responsible for recommending Gabaldon for the Medal of Honor. Gabaldon did receive a Silver Star and a Purple Heart, records show.

After the war, Gabaldon's story was lost amid all the military milestones that followed. Gabaldon returned to the United States, and later lived in Saipan and Mexico before settling in Florida.

In June 1957, Gabaldon was featured on the TV show “This is Your Life” hosted by Ralph Edwards. Two Japanese friends also appeared.

In 1960, “Hell to Eternity” was released, starring Jeffrey Hunter, a 6-foot tall, handsome actor. Hunter looked nothing like the short, unremarkable-looking Gabaldon, and clearly was not Hispanic.

“When there was a movie made about his life, and that part of him is completely obliterated ... people who are familiar with this issue are really appalled by that,” said Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, a University of Texas journalism professor who interviewed Gabaldon and hundreds of other men and women of the World War II generation. “His ethnicity was really who he was.”

The film started an effort to get Gabaldon the Medal of Honor. Schwabe officially recommended him for the medal in his May 1960 letter. On Dec. 20, 1960, the Department of Defense said it upgraded Gabaldon's Silver Star to a Navy Cross: A news release said the upgrade came “after Gabaldon's records were revised at his request.”

But the Medal of Honor never reached Gabaldon, despite occasional efforts by Hispanic groups and even politicians who pushed for the award.

Gabaldon, who retired to Florida after running a variety of businesses, suffered a stroke in the late 1990s, his wife said. He never really mellowed or abandoned his love for fishing and other adventures, including flying planes, she said. Gabaldon died in September 2006 at age 80.

Gabaldon's wife said he talked about racism he experienced as a serviceman. But, as a man of contradictions who could kill Japanese in Saipan at one moment and rescue them the next, he never lost his love for the Marine Corps: “He was a Marine first, and then Guy,” she said.

However, he was hurt that he never learned why he had not gotten the Medal of Honor, leading him and others to wonder whether his being Hispanic had anything to do with it, his wife said.

“He just wanted an explanation why,” Ohana Gabaldon said. “Nobody came up with the truth, you know. I guess what Guy wanted to hear from the Marine Corps is that 'We goofed.' He told me he wasn't going to see the Medal of Honor in his lifetime.”

The documentary takes on the question of why Gabaldon was not given the Medal of Honor, comparing his exploits to those who did, like World War II's Audie Murphy.

In the film, narrator Freddie Prinze Jr. asks: “What caused this inequity? Was it because Guy Gabaldon was of Hispanic heritage? Was it because he had a big mouth and wasn't afraid to say what he felt?”

Gabaldon is discussed in a book by University of the South professor Harold J. Goldberg titled “D-Day in the Pacific: The Battle of Saipan.” The book says some Marines estimated that Gabaldon captured only about half of the number he claimed.

The book quotes Marine Sgt. David Dowdakin, who served with I Company, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines.

“Dowdakin admitted that Gabaldon had his defenders, but he added that 'the rest of us think he is an importuning glory seeker who is playing the race card. But, then, the two traits often go together: bravery and glory seeking.'”

Goldberg, who interviewed other former Marines for his book, said Gabaldon was a brave and tough Marine. But he said there would be upset Marine veterans if Gabaldon was to get the medal because there are others who are as deserving.

“This constant sort of glory-seeking really grates on a lot of other Marines who just feel he was trying to separate himself out from what every other Marine did,” Goldberg said in a telephone interview.

Capt. Amy Malugani, a Marines spokeswoman, said the Marines are precluded from discussing any individual.

“In view of the additional sensitivity regarding the Medal of Honor cases, exceptional care shall be exercised to avoid disclosure of any information, including but not limited to, the fact that an individual has been recommended for the award,” she wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

But Malugani also said the Secretary of the Navy is conducting a mandatory review of the service records of each Jewish and Hispanic-American veteran who won the Navy Cross for actions during World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, and Operation Desert Storm, to determine if any should be awarded the Medal of Honor.

Gabaldon's widow notes that politics could be involved in the decision as Hispanics flex their political clout. On the other side of the argument, Goldberg says the medal should not be used as a “political football.”

“We're becoming not so much a minority anymore,” said Ohana Gabaldon, who is of Japanese and Mexican descent. “Maybe this is the time that the Latino vote counts, what Washington cares about so much.

“They can take the opportunity to right a wrong and be aware of what Latinos have done for this country.”