Armed but alone, Marine Pfc. Guy Gabaldon roamed Saipan's caves and pillboxes, persuading enemy soldiers and civilians to surrender during the hellish World War II battle on the island.
Using the Japanese language skills he learned as a boy, he warned the Japanese they would die if they stayed hidden and told them Marines were not torturers as they had heard. The Marines, he said, would feed them and give them medical care. Many agreed, and Gabaldon, just 18, led them back to U.S. lines.
By the battle's end, Gabaldon had coaxed more than 1,000 Japanese out of the steamy caves. He was praised as being brave and compassionate, and he received a Silver Star — later upgraded to a Navy Cross. His actions were recounted on television and in movies.
Now, almost two years after his death, there is a renewed campaign to give Gabaldon the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award. A new documentary, "East L.A. Marine," asks whether Gabaldon's Hispanic heritage prevented him from receiving the medal, though others blame his tough and outspoken nature.
Critics question whether Gabaldon deserves the medal, saying his feats do not measure up to those of others on Saipan.
"It's a much bigger issue than any of us realize," said Steve Rubin, who directed the documentary, which will be available online May 6. "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."
The Battle for Saipan
Growing up in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, Gabaldon became close with a Japanese-American family and made friends with Japanese boys. He also picked up the language as he delivered Japanese newspapers and picked crops with Japanese-Americans.
After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, more than 100,000 people of Japanese heritage, including 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 joined the Marines in 1943, becoming a scout observer and interpreter, and hit the shore of Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands on June 15, 1944.
Combat was often in close quarters in 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 in caves. They included women and children, and were hungry and suffering from shell shock, leprosy, dengue fever. Fearing the Americans, Japanese civilians blew themselves up with grenades or jumped off cliffs.
Ventured behind enemy lines
Gabaldon did his share of killing, but one day he ventured alone behind enemy lines and brought back a group of Japanese prisoners. Gabaldon was scolded by his commander, Col. John Schwabe, but went out alone again and returned with more Japanese.
Satisfied, Schwabe let Gabaldon continue.
"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.
Eventually, Gabaldon had rounded up 1,000 to 1,500 Japanese — including a purported 800 in one day.
"Through his efforts, a definite humane treatment of civilian prisoners was insured," according to a Marine Corps document detailing Gabaldon's credentials for a Silver Star.
Interviewed 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 wounded in January 1945 and evacuated to a hospital, according to the document provided by the Marine Corps History Division.
Schwabe said in a 1960 letter that there was confusion after Saipan over who was responsible for recommending Gabaldon for the Medal of Honor.
A push for the Medal of Honor
In June 1957, he was featured on the TV show "This is Your Life." Two Japanese friends also appeared.
In 1960, "Hell to Eternity" was released, starring Jeffrey Hunter, who clearly was not Hispanic and at 6 feet tall looked nothing like 5-foot, 4-inch Gabaldon.
"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.
However, the film started a push for the Medal of Honor and Schwabe officially recommended him for the honor. In December 1960, the Pentagon upgraded Gabaldon's Silver Star to a Navy Cross, but the Medal of Honor never came.
'Marine first, and then Guy'
Gabaldon, who eventually settled in Florida, suffered a stroke in the late 1990s but never mellowed or abandoned his love for fishing and other adventures, his wife said. He died in September 2006 at age 80.
Gabaldon's wife said he talked about racism he experienced as a serviceman. But Gabaldon never lost his love for the Marines: "He was a Marine first, and then Guy," Ohana Gabaldon said.
However, he was hurt that he never learned why he hadn't gotten the Medal of Honor, leading him and others to wonder whether his ethnicity played a part, his wife said.
"Nobody came up with the truth," Ohana Gabaldon said. "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 compares Gabaldon's exploits to others who did win the Medal of Honor, such as the Army's Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier in World War II.
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?"
University of the South professor Harold J. Goldberg said in his book "D-Day in the Pacific: The Battle of Saipan" that some Marines estimated that Gabaldon captured only about half of the number he claimed.
Marine Sgt. David Dowdakin said in the book that while Gabaldon had advocates, "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."
Capt. Amy Malugani, a Marines spokeswoman, said in an e-mail to The Associated Press that the Marines are precluded from discussing whether any individual has been recommended for a medal.
'Opportunity to right a wrong'
But Malugani also said the Secretary of the Navy is reviewing 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 said politics could be involved in the decision.
"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."