The Pied Piper of Saipan - Movie Reviews

Published on 7/15/2008 by Scott Parrino.

Documentary Realism

East L.A. Marine is a remarkably unpretentious yet beautifully shot work. Much of its charm is that Gabby himself was alive, a very spry 79-year old who still flew his private plane over the Marianas. The story opens by juxtaposing shots of actual combat footage of spots on Saipan with shots of the same places today. Interviews of Gabaldon , other veterans, sequences from the 1957 This is Your Life Episode, and many combat film clips tell a fairly different story than Hollywood did.

Gabaldon grew up in a multi-ethnic neighborhood in Los Angeles during the 1930s. He was a tough, short, daredevil Mexican-American, prone to picking fights. He became friends with a Japanese family that lived a few blocks away. He became fascinated with Japanese culture and learned a broken Japanese slang from the family and Japanese migrant farm workers. Although not an orphan – his mother encouraged him to join the Marines, he was very close to the Japanese family, referring to them as his “foster family” in 2005 interviews.

He was accepted by the Corps when he was seventeen because of his Japanese language skills despite a punctured eardrum and being a quarter-inch under the 5’ 4” height minimum. Noteworthy is that an academically trained interpreter didn’t think Gabby really spoke Japanese.

Trained as a scout for the regimental recon battalion, Gabaldon hit Saipan’s beach on June 15, 1944. After two days of seeing dead Marines, Gabby lost all hesitation about killing Japanese. He would go on lone night forays and either shoot the enemy or talk them into giving up. His captain initially told him to stop going out alone but gave in after the results became impressive. Gabaldon’s method was to go up to a cave or a bunker, tell those inside they were surrounded and that the Americans would treat them right. He then would talk about down-to-earth matters like what the Japanese planned to do when the war was over. This method may have been more effective since civilians were often involved. Gabby wasn’t always successful; he had to shoot a few soldiers to make his point and couldn’t stop many civilians from plunging off a sea cliff to their deaths. Nonetheless, he set the one-day U.S. record for taking prisoners with 800 captives.

Hell to Eternity stops here with Gabaldon walking forward to undoubtedly receive the thanks of a grateful Corps and nation. East L.A. Marine tells a different story. Gabby’s company commander nominated him for the Silver Star and a promotion, but was shipped out before he could follow up on the paperwork. Gabaldon was left on Saipan sans decoration and stripes. The general feeling was that the racism of the “Old Breed” let the paperwork “slip through the cracks”. Gabby didn’t get along with his top kick, a Deep Southerner. The PFC suspected the sergeant of stealing seventeen captured swords and mentioned to that worthy he’d “kill the S. O. B. who stole my swords”. The swords turned up the next day but bad blood was created. Gabaldon did get a medal on Saipan: a Purple Heart for a wound suffered during the mopping-up operations. He received the Silver Star a few years after the war but only got the Navy Cross when the movie came out. A resolution for a Congressional Medal of Honors continues after his death in 2006. The omission of this shabby treatment underlines Hollywood’s need to spin such stories as simple paeans to heroes within an unblemished profession. The documentary actually gives a better perspective by airing dirty laundry without being overly preachy.

Our primary question may have an answer in Gabaldon’s methods. After first showing he meant business and would shoot if necessary, he used non-stilted language to talk to prospective captives about personal, everyday matters. He used a non-academic, human – as opposed to lofty humanitarian – approach.  Gabby was a unique man in a unique position. Not enough men could have tried this approach on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. However, today’s military could possibly take a leaf from PFC Guy Gabaldon’s book, Saipan: Suicide Island. Here, Gabby goes into more details on not only how the fighting was like on Saipan but the simple psychology he used to influence the Japanese. He talked of food, family and life in terms all individuals can identify with. Modern psy ops procedures may well be too sophisticated to produce Gabaldon’s results. We should simply stick to our common humanity.


World War II Military Leadership Pacific Theater Asia

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