Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012


The American marines had crawled through the tropical undergrowth in order to gather intelligence on the Japanese positions.
Gabaldon: 'Surrender or I'll kill you!'
But as they reached the cliff-tops on Saipan Island, they found themselves blinking in disbelief.
A lone US soldier, Guy Gabaldon, was sitting on the ground surrounded by hundreds of Japanese troops. He had not been taken captive. Rather, he had talked them all into surrendering. Now, he was preparing to lead them to safety.
Gabaldon was something of a legend amongst his comrades. A tough-nosed 18-year-old from the barrios of East Los Angeles, he had already captured dozens of Japanese soldiers.
Battle of Saipan: but Gabaldon fought alone
Now, he’d made his biggest haul ever. More than 800 prisoners sat before him: diehard troops who normally preferred suicide to surrender. 
It was an extraordinary act from an extraordinary individual. Toughened by his American childhood in a multi-ethnic gang, Gabaldon had picked up Japanese from the family who’d cared for him. His language skills were to serve him well in the battle for Saipan.
The capture of Saipan in the Mariana Islands was deemed vital for any future land invasion of Japan. It was the ideal place to establish airfields for the American B-29 Superfortress bombers.
The attack on the island began on 15 June, 1944, and Guy Gabaldon was one of 128,000 American soldiers taking part.
Gabaldon (right) with prisoners
He was only too aware of the danger posed by the Japanese defenders; they were utterly ruthless and always chose suicide over surrender.
Gabaldon found it hard to work in a team. On his first night on the island, he ventured out alone and approached a cave where he believed Japanese soldiers to be sheltering. He shot the guards at the entrance and then yelled in Japanese: ‘You're surrounded and have no choice but to surrender. Come out and you will not be killed!’
A few minutes later, he had bagged his first two prisoners.
His commanding officer was furious that he had undertaken a solo mission and Gabaldon was almost court-marshalled.
Undeterred, Gabaldon repeated the exercise on the following night. This time, he returned with 50 prisoners.
Bang! Fighting in Saipan
His superiors were so impressed that they allowed him the rare privilege of working as a ‘lone wolf’ - a soldier who planned his own solo missions.
On 7 July, Gabaldon clambered up to the cliff-top caves of Saipan and overheard Japanese soldiers talking about a massive offensive due to take place on the following day. He passed this information back to headquarters, enabling them to successfully block the Japanese advance.
The next day, Gabaldon returned to the cliffs and captured two Japanese guards. He persuaded them to venture into the caves and talk their fellow soldiers into surrendering.
It was a high-risk strategy. Gabaldon was alone and completely defenceless against such a huge number of men.
A rare sight: Japanese prisoners
It was either convincing them that I was a good guy or I would be a dead Marine within a few minutes,’ he later said. ‘If they rushed me I would probably kill two or three before they ate me alive. This was the final showdown.’
There were a tense few moments as Gabaldon awaited the return of the guards. Then, from further down the cliffs, he heard the sound of voices. Hundreds and hundreds of Japanese soldiers could be seen walking towards him.
Gabaldon was both nervous and excited. ‘If I pull this off,’ he said to himself, ‘it will be the first time in World War II that a lone Marine Private captures half a Japanese regiment by himself.’
Hell to Eternity: the movie
The men were extremely jittery but they decided to surrender when Gabaldon assured them they’d receive medical treatment. Gabaldon found himself with 800 prisoners.
It earned him the nickname the Pied Piper of Saipan. It also earned him the Navy Cross, the Marines’ highest award for valor after the Medal of Honor. ‘Working alone in front of the lines,’ reads the citation, ‘he daringly entered enemy caves, pillboxes, buildings and jungle bush, frequently in the face of hostile fire, and succeeded in not only obtaining vital military information, but in capturing well over 1,000 enemy civilians and troops.’
Saipan today. More peaceful
His greatest moment came many years later, in 1960, when his story was turned into a Hollywood movie, Hell to Eternity.
He’d always seen his role as that of a movie star, even when fighting in Saipan. ‘I must have seen too many John Wayne movies,’ he said, ‘because what I was doing was suicidal.”
Suicidal but effective. By the time his combat days came to an end, he had captured more Japanese prisoners than any other soldier.
‘When I began taking prisoners it became an addiction,’ he said, ‘I found that I couldn’t stop. I was hooked.'
UK paperback
I am the author of seven works of narrative history including the best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg and, most recently, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. If you'd like to buy my books, click here for UK readers and here for US readers. For more information about my books, visit


  1. Fascinating, and it underscores the value of bilingualism & biculturalism, but the even more interesting question goes unanswered: How did Gabaldon manage this? What was his technique?

  2. Yes, I agree with the comment above? What was the gist of his argument that convinced these soldiers to surrender?

  3. It seems that the promise of food and especially of medical equipment was his key bargaining tool. And a lot of bravado!

  4. This one wants to fight..if given a chance :)

  5. I recently visited Saipan and it was really disturbing to me that so many people committed suicide at Marpi point.I am really glad to hear that it wasn't all bad and that there was some love and compassion during such a tragic event. God bless you Guy!

  6. what this article doesn't mention was how angry the Latino community was when Hollywood casts the 5'4" tall LATINO Soldier with a Euro-American about 6'3" tall actor'. As a group, they were hoping this film and other media would help them garner more acceptance by the Establishment for them through acknowledgement of their contributions.