The battle of Saipan ended 74 years ago — here’s how one Marine convinced 1,500 Japanese to surrender

If you’ve read the book Saipan: Suicide Island, watched the movie Hell to Eternity, or you’re a World War II buff, then you may have heard of the heroic actions of Corporal Guy Gabaldon.

However, there are many who don’t know about the remarkable, true story of Corporal Gabaldon, a US Marine who earned the Navy Cross after single-handedly capturing around 1,500 Japanese soldiers during the Battles of Saipan and Tinian.

Born in Los Angeles, California to a Mexican family, Gabaldon was one of seven children. At the age of 10, he helped his family by shining shoes and also got involved in a local, multi-cultural gang known as the “Moe Gang.”

A hand grenade thrown by the US Marine at left flies toward a Japanese position on Saipan Island in 1944. The Marine at center has pulled the pin from another grenade, already smoking, as he draws back to aim it in the air.
AP Photo/US Marine Signal Corps

At the age of 12, he moved to live with the Nakanos, a Japanese-American family he considered an extension of his own. He couldn’t have known at the time, but the experience of growing up in a Japanese household would later serve him well during his time as a US Marine.

While he lived with the Nakano family, he learned about Japanese language and culture, gaining knowledge that would later give him a unique advantage in war. Unfortunately, the Nakanos were relocated to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming at the outbreak of World War II, forcing Gabaldon to move to Alaska and work in a cannery until his 17th birthday, when he joined the Marine Corps.

In 1943, Gabaldon signed up to fight in the Pacific and was assigned to Headquarters and Service Company, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division to be a scout and observer and when the United States began their invasion of Saipan. Gabaldon would soon prove that Marines are badasses, even without weapons.

On his first night on Saipan, Gabaldon put what he had learned from the Nakono family to use. First, he went out on his own and convinced two Japanese soldiers to surrender and return to camp with him.

US Marines with rifles ready watch the entrance of a Japanese foxhole after blowing it up with demolition charges, during the invasion of Saipan, in July 1944.
AP Photo/US Marines

Despite capturing two prisoners without firing a shot, he was reprimanded and threatened with court-martial for abandoning his post. That didn’t stop him from going back out that night and doing it again. This time, he found a cave where the Japanese were hiding. Gabaldon killed one of the guards and yelled into the cave (speaking Japanese), convincing the others to surrender peacefully. He returned with 50 prisoners the next morning.

Now, instead of being chewed out by his superiors, they decided to authorize him to capture more soldiers, operating as a “lone wolf.” He then captured two more guards, sending one back to his hiding spot to convince others to surrender as well. Soon enough, a Japanese officer showed up to talk with Gabaldon. They would negotiate for a time before agreeing to terms of surrender, taking more than 800 soldiers and civilians out of the fight against the Americans.

He didn’t stop there.

US Army reinforcements wade ashore from landing ship tanks in the background, at Saipan, about 1,500 miles from Japan, in June 1944.
AP Photo/US Army Signal Corps

During the battle for the Tinian Islands, Gabaldon continued to persuade Japanese soldiers to surrender. Eventually, his negotiations resulted in the surrender of approximately 1,500 soldiers and civilians across both Saipan and the Tinian Islands.

For his actions, he was recommended for a Medal of Honor. This request was denied, and he was instead awarded a Silver Star, which was elevated to a Navy Cross in 1960.

In 2005, the Pentagon honored Gabaldon and other Hispanic Americans who fought in World War II. In 2006, he passed after a battle with heart disease.

Currently, the Department of Defense is reviewing his case to see if his Navy Cross is to be upgraded to a Medal of Honor.

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