Guts! Glory! Gallantry!

February 24, 2014 at 9:47 am

By Terry Watada

Once upon a long time ago, I sat in front of the family television set on a dull Saturday afternoon.  The challenges of “regular” school and Japanese school were done with and I revelled in the freedom the weekend brings.  I tuned in to WKBW out of Buffalo, New York, which was showing its Saturday afternoon movie: Hell to Eternity.  No, not the considered classic wartime soap opera From Here to Eternity.

Hell to Eternity was the “true” story of Guy Gabaldon, a Hispanic kid adopted by a Japanese American family, the Nakanos, in East Los Angeles in the early 1930s.  The film stars Hollywood leading man Jeffrey Hunter (about Hispanic as I am), David Janssen (long before his Fugitive days), Vic Damone in his first dramatic vehicle (I hope he went back to crooning Volare after this), and the great Sessue Hayakawa (a matinee idol of the silent era and fresh from his Oscar nominated role in Bridge Over the River Kwai).  A treat for me was seeing the wonderful George Takei (billed as Takai by the way) in an early role.  Other Japanese American actors included Miko Taka, Michi Koba, Tsuru Aoki (Sessue Hayakawa’s wife) and Reiko Sato (best known for playing the unrequited love-struck seamstress Helen Chao in Flower Drum Song).

The story was a surprise to me since it was the first to depict an internment camp.  The family went to Manzanar.  What was completely laughable was the rather ideal cabin the Nakanos were assigned – looked more like a cottage than a prison.  At the time, I of course overlooked that anomaly and instead was angered by the racism faced by the JAs and taken in by the exploits of the Marine who acted as interpreter at first (he was fluent in Japanese because of his upbringing) but then he was pressed into combat.  During the Battle of Saipan, he singlehandedly captured 1500 Japanese soldiers and civilians.  Amazing.  Viewing it was a nice way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

I had a chance to see the film again this past summer since it came out in DVD in 2007.  I had learned a few things along the way.  First of all, Guy Gabaldon was 18 at the time when he landed on Saipan – a ridiculously young age to be a hero.  He did indeed capture all those prisoners by himself.  The Manzanar Camp still looked as cozy as it did when I first saw the film.  George Takei or Takai as he was billed looked very young and made the most out of his small role.  Glad to know his character was said to have joined the 442.  The scenes in Hawaii were simply silly, especially the drunk scene with the Asian strippers and bar girls.  But Gabaldon’s heroism came through, for which he won the Silver Star.  The medal was upgraded in 1960 to the Navy Cross, the second highest distinction the Marines can bestow.  Various organizations have urged the Pentagon to upgrade the medal again to the Medal of Honor.  It is apparently under consideration.

The truth behind the man’s life was much more remarkable.  He abandoned his post on Saipan several times to go out into the field to capture Japanese soldiers.  Though he was threatened with court martial, he did it over and over again until he was designated a “lone wolf operator”.  He was recommended for the Medal of Honor by his Commanding Officer since he captured more enemy combatants than Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. York in WWI but was overlooked.  Like the members of the 442, he wasn’t “white” enough for the powers-that-be, I suspect.

After the war and an Honorable Discharge, he moved to Mexico to start various small businesses.  He married twice; his second wife was Ohana Suzuki.  After his story was featured on the 1950s television show This is Your Life, Hollywood came knocking and the film was produced in 1960.  By the 1970s, he moved with his family to Saipan where he lived for the next 20 years.

After moving back to the US in the 1990s, he lived a quiet life in California and Florida.  From time to time, he was honoured by the Pentagon and the Hispanic community for his heroism.  He died in August 2006.  He is survived by his wife Ohana and nine children, 6 sons and 3 daughters.

I am grateful that the film was made.  Otherwise, I never would have known about this great Hispanic American hero and his relationship with the Japanese American community.  Gabaldon did capture without firing a shot 1500 of the enemy in WWII after all.  Those he kills in the film may be chalked up to Hollywood sensationalism.  Not sure how many he actually did kill or wound.

What is outrageous about the film is seeing Hollywood’s prejudice in action assigning Jeffrey Hunter to the starring role.  Really?  It approaches the criminal.  Then again Johnny Depp did play a full-blooded Native American even today.  And let’s not forget Keeanu Reeves in the coming remake of the 49 Ronin.  I wonder what he plays?