Of all the Marine Corps bases throughout the world, Camp Pendleton has one of the most intriguing pasts, filled with historical charm and vibrancy. Spanish explorers, colorful politicians, herds of thundering cattle, skillful vaqueros and tough Marines have all contributed to the history of this land.
Sept. 25 marks the 75th anniversary of the dedication of the camp by President Franklin Roosevelt as a Marine Corps installation. What started as a Spanish missionary installation is now one of the largest Marine Corps bases in the world – and a much-needed break between the urban expanse of San Diego and Orange counties.
In 1769, a Spaniard by the name of Capt. Gaspar de Portola led an expeditionary force northward from southern California, seeking to establish Franciscan missions throughout California. On July 20 of that same year, the expedition arrived at a location now known as Camp Pendleton, and as it was the holy day St. Margaret, they baptized the land in the name of Santa Margarita.
During the next 30 years, 21 missions were established, the most productive one being Mission San Luis Rey, just south of the present-day Camp Pendleton. At that time, San Luis Rey Mission had control over the Santa Margarita area.
In 1821, following Mexico’s independence from Spain, the Californios became the new ruling class of California, and many were the first generation descendants of the Portola expedition. The Mexican governor was awarding land grants and ranchos to prominent businessmen, officials, and military leaders. In 1841, two brothers by the name of Pio and Andres Pico became the first private owners of Rancho Santa Margarita. More land was later added to the grant, making the name Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, and that name stayed with the ranch until the Marine Corps acquired it in 1942.
In 1863, a dashing Englishman named John Forster (Pio Pico’s brother-in-law) paid off Pico’s gambling debts in return for the deed to the ranch. During his tenure as owner of the ranch, he expanded the ranch house, which was begun by the Picos in 1841, and developed the rancho into a thriving cattle industry.
Forster’s heirs, however, were forced to sell the ranch in 1882 because of a string of bad luck, which included a series of droughts and a fence law that forced Forster to construct fencing around the extensive rancho lands. It was purchased by wealthy cattleman James Flood and managed by Irishman Richard O’Neill who was eventually rewarded for his faithful service with half ownership. Under the guidance of O’Neill’s son, Jerome, the ranch began to net a profit of nearly half a million dollars annually, and the house was modernized and furnished to its present form.
In the early 1940s, both the Army and the Marine Corps were looking for land for a large training base. The Army lost interest in the project, but in April of 1942 it was announced that the rancho was about to be transformed into the largest Marine Corps base in the country. The Marine Corps paid $4.2 million for the rancho.
On the eve of World War II, the Marine training bases were limited to Quantico, VA, Parris Island, SC, and San Diego. When the expansion of all U.S. armed forces was authorized by President Roosevelt’s proclamation of an unlimited national emergency on May 27, 1941, an immediate need for additional amphibious force training facilities led to the construction of Camp Pendleton.
After five months of construction, the Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, which included San Onofre, became the West Coast’s largest military camp. The first troops to occupy the new Base were the 9th Marine Regiment with the 1st Battalion, 12th Marines, who marched for three days from Camp Elliott in San Diego to Camp Pendleton. President Roosevelt dedicated the Base on Sept. 25, 1942, in honor of World War I Major General Joseph H. Pendleton who had long advocated the establishment of a West Coast training base.
By 1943, the first women Marine reservists arrived to help keep base administration running smoothly. The O’Neill’s blacksmith shop became the Ranch House Chapel and opened primarily for their use.
By October 1944, Camp Pendleton was declared a “permanent installation” and by 1946, became the home of the 1st Marine Division.
During the Korean War, $20 million helped expand and upgrade existing facilities, including the construction of Camp Horno. When Camp Pendleton trained the country’s fighting force for the Korean and Vietnam Wars, approximately 200,000 Marines passed through the Base on their way to the Far East.
The Corps broadened its capabilities during the 1980s from “amphibious” to “expeditionary” by combining infantry, armor, supply and air power. Troops and equipment could now be deployed halfway around the world in only days as part of a self-sustaining air-ground team. This successful use of military power has been demonstrated through Marine Corps operations in Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti Afghanistan and Iraq.
Camp Pendleton has continued to grow through renovations, replacing its original tent camps with more than 2,600 buildings and 500 miles of roads.
Kurt Chew-Een Lee is believed to have been the first Asian-American officer in the Marine Corps, rising through the ranks beginning his career from World War II to the Vietnam War.
Lee was born in 1926 in San Francisco and grew up in Sacramento, California. Lee’s father was M. Young Lee, born in Guangzhou (Canton), emigrating in the 1920s to the Territory of Hawaii and then California. Once established in America, M. Young Lee returned to China to honor an arranged marriage. He brought his bride to California and worked as a distributor of fruits and vegetable to hotels and restaurants. Two of his brothers, Chew-Fan and Chew-Mon, became Army officers who also served in the Korean War. Chew-Mon received the Distinguished Service Cross and Chew-Fan the Bronze Star.
Eager to fight in World War II, Kurt Chew-Een Lee joined the U.S. Marine in 1944. Instead, he was based at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego as a language instructor.
From October 1945 to April 1946, Lee was enrolled in The Basic School, newly reactivated for USMC officer training. Second Lieutenant Lee graduated to become the first non-white officer and the first Asian-American officer in the Marine Corps. He deployed to Guam and China to interrogate Japanese prisoners of war
He was the only person of Asian ancestry many of his fellow Marines had ever met. Behind his back, some called him a “Chinese laundry man” and questioned whether he was ready to kill Chinese soldiers. Some even questioned his loyalty as U.S. forces were battling Chinese forces, which had joined the conflict on the side of North Koreans
But as his unit faced the intense enemy fire, rugged territory, and brutal weather, he won his men’s loyalty as he repeatedly put himself at risk to protect his unit and others.
When the North Koreans attacked across the DMZ in June 1950, Lee’s unit was shipped out to Korea on September 1, 1950. For two weeks he drilled his machine-gun platoon day and night on the deck of the ship, enduring derision from the other platoon leaders.
After arriving in Japan for final battle preparations, Lee’s superiors tried to reassign him as staff officer handling translation duties. Lee insisted that he was only there to “fight communists,” and allowed to retain command of his machine gun platoon.
The 1st Battalion 7th Marines, including Lee, landed at Inchon on September 21, 1950, to attack the North Koreans and force them to retreat northwards. The People’s Republic of China sent troops to stiffen the North Korean fighting response. On the night of November 2 – 3 in the Sudong Gorge, Lee conducted a sole reconnaissance mission in heavy snow, moving well ahead of his unit. He fired rounds and threw grenades to make it sound like the Marines were advancing.
When Lee reached the outpost where the Chinese forces were hiding, he employed a ruse no one in his unit could’ve done. “Don’t shoot!” he yelled. “I’m Chinese.”
Hearing Chinese confused them and the temporary distraction proved crucial as the Marines launched a counterattack.
During the attack, Lee kept his men focused by directing them to shoot at the enemy’s muzzle flashes. Following this, Lee single-handedly advanced upon the enemy front and attacked their positions one by one to draw their fire and reveal themselves.
His men fired at the muzzle flashes and inflicted casualties, forcing the enemy to retreat. While advancing, Lee shouted to the enemy in Mandarin Chinese to sow confusion and then attacked with hand grenades and gunfire. Lee was wounded in the knee and in the morning light was shot in the right elbow by a sniper, shattering the bones. He was evacuated to an army field hospital outside of Hamhung. For bravely attacking the enemy and saving his men, Lee was awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest honor given for combat bravery.
“Despite serious wounds sustained as he pushed forward,” the citation read, “First Lieutenant Lee charged directly into the face of the enemy fire and, by his dauntless fighting spirit and resourcefulness, served to inspire other members of his platoon to heroic efforts in pressing a determined counterattack and driving the hostile forces from the sector.”
Some who either served with Maj. Lee or knew of him said they believed he was deserving of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award.
Less than a month later, while Lee was recovering in a field hospital from a gunshot wound to an arm, tens of thousands of Chinese forces surged into the region, overwhelming 8,000 American troops fighting as United Nations forces.
His arm was still in a sling when he and a sergeant left the hospital against orders, commandeered an Army jeep and returned to the front. Over the next two weeks, Lee helped lead his unit of several hundred Marines across snowy mountain passes at night, using only a compass to find and reinforce smaller groups that had been surrounded.
Late on December 2nd after several days of exhausting combat during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, Lee’s platoon was given the task of spearheading a 500-man thrust against the Chinese forces to relieve the outnumbered Fox Company of 2nd Battalion 7th Marines trapped on Fox Hill, part of Toktong Pass and strategic to controlling the Chosin Reservoir road. Lee’s relief force was given heavier loads to carry through the snow, up and down lightly wooded hills, through the extreme cold (-20 F, -29 C), and under the very limited visibility of snow blizzard and darkness. Lt. Col. Ray Davis, Commanding Officer of 1st Battalion, had no instructions for Lee on how to accomplish the mission except to stay off the roads with their heavily reinforced roadblocks.
As point man of 2nd Rifle Platoon in Baker Company, Lee used only his compass to guide his way, leading 1st Battalion in single file. Suddenly pinned down by heavy enemy fire coming from a rocky hill, Lee refused to be delayed in his mission. He directed the men to attack the hill with “marching fire”, a stratagem used by General George S. Patton in which troops continue to advance as they apply just enough suppressive fire to keep the enemy’s heads down. Upon reaching the rocky hill, Lee and the battalion charged, attacking enemy soldiers in their foxholes. Lee, with his right arm still in a cast, shot two enemy soldiers on his way to the top. When he reached the top, he noticed that the other side of the hill was covered with enemy foxholes facing the other way in expectation of an attack from the road, but the foxholes were now empty and the enemy soldiers were over 400 yards (370 m) away in rout because of the fearfully sudden 1st Battalion attack from their rear.
Following this success, communication was established with nearby Fox Company on Fox Hill. 1st Battalion directed mortar fire against the enemy and called in an airstrike, then Lee led Baker Company forward in an attack which forced a path to Fox Company. During this attack, a Chinese machine gunner targeted Lee, wounding him seriously enough to end his Korean War service. Regrouping his men, the badly wounded Lee led Baker Company in more firefights against pockets of enemy soldiers in the Toktong Pass area, securing the road. Lieutenant Colonel Davis received the Medal of Honor for commanding the relief of Fox Company. For this action, Lee was awarded the Silver Star.
“First Lieutenant Lee’s platoon was pinned down by intense hostile fire while attacking south on the main service road from Koto-Ri,” the citation said. “Observing that the heavy fire was inflicting numerous casualties, he exposed himself to the deadly fire to move among his troops, shouting words of encouragement and directing a withdrawal to covered positions. Assured that the last of his wounded was undercover, he was seeking shelter for himself when he was struck down and severely wounded by a burst of enemy machine-gun fire.”
In addition to the Navy Cross and the Silver Star, Maj. Lee received many other military honors, including a Purple Heart. While serving in the Vietnam War, he received his second Purple Heart. He also received the Legion of Merit.
Slight of build at 5 feet 6 inches tall and 130 pounds, he brought outsize determination to the battlefield, and his heroics have been recounted in books and a documentary film, “Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin,” shown on the Smithsonian Channel in 2010.Among books written featuring his exploits is “Colder the Hell: A Marine Rifle Company at Chosin Reservoir” (1996) by Joseph R. Owen.
Lee retired from military service at the rank of major in 1968 and worked a civilian job with New York Life Insurance Company for seven years. During this period, Lee’s mother died in Sacramento, and Lee’s brother Chew-Mon Lee died at the rank of colonel in the US Army while serving as an attache in Taiwan. His brother Chew-Fan Lee advanced in his career as a hospital pharmacist. In 1975, Lee began working as a regulatory compliance coordinator for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association; a position he held for almost two decades.
His first wife, Linda Rivera, died. His second marriage, to Helga Schneider Lee, ended in divorce. Neither marriage produced children. He had a step-daughter from his second marriage.
Kurt Chew-Een Lee died on March 3, 2014, at the age of 88.
Survivors include a stepdaughter, Nicole Ashley; and three sisters: Faustina Lee, Betty Mar and Juliet Yokoe and his brother Chew-Fan.
Together We Served is pleased to feature one of our Association Partners, the Marine Corps Mustang Association.
On 10 November 1985, Captain Robert E. Richter, USMC (Ret) founded The Marine Corps Mustang Association (MCMA), in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The MCMA is a full member of and participant in the National Marine Corps Council of Agencies.
Membership is open to any Marine, after having served on active duty in the enlisted ranks of the United States Marine Corps or Marine Corps Reserve, and has risen to the officer ranks, and further served as a commissioned or warrant officer on either active duty or reserve status.
View the service history of Actor/Director
PFC Bill Bixby
US Marine Corps
View his Service Profile on TogetherWeServed.com
Bio: Best remembered as the human side of “The Hulk” Dr. David Banner,Bixby signed up for the Marine Corps Reserve five days after his 18th birthday, he was a senior in high school. He was honorably discharged on April 8, 1957.
By LtCol Mike Christy-Together We Served Dispatches
On March 31, 2004, a private contractor’s convoy was traveling through Fallujah when it was ambushed by heavily armed insurgents. Safeguarding the convoy were four Blackwater USA employees – Scott Helvenston, Jerry Zovko, Wesley Batalona, and Michael Teague. The four were killed by machine gunfire and a grenade thrown through a window of their SUVs. Their charred bodies were dragged from the burning wreckage of their vehicles by a mob, mutilated, dragged through the streets, and two were hung on display from a bridge over the Euphrates river as the crowd celebrated below.
The public display of the beaten and burned bodies of the four security contractors triggered worldwide outrage. In response to the gruesome slaughter of the private security guards, a U.S.-led operation to retake Fallujah began on April 4, 2004 – only four days after the macabre incident.
Within a week, a third of the city had been retaken, but due to the considerable destruction of the city and heavy civilian deaths by U.S. airstrikes, the interim Iraqi government pressured the American forces to withdraw from the city on May 1, 2004. The U.S. then turned over military operations to 1,100-man Fallujah Brigade, led by Muhammed Latif, a former Ba’athist general, but when the brigade folded in September, American weapons and equipment fell into the hand of the insurgents, foreign fighters, and criminals. The Marine command vowed to return and establish some semblance of peacefulness in Fallujah.
The U.S. suffered 27 deaths in the campaign; some 200 insurgents were killed and approximate 600 Iraqi civilians; 300 of them believed to be women and children.
By the early fall of 2004, the chief objective of the American campaign was to eliminate burgeoning insurgency in safe havens in advance of Iraq’s first parliamentary elections after the American invasion. The legitimacy of the interim government, and the upcoming elections appeared to hang in the balance. Fallujah, a city of 250,000 less than an hour’s drive from Baghdad, was the mother of all safe havens and was among the cities to be retaken.
This metropolis on the edge of the desert had a well-earned reputation as a home for former Ba’athist party enforcers and other criminal elements. It was a squalid, unattractive place, unfriendly to strangers – a city, writes military historian Bing West, “comprised of two thousand blocks of courtyard walls, tenements, two-story concrete houses, and squalid alleyways. Half-completed houses, garbage heaps, and wrecks of old cars cluttered every neighborhood.”
The Corps couldn’t wait to assault the city and mix it up with a colorful mÃ©lange of al Qaeda, freelance Islamist extremists from across the Middle East, and several Sunni militia groups.
That chance came in November and December 2004 with the Second Battle of Fallujah – code-named Operation Al-Fajr and Operation Phantom Fury – as part of a joint American, Iraqi, and British offensive. It turned out to be the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War and is notable for being the first major engagement of the war fought solely against insurgents rather than the force of the former Ba’athist Iraqi government, which was toppled in 2003.
Unlike the recent struggle to take the city back from ISIS, the outcome of the fall 2004 encounter was never really in doubt. Superior numbers, training, and an immense advantage in firepower ensured that the Fallujah would fall to the Americans. The critical questions were, how much blood and treasure would it take to wrest the city from the enemy? Would the city have to be destroyed to be saved? And most importantly, would victory in Fallujah reverse the momentum of an insurgency steadily growing in both numbers and intensity across much of the country?
Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, the top commander of Marines in Iraq, had the luxury of several months to prepare their plan of attack, which proved to be a very successful plan. A preliminary feint from the southwest 24 hours before the main assault would draw off considerable numbers of jihadists from the northern sector of the city, the direction from which the main attack would proceed. A U.S. Army armored brigade had thrown a tight cordon around the entire city, preventing reinforcements or resupplies from reaching the enemy.
Crucially, the Iraqi government and the Americans had managed to persuade/cajole well over 90 percent of the city’s populace to evacuate their homes, so if the American infantry ran into exceedingly tough resistance, they could employ the full range of their lethal supporting arms – Abrams tanks, the steel rain of 105-mm shells from circling C-130 gunships, jet fighter-bombers, and of course, artillery fire – without fear of causing large numbers of civilian casualties.
During this time, it was clear that an assault on the city was imminent and the insurgents prepared a variety of defenses and strong points. The attack on the city was assigned to Lt. Gen. Sattler’s I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MED).
With the city cordoned off, efforts were made to suggest that the Coalition attack would come from the south and southeast as had occurred in April during the Firsts Battle of Fallujah. Instead, I MEF intended to assault the city from the north across its entire breadth. On November 6, Regimental Combat Team 1 (RCT-1), consisting of the 3rd Battalion/1st Marines, 3rd Battalion/5th Marines, and the U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion/7th Cavalry, moved into position to assault the western half of Fallujah from the north.
They were joined by Regimental Combat Team 7 (RCT-7), made up of the 1st Battalion/8th Marines, 1st Battalion/3rd Marines and the U.S. Army 2nd Battalion/2nd Infantry which would attack the eastern part of the city. These units were joined by Iraqi as well.
With Fallujah sealed, operations began at 7 pm, November 7, when Task Force Wolfpack moved to take objectives on the west bank of the Euphrates River opposite Fallujah. While Iraqi commandoes captured Fallujah General Hospital, Marines secured the two bridges over the river to cut off any enemy retreat from the city.
A similar blocking mission was undertaken by the British Black Watch Regiment south and east of Fallujah.
During the cold, rainy evening of November 8, the northern rim of the city came under a thunderous and sustained bombardment from artillery and warplanes. Hundreds of 155-mm shells and 500-pound high-explosive bombs shook the earth across a three-mile front, obliterating a train station and a large apartment complex on the outskirts of the city.
An eerie silence followed. Suddenly the two Regimental Combat Teams of Marine infantry and Army armored battalions, about 8,000 men in all, crossed a railroad embankment and began to push south into the city proper. Within seconds, the American advance was met with an avalanche of small arms and mortar fire. Over the earsplitting din of simultaneous fire from thousands of weapons, loudspeakers on Marine Humvees blared Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” and insurgent commanders barked orders in Arabic over their own loudspeakers, ensconced in the minarets of several of the city’s 200 mosques.
Thus, began ten straight days of brutal, close-in fighting to sweep through this labyrinth of a city, north to south, and wrest it from the insurgents’ grasp. The jihadists had spent the better part of half a year constructing bunkers, strong points, and laying out avenues of retreat, and ambush sites. Hundreds of rooms and entire houses had been expertly booby-trapped, and IEDs had been liberally planted in the streets and alleys. Road blocks of Jersey barriers and junk cars designed to funnel the attackers down lethal avenues of approach seemed to be around every other corner. As the insurgents came under fire from the advancing American battalions, they tended to react in one of two ways: they either held their ground and fought to the death, or they rapidly retreated down side streets or into alleys, hoping to lure the Marines and soldiers into prepared kill zones.
Dexter Filkins, a New York Times war correspondent who had covered half a dozen wars and was embedded with a Marine rifle company in Fallujah, described the combat there as “a qualitatively different experience, a leap into a different kind of battle.” He was hardly the only veteran reporter to register that reaction. Filkins himself narrowly escaped death at least once in the fighting and saw several of the men with whom he was embedded die as well.
Later Gen. Sattler recalled the battle “was intense, close, and personal, the likes of which have been experienced by U.S. forces on just a few occasions since the battle of Hue City in the Vietnam War. There were no real front lines, because the insurgents would get behind you constantly.”
On November 9, after 16 straight hours of fighting to take a fortified mosque being used as a command post, men in B Company, 8th Marines, saw a car pull up behind them. Out poured six insurgents wielding rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s. The Marines sprung in action, killing four in a matter of seconds before the insurgents could get off a single round of fire. The two remaining insurgents dashed for a courtyard, where they were rapidly cornered by several Marines. Suddenly, one of the insurgents pulled a cord on his suicide vest, sending himself and his brother fighter to instant martyrdom. Virtually every infantry company in Fallujah could report at least one such encounter.
Forty-eight hours into the fight, the Marines had advanced methodically through about one-third of the city, and seized the government center, having leveled several hundred enemy strongpoints to rubble with air strikes, tank fire, and armored bulldozers that proved critical in keeping the advance moving. The insurgents were so entrenched that by the end of the fight, the Marines had been forced to level some 10,000 of 50,000 residences – most were rebuilt at American expense.
On the fourth day of the battle, November 12, both Regimental Combat Teams crossed Highway 10, the six-lane, east-west artery that divided the northern half of the city from the grimy industrial southern half. Southern Falluja had been far more heavily fortified than the north. Here the Marines came up against dozens of unyielding defensive pockets and had to fend off a series of suicidal counterattacks that left the streets littered with bloated, stinking corpses. “Almost as soon as the insurgents were dead, the dogs started gnawing on their bones,” recalled a Marine officer. Heavy rains prevented the authorities from burying these bodies for several days.
It sometimes became necessary to slip small units of Marines in behind the enemy-held pockets to clear them out. Marine Capt. Elliot Ackerman’s platoon slipped behind insurgent lines in the middle of the night, and took up residence in a four-story building.
Author Bing West, who was embedded with a company of Marines in the battle, gives this vivid account of what followed in ‘No True Glory’: “At first light, on both sides of their building, insurgents were slipping forward in bands of four and six unaware of the Marines until the M16s opened up, hitting three or four before the others ducked into the surrounding buildings.”
The insurgents scattered for cover, then converged on the platoon. Within minutes the fighting fell into a pattern. The platoon held a stout building with open ground on all sides, which made a frontal assault suicidal. Instead, enemy snipers, RPG teams, and machine-gunners were running from floor to floor and across the roofs of the adjoining buildings looking for angles to shoot down.
The Marines tried to pick out a window or a corner of a building where an insurgent was hiding and smother it with fire. The shooters on both sides were like experienced boxers, jabbing and weaving and never leaving themselves open. The Marines punched mouse holes in the walls and threw up barricades in front of their machine guns, shifting from room to room every ten minutes.
A particularly effective method for reducing stubborn enemy positions within apartment buildings or other large structures was for the American artillery to fire a “shake and bake” mission: First, a battery of cannons fired incendiary white phosphorus smoke rounds into a building to flush the insurgents outside, and then, after a short delay, they bracketed the building with high explosive rounds to kill them as they exited.
After ten days of grinding, close combat, the Americans, supported by two elite Iraqi Army battalions, had captured the city.
The heavy fighting continued for the next several days as Coalition forces went house-to-house eliminating insurgent resistance. The fighting was not as intense as it had been during the clearing phase, but it was still dangerous, exhausting work. More than 20,000 structures were searched and cleared – some as many as three times, as insurgent hangers-on re-infiltrated previously cleared dwellings. If the Marines were forced to withdraw from a house due to heavy fire from inside, they would reduce it to rubble by attaching a patch of C-4 explosive to two propane canisters and throwing them through a window.
By the time it was all over on December 23, U.S. forces had uncovered more than 450 weapons caches, three torture chambers, one of which contained a live prisoner who’d had his leg sawed off, and 24 bomb-making factories. According to a log cited in Bing West’s book, one Marine platoon cleared 70 or more buildings a day for more than a week, during which time they engaged in an average of three firefights a day, and killed 60 insurgents.
The outcome for taking Fallujah was 95 Americans killed in action, and 450 seriously wounded. According to a report from Gen. George Casey Jr., commander of all coalition forces in Iraq, of the 8,400 insurgents killed in 2004, 2,175 had fallen in the Second Battle of Fallujah. Unfortunately, hundreds of Islamist insurgents had either left Fallujah before the battle or slipped through the cordon in small groups and went on to join their brothers to spark new uprisings in Mosul, Ramadi, and East Baghdad.
Even though Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi – the mastermind behind hundreds of bombings, kidnappings and video beheadings in Iraq – was not captured during the operation, the battle severely damaged the momentum of the insurgency. Tactics that were developed in the battles of Fallujah were used on larger scales to capture Ramadi and other surrounding areas afterward. After the Second Battle of Fallujah, the insurgents avoided open battles, but the number of attacks on coalition troops began to rise more. Four years after the bitter fighting, the city was turned over to Iraqi Forces and the Iraqi Provincial Authority.
The Second Battle of Fallujah joins the ranks of Tarawa, the Chosin Reservoir, and the Battle for Hue as one of the Marine Corps’ bitter, hard-won triumphs that unfortunately had little strategic impact on the war of which it was a part.
One veteran of the battle, Col. John Toolan, was hardly the only thoughtful officer to question whether the kind of fighting that had gone on in Fallujah was counterproductive in the long run. “What’s the impact on a ten-year-old kid when he goes back and sees his neighborhood destroyed? And what is he going to do when he is 18 years old?”
Hearts and minds are not won by leveling cities, and by late 2004, the American military was finally waking up to the fact that it was in the middle of a protracted insurgency war, and hearts and minds were what it was all about.
Twelve years later, the Marines have left Iraq, the insurgents remain, and the country finds itself deeply mired in civil war. But Fallujah has at last been retaken, and the Islamic State is clearly on the defensive – at least in Iraq. And that’s good news for Iraq, for the United States, and for the American Marines and soldiers who fought the good fight for Fallujah in 2004.
Unfortunately, even today, more than a decade later, much of Iraq and the Middle East is still beset by violence.
By LtCol Mike Christy-Together We Served Dispatches
U.S. Marines are known for being hard-chargers; for never giving up and overcoming whatever obstacle they may face. Perhaps no Marine exemplified this willingness to prevail against overwhelming odds better than Guy Louis Gabaldon – “The Pied Piper of Saipan.” He earned the sobriquet in June 1944 when he was 18-years-old by capturing or persuading over two thousand Japanese Soldiers and civilians to surrender during the battles for Saipan and Tinian islands during World War II.
Gabaldon was born in Boyle Heights, California on March 22, 1926, one of seven children in a Mexican-American family. As a ten-year-old, he helped his family by shining shoes on skid row in downtown Los Angeles. Growing up in a tough Hispanic barrio, he became a member of a multi-ethnic gang known as the “Moe Gang.” Like the rest of his gang members, he had a disregard for authority and was always in some kind of trouble. That began to change, however, when he was twelve and “adopted” by the Nakano family, a loving Japanese-American family who raised him as part of their extended family. While living with the Nakano family, he attended Japanese language and culture classes with the family’s children, eventually learning to speak Japanese.
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Nakano family, like most Japanese-American families living on the West Coast at the time, was sent to an internment camp at Heart Mountain Relocation Center, in Wyoming. “I wanted to go to the internment camp with them, but they wouldn’t let me,” Gabaldon would later say. Instead, he moved to Alaska to work in a cannery. On March 22, 1943, his 17th birthday, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and was sent to Camp Pendleton for basic training. Gabaldon then attended the Enlisted Marine Japanese Language School at Camp Elliot and following graduation, he was then assigned to Headquarters and Service Company, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, as a Scout and Observer.
As the Marine Corps island-hopped across the Pacific and closed in on Japan, military officials were faced with the dilemma of whether or not to launch a land invasion of the Japanese home islands. Eventually, American military officials decided against invading Japan, as it would cost an estimated one million American and countless more Japanese lives. Instead, the island of Saipan, located in the Northern Mariana Islands, was chosen as a base of operations on which airfields could be built to launch B-29 Superfortress bombers against the Japanese mainland.
After two days of intense bombardment by fifteen battleships of the Armada, on June 15, 1944, more than 300 LVTs landed an initial 8,000 Marine force, including Marines from the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions, on the west coast of Saipan under covering fire from eleven support ships, including battleships cruisers and destroyers to being the invasion against a force of more than 30,000entreneched Japanese Soldiers. This was just a fraction of 71,000 American force who would eventually load on Saipan and battle the Japanese. To further complicate matters, Japanese Soldiers, under the impression that they would be immediately executed by the Americans, rarely surrendered. Even as it became apparent that the Americans would eventually take the island, the Japanese Soldiers were ordered by their commanding officers on Saipan to kill seven Americans for every Japanese soldier lost or to commit suicide rather than be captured or surrender. The term “human bullets” was coined by the Japanese to describe these suicidal forces, in their first honest reporting following the loss of the island.
It was against this fanatical force that, after arriving on Saipan, Gabaldon defied orders and left camp his first night on the island to try to capture Japanese Soldiers and brought back two prisoners using his limited Japanese. For leaving his post without permission, Gabaldon was reprimanded by his superior officers and threatened with a court-martial. Despite the threat of disciplinary action, Gabaldon left his post again the following night for the same reason. This time, he approached a cave, shot two guards, and yelled in Japanese to the Soldiers inside, “You’re surrounded and have no choice but to surrender. Come out, and you will not be killed. I assure you will be well-treated. We do not want to kill you.” The Soldiers exited the cave and the next morning Gabaldon returned to camp with 50 prisoners. As a result of his effectiveness, Gabaldon received permission from his commanding officer, Capt. John Schwabe, to act as a “lone wolf” operator. He could do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. The perfect task for a tough Hispanic kid from the East Los Angeles barrios.
On July 6, Gabaldon left on another of his evening patrols and entered an area near Saipan’s northern cliffs. It seemed fairly deserted at the time, but before daybreak, he realized that hundreds of enemy infantry were moving onto the flats and gathering for an assault. By this time he was cut off from any path of retreat and any attempt to show himself would have resulted in a quick and noisy death. He remained under cover and listened as thousands of Japanese troops and some civilians drank sake and loudly prepared for the largest banzai charge of the campaign. The island’s commanding Japanese office, Lt. Gen. Yoshitsugu Saito, had mandated that all able-bodied civilians and all mobile wounded forces join in one final suicidal attack, saying “There is no longer any distinction between civilians and troops. It would be better for them to join in the attack with bamboo spears than be captured.” In addition, Emperor Hirohito had sent our an imperial order encouraging the civilian of Saipan to commit suicide, resulting in the death of many thousands of civilian, maybe as many as 12,000. Above photo is the funeral of Yoshitsugu Saito by American military personnel, Saipan, 1944.
The following morning, July 7, 1944, the battle to secure the Japanese occupied island of Saipan peaked in one of the largest banzai charges of the Pacific War. At dawn, with a group of 12 men carrying a great red flag in the lead, the 3000 remaining able-bodied Japanese troops under Lieut. Gen. Saito, plus the civilians he had coerced into joining them, charged forward in the final attack, followed by the barely armed wounded with bandaged heads and hobbling on crutches. The charge lasted over 15 hours and brought the total Japanese losses for the island battle to over 30,000, almost the entire Japanese garrison. Two American battalions were nearly annihilated in the battle leading to 650 casualties, while their fierce resistance resulted in over 4300 Japanese killed. Three Medals of Honor were awarded posthumously for that battle.
The next morning, American Marine reconnaissance patrols edged their dangerous way forward to map out Japanese lines. As one patrol approached the seacliffs lining the north side of the island, they were greeted by an extraordinary sight. On the flats at the top of the cliff was Guy Gabaldon surrounded by hundreds of Japanese troops, many of them still with weapons. One might have thought that this Marine was experiencing his last moments on earth. But as the incredulous scouts looked on, it became apparent that the lone Marine was actually ordering his hundreds of “prisoners” into smaller groups, even as more Japanese streamed quietly up from their ocean-side caves. Eventually, over eight hundred Japanese Soldiers and civilians surrendered to Gabaldon, an astonishing number considering that the battle for Tarawa a few months earlier had produced only 146 prisoners from a total garrison of nearly 5,000. The prisoners were turned over to the U.S. military authorities.
By the time of his July 8 capture of 800 prisoners, Gabaldon had already become well known on Saipan for his capture of hundreds of other die-hard enemy troops using a brisk combination of fluent Japanese and point-blank carbine fire.
Gabaldon continued to capture more Japanese people on Tinian. While back on Saipan fighting Japanese guerrillas still on the island, he was seriously wounded in an enemy machine-gun ambush. Gabaldon was credited with the capture of approximately 1,500 Japanese Soldiers and civilians on Saipan and Tinian and was recommended for the Medal of Honor by his commanding officer, Capt. John Schwabe, who noted that Gabaldon single-handedly captured more than ten times the number of prisoners taken by legendary Medal of Honor recipient, Sgt. Alvin C. York, in World War I. Despite this recommendation, Gabaldon was awarded a Silver Star Medal.
Overall, the Americans counted over 14,500 casualties in the battle for the island, among them nearly 3000 killed in action. Future Hollywood actor Lee Marvin of “I” Company, 24th Marine Regiment, was among the many Americans wounded on Saipan, shot in the buttocks by Japanese machine gun fire. Saipan causes another unexpected result: the loss of the island and the resulting shakeup in the Imperial Japanese Navy’s war staff led to the first honest reporting to the Japanese people of the events taking place in the Pacific as their forces were defeated and territory was lost, with a devastating effect on Japanese public opinion.
Gabaldon received an Honorable Discharge from the Marine Corps as a result of his combat wounds. After returning to civilian life, he moved to Mexico and ventured into various businesses such as a furniture store, fishing, and the import-export of Mexican goods. When his first marriage to June Gabaldon ended in divorce, he met the woman who became his second wife, Ohana Suzuki. For 20 years Gabaldon and his family lived in Saipan, where he worked at various jobs, including police chief and drug abuse counselor.
Gabaldon’s World War II exploits became public when in 1957, he was the invited guest of “This is Your Life,” a popular television program aired by NBC in the 1950s. Hosted by Ralph Edwards, the show presented the life stories of entertainment personalities and “ordinary” people who had contributed in some way to society.
The fact that Gabaldon captured at least 1,500 Japanese prisoners was verified on the national program by Marines Corps intelligence officers Col. Walter Layer, Col. John Schwabe, Maj. James High, and several enlisted men from military intelligence.
Hollywood producers also became interested in Gabaldon’s story and in 1960 released the film “Hell to Eternity” where his actions on Saipan were memorialized. He was portrayed by actors Jeffrey Hunter as an adult and by Richard Eyer as a boy. Gabaldon himself served as an adviser in the filming of the movie.
John Schwabe said he had recommended Gabaldon for the Medal of Honor, but the Marine never received it and instead honored Gabaldon with a Silver Star. But his 1950s appearance on the television show “This is Your Life” led to the making of “Hell to Eternity” resulted in an upgrade to the Navy Cross, second highest award for gallantry to the Medal of Honor. The case to upgrade his Navy Cross to the Medal of Honor is currently under review by the Department of Defense.
In addition to the Hollywood movie, producer Steve Rubin made a documentary film about Gabaldon titled “East L.A. Marine: The Untold True Story of Guy Gabaldon.” Henry Godines also unveiled a commissioned portrait, titled The Pied Piper of Saipan, Guy Gabaldon.
According to Rubin, he was proud of the film. “I think that movie was very inspirational to a lot of baby boomers,” Rubin said. “It was one of the first World War II combat films to portray a sense of humanity in war. The fact of the matter is Guy ended up saving not only hundreds of Japanese lives but American lives as well with a little touch of humanity.”
Decades later in his memoir “Saipan: Suicide Island,” he wrote an expanded account of his wartime experiences.
In 1961 Gabaldon gathered a force of 1,000 Americans to travel to Cuba to wage war against Communist leader Fidel Castro. The trip was blocked by then-Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, who “called me a vigilante,” Gabaldon told a Los Angeles Times reporter in a 1978 article. Years later Gabaldon advertised for men willing to go with him to Nicaragua to “help fight the Communist take-over.”
Called ‘Gabby’ by his friends, he was an outspoken member of right-wing political organizations. In 1964, he unsuccessfully ran for US Congressman in his Southern California district.
During his lifetime, Gabaldon received many awards and recognitions, including resolutions honoring him from the City of Los Angeles, the City of Chicago, and the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas.
On November 12, 2005, he was the recipient of the Chesty Puller Award from the World War II Veterans Committee, a prominent organization which showcases the veterans of World War II and their history.
On July 7, 2006, he was honored by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles City Council. The Mayor and the City Council sent a resolution to the White House requesting the Medal of Honor for Gabaldon. That same year the World War II Veteran’s Committee in Washington, D.C., featured Gabaldon on the cover of their quarterly magazine. Also in July, Gabaldon was honored by the National Council of La Raza, a national organization, and a leading Latino civil rights advocate.
On August 31, 2006, Gabaldon died at the age of 80 of heart disease. He was survived by his second wife, Ohana; his sons Guy Jr., Ray, Tony, Yoshio, Jeffrey, and Russell; his daughters Aiko, Hanako and Manya. Two members of his “adopted” family were actor Lane Nakano and his twin Lyle. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
A short introduction to the “Hell to Eternity” can be viewed at the following site: https://www.amazon.com/Hell-Eternity-Jeffrey-Hunter/dp/B003Y5UP3K
A short PBS film interview with Guy Gabaldon can be viewed at the following site: http://www.pbs.org/video/2365053267/