The true story of Guy Gabaldon, a scrappy Mexican-American kid raised in East Los Angeles by a Japanese-American family and one of the most unconventional (and unsung) heroes of World War II, is told in the 1960 war drama Hell to Eternity directed by Phil Karlson. The young man, who spoke fluent Japanese, joined the Marines at age 17 and served in the South Pacific, where he used his fluency with the language and the culture of the enemy to coax hundreds of Japanese soldiers and civilians to surrender during the invasion of Saipan. He single-handedly captured more enemy soldiers than any American, including World War I hero Sergeant Alvin York, and was awarded the Navy Cross and the Silver Star.
Jeffrey Hunter, the athletic actor best known for his role opposite John Wayne in The Searchers (1956), plays Gabaldon as a tough street kid with a fierce loyalty to his Asian family. Appalled at their treatment of his adoptive parents (they were sent to a relocation camp) and turned away by the draft board for a perforated eardrum, he joins the Marines, who value his language skills. At six feet two inches, with broad soldiers and an action movie physique, Hunter is a very different specimen than the real Gabaldon, who was barely over five feet tall, and he hardly speaks Japanese like a man raised in the language, but he is appropriately driven and dedicated. David Janssen co-stars as Gabaldon’s drill sergeant and singer Vic Damone has a supporting role as his girl-crazy, finger-snapping boot-camp buddy. The legendary Sessue Hayakawa, the one-time Hollywood silent screen star who disappeared from American screens until his memorable, Oscar®-nominated return as the POW camp commander in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), plays the commanding officer of the Japanese forces and yes, that is a pre-Star Trek George Takei (billed as George Takai) as Guy’s adoptive brother George, who joins the 442 regiment in the European theater.
Hell to Eternity plays on TCM on May 29.