96-year old Lloyd “Gabe” Gabriel of Yakima remembers hitchhiking from his home in Groesbeck, Texas to Dallas to enlist in the Army Air Corps in 1942. He was assigned to a B-17 crew at Geiger Field in Spokane and became a ball turret gunner. Gabe and his crew flew 11 successful missions over France and Germany, shooting down German planes and sometimes coming back with flak holes in their B-17, but on the 12th mission their luck ran out, he says.
“We got hit over the target and the engine caught on fire. And the fire was going past the tail, and you’ve got high octane gas in there, and we’ve seen planes before when they caught on fire, they blow. So that’s my first thought — I hope this mother doesn’t blow! Because I’m sitting down there and I don’t have a parachute.” He was taller than most ball turret gunners, and too big to wear a chute in the cramped space under the plane’s belly. He had to open the hatch, climb up into the plane, find his parachute and put it on, all while the plane was going down. The pilot yelled that he had it on backwards just before he bailed out at 23,000 feet.
They were over Holland on an overcast day and couldn’t see what lay beneath them. When he finally dropped through the clouds he saw a row of homes. “I was going right straight down towards a home and I said uh-oh, that’s not good if I hit that and roll off that roof.” He hit the ground instead, cracking a bone in his foot. Some Dutch civilians pointed him towards the woods, and he hobbled about a mile down the road before he was captured by German soldiers.
He ended up at a prison camp in East Prussia where he was issued clothes and boots, and got food but no medical care. In January of 1945, Gabe was one of 6,000 prisoners who were told to get ready for a march because the Russians were coming. They had nothing more than the clothes on their backs and tiny blankets. “I remember the first three nights we slept in barns. The fourth night we slept outside on the ground in a driving hailstorm,” he says. For breakfast, they’d get a slice of black barley bread and a cup of barley coffee. At night, they’d get three small potatoes and another slice of black bread. It was winter and it didn’t take long for sickness to set in. The men suffered from bloody dysentery, pellagra, TB, pneumonia, and typhus. It was hellish, Gabe says. “Out of 92 days, I remember maybe what happened about 20 days. The others are just completely blacked out.”
He banded together with four other men. At night they’d put a couple of blankets on the ground and huddle on top of them, with a couple more blankets on top. Every few hours the men on the outside would switch into the middle for warmth. During the day, civilians would scream at them and call them names along the march. Gabe says “There were days when one of us, towards the end, would decide the hell with it. I’ve had enough, I’m not going to go anymore. And the other four would make sure you did go. So we had our own support group, the five of us.”
They ended up marching over 600 miles. The war ended around the same time as their march did. 1,500 of the 6,000 men who started the march died along the way. “They would be lying there on the floor, not moving, they’d be looking at you with their eyes open, and you’d say you’ve got to go and they wouldn’t answer. They wouldn’t talk.”
Gabe weighed 158 pounds when he went in, and came out weighing 92. But it didn’t take long to regain his health, and he went to school on the GI Bill and ended up working as a professor of education at Central Washington University for many years. A man once sought him out to thank him, saying Gabe and his four friends had saved his life on the forced march by sharing their rations and forcing him to keep going. Gabe had no recollection of it.