LACOMB — Had the United States had not dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II, Howard Gabel’s military experience would have been far different.
He and thousands of other trained soldiers and sailors were headed to invade Japan in what surely would have been among the most hazardous theaters of the entire war. Instead, with the war over, a single high school typing class landed him what he called a nearly “perfect” job in the Army: typing discharge papers for military men and women headed home.
Gabel was honored Friday night at the Veteran of the Year Banquet, part of the festivities surrounding Saturday's Veterans Day parade in Albany.
His WWII adventure began in 1944, when he graduated from high school. The North Dakota farm boy was just 17, two months shy of his 18th birthday.
“I was going to get drafted, but dad asked that I be deferred to help with the fall harvest,” Gabel said. “I helped him and he was helping my grandfather who was in bad health. In February 1945, I headed to Camp Snelling in Minneapolis for induction.”
After basic training in Missouri and Arkansas, Gabel was transferred to Camp Adair near Corvallis to prepare for what he thought would be a trip to Japan.
“We got brand new guns. We unwrapped them and cleaned the cosmoline off them,” he said.
Although he only spent about two weeks at Camp Adair, Gabel was impressed.
“It was very nice and it was a big town,” he said. “It had such nice streets, churches, service clubs and a big PX.”
Instead of going to Japan, however, Gabel joined the thousands of soldiers kept on ships at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, while the government decided what to do with them after the war. First, he was sent to Enewetak in the Marshall Islands, which he called “very hot,” and then to Leyte in the Philippines, which he called “miserable.”
“There were so many troops there waiting that the cooks couldn’t keep up,” he said. “The potatoes weren’t cooked and there were flies in the gravy. I often bought coconuts and bananas from the natives instead.”
Gabel ended up on Cebu in the Philippines. Like thousands of other soldiers, he was quarantined.
“I was bored and when they asked if anyone knew how to type, I volunteered, even though we were warned to never volunteer,” he said.
He soon became the commander’s personal driver in a Jeep called “Barney” and then started to type up orders for his fellow soldiers.
“It was very good duty,” Gabel said. “There was a point system as to how guys would muster out. You got points for being married and for how long you had served.”
Cebu had been heavily damaged during the war, and one of Gabel's jobs was to help disburse payments to contractors rebuilding the island. “I would go with someone to the bank carrying a .45 and we would let in four contractors at a time,” he said.
Gabel spent some time in Manila before his July 1946 discharge at Fort Lewis, Washington.
“I was used to hot weather and when we got into San Francisco, it was foggy and very cold,” he said. “I didn’t have any warm clothes.”
Gabel returned to the family farm in North Dakota, but it took only one extremely cold winter to convince him to return to Oregon. So in 1947, the family came west to find a new farm.
“I told dad how nice it was and we spent about a week in the Albany area looking for ground,” Gabel said. “He bought a small place about five miles down the road and then traded it for 160 acres.”
In 1948, Gabel went back to North Dakota to marry Lois, whom he had known for many years — their mothers had gone to school together.
“My mother said we couldn’t get married in Oregon,” Lois explained. “She said if he wanted to marry me, he had to come back to North Dakota.”
The couple made their home in the Lacomb-Lebanon area and raised four children.
Gabel worked at the former Cascade Plywood plant for 40 years and then spent 11 years as an electrician, retiring at Norpac in Stayton in 1998.
The Gabels were active in numerous civic groups. Howard has been a member of American Legion Post 51 in Lebanon for 62 years and has served in numerous capacities, including 20 years as a member of the Honor Guard and as chaplain. He also served as chaplain for the 40 & 8 veterans organization, and spent time with the Lacomb School Board and the Lacomb Irrigation District.
He and his wife volunteered at the Lebanon Soup Kitchen, and the American Legion breakfasts and prime rib dinner events. They put out flags on Memorial Day and were active members of the Lacomb Grange. The couple also participated in the SMART (Start Making a Reader Today) program, reading books to elementary students.
The couple enjoyed the Old Time Fiddlers group and spent several years volunteering as timers at the annual state contest.
Gabel was previously honored as Veteran of the Year by the 40 & 8 organization in 2007.