Meet Gabriel, one of our residents at The Brennity at Daphne. While we are so proud to know and serve all of our residents, we are especially proud to know Gabriel. In October 2020, he received the Congressional Gold Medal for his acts of bravery during World War II.
Gabriel was honored among eight other survivors of what are known as Merrill’s Marauders – U.S. Army soldiers who slogged across 1,000 miles of thick jungle during World War II to capture the enemy-held Myitkyina Airfield. In an interview with Gulf Coast News Today, he recounts his experience in the following text taken from the publication’s feature.
When Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Gabriel was working at U.S. Steel in Birmingham. Roughly one year later, Gabriel, like thousands of young Americans, decided he wanted to be a pilot. The line was long, the slots, limited. He was sent to the infantry instead.
After basic training, Gabriel was prepared for overseas service and eventually boarded a Norwegian freighter filled with American soldiers headed to New Caledonia, 700 miles east of Australia. The unaccompanied and undefended ship made the cross-Pacific trip by zig zagging back and forth to avoid enemy attacks.
After a stop in New Caledonia, Kinney and F company, 35th regiment of the 25th Infantry were sent to Guadalcanal in August 1943. The bulk of the hard fighting was over, Gabriel says, but his unit was sent to “mop up,” handling raids by small groups of enemy soldiers.
The next month the unit, now combat experienced, was asked to volunteer for a hazardous mission, a request that came directly from President Roosevelt. Their mission was to capture Myitkyina Airfield, the only all-weather airfield in Northern Burma.
Gabriel says he doesn’t have a good reason, if any, for volunteering. “At the time it seemed like a good thing to do,” he says.
The secret mission operated under the code name GALAHAD but quickly became known as Merrill’s Marauders, named after the group’s leader, Brigadier General Frank Merrill.
Over 3,000 men were sent to covert training operations in Central India before the group began the grueling march up Ledo Road, a dense, jungle-laden trek through the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains and into Burma. They were accompanied by no tanks or other heavy equipment. Weapons, food and supplies were carried on their backs or on donkeys.
The men walked for four months, 1,000 miles and fought in five major battles and 30 minor engagements against the elite Japanese 18th Division. It became the longest uninterrupted instance of jungle combat in U.S. history, matched only by the First Marine Division in Guadalcanal. As they moved along the route, they disrupted enemy supply and communication lines. But they also succumbed to disease, starvation, injury and death.
Gabriel says he lost count of how many times he was beaten, scratched and shot. “Everyone was wounded more than once,” he says.
By the time the Marauder’s reached the airfield, there were 200 men left to take their prize, including Gabriel.
There’s no question that the Marauder’s were heroes. The unit was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation, six Distinguished Service Crosses, four Legions of Merit, 44 Silver Stars and a Bronze Star for every member. 30 have been inducted into the prestigious Army Ranger Hall of Fame.
The Congressional Gold Medal is awarded by Congress as a way to thank Americans for distinguished achievements and contributions. Other recipients include George Washington, the Wright brothers and Thomas Edison. It’s not easy to receive. Nominees must be presented through a bill that is co-sponsored by two-thirds of both houses of Congress, meaning 67 senators and 290 congressmen needed to agree the Marauder’s deserved the medal.
At this time, it’s unclear whether there will be an official ceremony in Washington D.C. in the coming months due to the spread of COVID-19.
Gabriel, the only Marauder in Alabama, and the oldest, says to receive the medal is “amazing.”
“We appreciate it. We definitely do. But I don’t think it will mean as much to us as it will our survivors and for the survivors of those who didn’t make it,” he says. “It would definitely mean a lot to them.”
You can find the full interview and additional information on Gabriel at http://www.gulfcoastnewstoday.com/stories/congressional-gold-medal-awarded-to-daphne-veteran,100106.