The Richmond Register

Lifestyles & Community

June 6, 2014

D-Day may have been a beginning but not the end of horror for soldiers

RICHMOND — Estelle Gabbard’s late husband Raymond never talked much about his World War II experiences. But he did tell her about wading past the bodies of fellow American soldiers as he made his way to a Normandy beach on D-Day.

In the first wave of the American assault on Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944, nine out of 10 American soldiers died. In each successive wave, however, a greater number survived. By nightfall, the Allies had established a beachhead from which they penetrated deeper into France.

As horrific as the Normandy landing was, there was no let up in horror for the troops as they moved into Normandy’s hedgerow country.

For more than 1,000 years, French farmers had cultivated hedgerows as natural fences, and they proved to be formidable barriers for the invaders. Even tanks often could not break through them.

A month after he survived D-Day, as Gabbard and his unit attempted to cross a hedgerow, they walked into a German ambush.

A machine gun bullet struck him in the back and passed through his body, ripping open his abdomen. He fell forward as his intestines began to fall out of the gapping wound.

He was on the ground cursing, he told his wife, when a fellow soldier came to him and said, “Sergeant, you’d better do something besides curse.”

The soldier, Carl Gano, called for medics and helped Gabbard contain his intestines.

Fortunately, medics were nearby to give first aid and get the wounded soldier on his way to a field hospital.

Against the odds, Gabbard, an Army technical sergeant, survived his wound and spend six months recovering in a Nashville, Tenn., hospital.

Gabbard’s buddies didn’t forget him, even as they pushed deeper into France against bitter German resistance.

That fall, not knowing whether he had survived or where he might be, Gano wrote a letter inquiring about Gabbard’s welfare and telling of his friends’ concern. His lieutenant wrote and signed a note on the letter that reached Gabbard in Nashville.

For most of his life, Gabbard kept the letter in his billfold, his wife said, and she still keeps it. He died in 2011 at age 89.

Two years after hid death, Estelle received a letter from a Michigan man who said he was the grandson of Carl Gano, the man who helped save Gabbard’s life.

As he went through his deceased grandfather’s effects, Kurt Gano found a letter Gabbard had written in response to the one he’d received from his Army buddy.

“Gano, I want to thank you for what you did for me the day I got hit. If there’s ever any time I can help you in any way, don’t hesitate in asking me,” Gabbard wrote in early December while still hospitalized.

He also inquired about another wounded man from his unit and asked that Gano pass greetings to their lieutenant.

When Gabbard eventually was released from the hospital, the Army considered him too disabled for combat. He then joined his family in Richmond, where his father worked for the L&N Railroad.

In those days, drug stores had soda fountains, lunch counters and jukeboxes, making them popular hangouts for young people.

One day, when they were both at Collins’ Drug Store in downtown Richmond, Gabbard and a young woman named Estelle Coldiron noticed each other. Another time, a mutual friend introduced them, and they began dating. Eventually they married and settled in Richmond, where Gabbard got a job at the Blue Grass Army Depot.

He was laid off after the war and went to work for a plastering company. Later, when his firm was doing work at Eastern Kentucky University, Robert R. Martin, then EKU president, noticed the quality of his work. Martin, who liked to hire veterans, offered Gabbard a job, which he accepted.

Martin also offered Gabbard’s wife a job, but she was happy with her job at Parker Seal in Berea and wanted to keep it, she said.

After 30 years of employment, Gabbard retired from EKU as associate director of buildings and grounds.

Although her husband rarely talked even with her about the war, the nightmares that troubled him for years told a story of their own, Mrs. Gabbard said.

His obituary published in the Richmond Register modestly noted that he “served in the U.S. Army during World War II” and would be buried with military honors. It didn’t mention that he went ashore on D-Day, was critically wounded in the Normandy campaign and received a Purple Heart, a Good Conduct Ribbon and the EAME Campaign Ribbon.

Like many World War II veterans, Gabbard never sought recognition or wanted to burden those for whom he fought by telling them about the horrors he suffered. Just knowing they had secured a safe and prosperous future for their loved ones seemed enough for them.

Raymond Lee Gabbard’s body lies in Madison County Memorial Gardens where this past Memorial Day, Girl Scouts, fellow veterans and others placed small American flags on the graves of those who have served their country.

 

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