Grieving widow gathers pieces of vet's WWII life
The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Avaline Gabriel spends time now reading about the parts of her husband’s past that she didn’t learn from him.
The World War II ship he served on, for example, brought 1,233 casualties on board at the Battle of Iwo Jima in early 1945. In the words of one historical account she has: “We quickly got used to seeing the dead and those in their death throes, but we continued with our work.”
Her husband, Donovan, is mentioned in an official Navy action report as a coxswain who helped pick up 25 survivors after a Japanese kamikaze plane hit a U.S. ship near Okinawa on April 7, 1945.
Avaline Gabriel has collected a few histories and accounts of her husband’s ship over the years, and she tries to connect those bits of information with what he did tell her.
He joined the Navy in 1944 when he was 17 years old and weighed 118 pounds. He served aboard LST (Landing Ship, Tank) 1033, a transport for the American wounded and dead near the end of the war.
He was given a Japanese flag found on the body of a kamikaze pilot. The Dispatch wrote in 2007 about the Gabriels’ effort to have the writing on the flag translated.
And one other thing he told her: A ship next to his was hit by a mortar shell, and he saw the body parts of sailors float by. That’s the point at which he would say he didn’t care to remember more.
Donovan Gabriel was 84 when he died one year ago today. Avaline, 68, can hardly mention his name without tearing up. She thinks about what he went through during his war. She thinks about what two of her grandsons, now in the Navy themselves, must be going through.
She wants people to know about her husband’s service because he talked so little about it. But mostly, she just misses him.
“It is lonely without him,” she said.
Donovan and Avaline met at a Christian singles dance in Lancaster on Sept. 20, 1985. Someone came up to Avaline, who was divorced, and asked her to ask Donovan to dance. His wife had died six months earlier.
They married in 1986 and eventually settled in a fixer-upper house in Kingston, in rural Ross County. They did much of the fixing up together. When Avaline thinks about Donovan, she sits in the kitchen he wallpapered with a flower design. Or she sits in the swing he hung on the front porch.
Avaline’s grandchildren would come to visit, and they always called Donovan “Grandpa.” He wouldn't talk much about the war, but he let them put on his uniform.
“It fit us when we were 12 and 13,” said Daniel Wampler, 24, of Westerville, who has been in the Navy for more than five years. “He was the first person that I would talk to who had been in the military.”
When Avaline talks of what Donovan experienced, she also imagines what her grandsons must be experiencing. Jonathan Wampler, 19, Daniel’s brother, is going through specialized naval training in San Diego. He’ll go to Japan afterward, the same place Avaline has been reading about in the accounts of LST 1033. She thinks of her husband and of her grandson, and says: “People don’t appreciate that Americans are over there and have their lives on the line.”
Her grandsons know that she worries. They know that some of the worry is tied up with her grief for her husband and what she understands about his service. They wish they could calm her.
Daniel has been deployed on an oil-platform security mission, but it wasn’t that bad, he said. Jonathan’s job involves working on mines, which is actually “kind of boring,” he said.
Neither expects to see what their grandfather saw. They don’t want their grandmother to be scared for them.
The house that Avaline and Donovan lived in for 18 years is for sale. Without his retirement income, she can’t make the mortgage payments.
But she’s OK with leaving the house. It could be for the best. Donovan’s absence is everywhere.
The yard is the one he used to mow. That wooden cross on the wall was his.
“It’s been hard to lose him,” she said.