Fort Wayne resident Gabriel Delobbe remembers the day his home country of Belgium was invaded by the German Army on May 10, 1940.
“I was 14 years old,” he said. “The Belgian Army was small, so all we could do was watch the German army move in very fast,” he said.
At first, Germany's occupation of Belgium was not hard on the Belgian people.
“From May through July 1940, Germany didn't do anything bad to us,” recalled Delobbe.
In later months, food, shoes and stamps were rationed as the German Army confiscated supplies.
“The hardest item to have rationed was tires,” he said. “Without tires, we could not go places in our vehicles. But there was no gas, so it didn't matter.” Residents rode electric street cars and bikes or walked.
By 1942, German troops had taken over Belgium's radio stations, newspapers and factories.
“It was illegal to listen to news through the radio on BBC (British Broadcasting System), but some of us tried,” said Delobbe. “People caught listening were killed.”
Nightly air raids by British military forces destroyed factories and roads so the German Army could not use them.
Everyone between the ages of 16 and 50 was required to work. As a teen, Delobbe was given a choice of being sent to Germany to work in a factory or a coal mine in Belgium. He chose the coal mine.
“In the factories, they were building V1 and V2 rockets,” he said.
Delobbe was working in the mine when the Allies' D-Day invasion took place in June 1944 on the beaches of Normandy in France. He immediately ran away from the coal mine and joined the Underground, a resistance movement of French and Belgian citizens formed to fight the Germans.
“I signed up as a volunteer for the duration of the hostility,” he said.
For two weeks, Delobbe and other young men from Belgium trained at a Catholic school in France.
“We learned English phrases and how to fire weapons and use grenades,” he said.
From June through mid-September 1944 Delobbe lived in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium. Working with others in the Underground, he helped sabotage trains going from Germany to France through Belgium.
“We used dynamite, but that was bad to work with,” he said. “So we unscrewed train rails and split them open so trains went off the tracks.”
He and other members of the Underground were helped in their efforts by Belgian farmers.
“We were careful in trusting people we didn't know,” he said. “If a person asked too many questions, we thought he or she was a German spy.”
In December of 1944, Delobbe participated in the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes Forest. The surprise attack by the Germans caught the American Army off guard.
“Most GIs thought the war was almost over,” said Delobbe. “It was cold, and the snow was up to our knees.”
Delobbe continued assisting Allied efforts, including the escape of an American major and two sergeants in January 1945. Another time, he helped shoot down a German single-engine fighter plane using small arms (the pilot escaped).
Delobbe was also involved with the battle over the Remagen Bridge and the liberation of the German concentration camp of Buchenwald in April 1945.
He was wounded three times while fighting, though the injuries were not serious.
When German forces finally surrendered in May 1945, Delobbe was assigned the task of guarding German POWs awaiting trial.
During his time in the military, Delobbe fought with the First and Third armies of the American military forces. He was paid $1.50 a day in “issue” money.
“We couldn't carry real money in case it fell into German hands,” he said.
In December 1945, Delobbe was discharged from the American 3rd Army. By then, the Belgian government had organized its own army, and Delobbe enlisted in January 1946. He was again assigned to guard a prison full of German soldiers.
Wanting to pursue other interests, then-Sgt. Delobbe applied for a discharge, which he received in August 1946.
In 1952, Delobbe and his wife, Colette, sailed to North America where they settled in Fort Wayne. The Delobbes became parents to two daughters (one now is deceased) and later, three grandchildren. In 1957, the Delobbes became American citizens.
Gabriel Delobbe made a career from working as an engraver and photographer.
“My father had been a photographer,” he said. “I learned his skills and enjoyed making a living at it.”
Delobbe shot photographs for the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre, Fort Wayne Ballet, IPFW's Purdue-Indiana Theatre (PIT), Fort Wayne Youtheatre, Arena Dinner Theatre and Wagon Wheel Playhouse in Warsaw.
He became an active citizen in Fort Wayne, organizing the first trip to Fort Wayne's first Sister City with Takaoka Japan in 1977. He also taught photographer at Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne.
Today, his home in Fort Wayne is filled with mementos from the war, his photography and work in the community. For his help in World War II, Gabriel Delobbe was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross and silver and bronze medals for his volunteer work with the Allies in World War II. He is a Member of the Society of the Remagen Bridge and American Legion.
“I was thankful to have contributed to the effort of the Allies in the war,” he said. “My family has loved living in Fort Wayne, and we hope we have made it a better place for everyone.”