LISTEN to Colonel Arnald Gabriel on Hometown Heroes
90-year-old Arnald Gabriel appears on episode #370 of Hometown Heroes, debuting June 6, 2015. A retired Air Force colonel, Gabriel is one of the world’s foremost musical conductors, having orchestrated countless concerts all over the globe. Without surviving some very harrowing moments during World War II, Gabriel never would have had the opportunity to launch his legendary musical career.
On June 6, 1944, less than a week after his 19th birthday, he landed on Normandy’s Omaha Beach as a machine gunner with the 29th Infantry Division. In an interview conducted on stage at Clovis North High School’s Paul Shaghoian Concert Hall in Clovis, CA, with an audience of teenagers studying music and history, Gabriel traces back through his adventures in music and the military.
The second of three boys born to Italian immigrants who settled in Cortland, NY, Gabriel vividly remembers his childhood during the Great Depression, and how “grim” the outlook was. You’ll hear him remember how his father’s love for opera led to Arnald’s being hooked on music, thanks to a local performance the included what he still considers to be his “favorite 48 measures of music.” Listen to Hometown Heroes to find out what that music was, why he did not follow in the footsteps of his father’s favorite tenor, Enrico Caruso, and which instrument was the first one he learned to play.
Arnald enlisted in the Army less than a week after graduating from Cortland High School in 1943. Initially assigned to anti-aircraft artillery, he followed a friend’s lead and qualified for pilot training with the Army Air Corps. After flying smaller aircraft while training at the University of Buffalo, he was sent back to the regular Army in 1944 because troops were needed for the upcoming invasion of Normandy. “44,000 of us washed out at the convenience of the government,” Gabriel remembers. “And then very, stupidly, after one month of infantry training, I volunteered for overseas and joined the 29th Infantry Division.” He became a 30-caliber light machine gunner, and after training in the U.S. and in England, he crossed the English Channel on June 6, 1944. “Fear, confusion, fright, a little bit of everything,” you’ll hear Gabriel recall about how he felt that day. “Nobody landed where they were supposed to.”
Gabriel landed closer to the 1st Infantry Division than his own, in water so deep he had to jettison his machine gun. “That whole day was nothing but confusion,” you’ll hear him say as he explains how he tried to reunite with his unit. Leaving his machine gun behind didn’t prevent him from fighting the enemy. The sobering reality was that weapons were readily available on the beach, because those who had carried the weapons ashore had been killed. “I never thought I’d live to be 90,” Gabriel says. “But there was a time when I didn’t think I would live ten more minutes. That’s what war was like.” The war would continue for Arnald as the 29th eventually helped take St. Lo and headed on to Brest. On January 9, 1945, near Julich, Germany, Gabriel was sharing a larger foxhole with two men he had gotten to know quite well since they joined his machine gun squad as replacements three months earlier. An incoming German mortar shell struck their position, killing Harry Aschoff and John Arrowsmith. Gabriel suffered a concussion and some bruises, but survived. “I was authorized to get the Purple Heart,” Gabriel explains. “But I said, I can’t get the Purple Heart, my two buddies were killed.” Listen to Hometown Heroes to find out how Colonel Gabriel connected with Aschoff’s son more than a half century later, and learn about the emotional moments they shared together.
Gabriel remembers taking a few days to come to grips with what happened. He had a hard time dealing with that harsh reality until his lieutenant shared a piece of advice that Gabriel continues to share with people wherever he goes. He had lived through the horror of Omaha Beach and the battle for St. Lo, he had spent the last six months sleeping in fox holes, even enduring the worst European winter of the century. The weight of it all was too much for a 19-year-old to bear.
“It’s okay to look back,” Lieutenant Butler told him. “Just don’t stare.”
Gabriel says we all encounter traumatic events in life, but underscores the importance of putting them behind us and moving on. That’s what he did then, and he hasn’t stopped moving since. Listen to Hometown Heroes to hear about other close calls this Bronze Star recipient remembers from World War II, as well as the determined music teacher who altered the course of his life. After earning bachelors and masters degrees from Ithaca College, he joined the Air Force during the Korean War and became a band director.
Among the things you can learn on Colonel Gabriel’s website, http://colgabriel.com, is that he was commander/conductor of the Air Force Band, Symphony Orchestra, and Singing Sergeants from 1964 to 1985. He has continued to conduct all over the world, enjoying the title of conductor emeritus of the Air Force Band. While conducting the National Memorial Day Concert at the Kennedy Center on May 24, 2015, he was surprised with the Air Force Exceptional Service Medal, recognizing his decades of continued service since his retirement. In 2014, he marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day by returning to the scene of his Normandy battles and conducting an all-star band, hobnobbing with President Obama and French President Francois Hollande. For the 71st anniversary on June 6, 2015, he journeyed to Bedford, VA, home of the National D-Day Memorial. 24 men from Bedford died on June 6, 1944, and a total of 44 were killed in the Normandy campaign. They all served in the 29th Infantry Division with Arnald Gabriel. At 90, Gabriel has the energy and the appearance of a much younger man. He shows no signs of slowing down, and points out that he has three contracts to make conducting appearances once he turns 100. His son has been working on a book about the colonel’s life story. If that book becomes a movie, Gabriel has a good idea of who he’d want to play the lead role. You’ll enjoy that moment when you listen to the program, and you’ll also appreciate clips from the concerts he conducted in Clovis, CA. Thanks to Clovis North High School for providing the opportunity to record this interview. If you ever have the chance to catch Colonel Gabriel in action, don’t miss it. Please make sure to thank him for serving our country.