Originally created 05/15/00

Friends from war reunite

They shook hands 55 years ago near the town of Bastogne in Belgium, after the Battle of the Bulge and hadn't seen each other again until April 30. But this time, when they met at the Augusta bus station, they didn't shake hands but embraced as tears rolled down their cheeks.

"It's like we haven't missed a day," said 85-year-old Albert Gabbs of San Diego.

"We're just as close now as we were then," added 80-year-old Rex Pruitt.

The "then" was 1944, when World War II brought the men together as soldiers in the 148th Combat Engineer Battalion. Over the years, they managed to maintain a rich, endearing bond without getting together.

The two men parted shortly after the 148th fought to hold down Bastogne until the 101st Airborne Division arrived. The 101st held the city, surrounded by German troops, until elements of the Army's VII Corps moved down and enlarged the U.S. line.

A few months after the Battle of the Bulge, the German army surrendered. Mr. Gabbs, a captain, stayed in Europe, and Mr. Pruitt, a chief warrant officer, was transferred to the engineering section of the 1st Army Headquarters in the United States.

Last month, they were reunited when Mr. Gabbs and his wife visited Augusta for the first time.

They spent the visit catching up on old times. Mr. Gabbs, the taller of the two, and Mr. Pruitt, just as distinguished as in a 1944 portrait from his days as a soldier, sat in Mr. Pruitt's living room on Cardinal Drive, both relaxed and giddy at times, chuckling wildly at their inside jokes. They pulled out Mr. Gabbs' scrapbook filled with pictures, war treasures and memorabilia.

"We were in the 148th Engineer Battalion, you see," Mr. Pruitt said. "We could blow up a bridge or build a bridge. We also cleared mines that were laid by the Germans. We did a lot of things."

They recalled how they heard President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's address to the nation after the attack on Pearl Harbor, announcing that the country was entering the war. Mr. Gabbs was in a camp in Texas, and Mr. Pruitt was at Fort F.E. Warren in Wyoming.

"The attitude in the camp shifted, and we all became ready to die," Mr. Gabbs said.

"The people of the nation became survivors, and the whole United States became one big team," Mr. Pruitt added. "I'd never seen anything like it."

Mr. Gabbs and Mr. Pruitt recollected what they both called "a mess" as they touched down on the shores of Utah Beach in Normandy, 21 days after D-Day. The two men remembered closing their eyes as they waded through the water, not daring to look into the faces of the men lying dead on the beach, because those men represented someone's father, son, brother or husband.

"We were very afraid, but we had to get tough," Mr. Pruitt said. "Dead Germans, dead Americans."

Throughout their plight, the two became friends.

"I'd look after him, and he'd look after me," Mr. Pruitt said.

The men's tales of those years were not only about the war but also about the way they stuck together and joked.

"I remember my first encounter with him. He was my superior officer, and he came down on me," Mr. Pruitt said. "I stood at attention, and he shook his finger at me and said to me, `Son,' and I answered, `Yes, father,' and we both started laughing. Since then we've been friends.

"I can remember scolding him after I learned that he went out on a reconnaissance mission. He hadn't come back for hours, and I was scared we'd lost him. So when he got back, I said, `You son of a gun. I shed a tear for you because I thought you died.'ƒ"

Those times brought them closer together, and they have preserved their friendship over the years by writing and calling.

When the war ended in Europe and Japan, Mr. Gabbs returned home to San Diego and married. He retired from the Army as a major and began a graphic design company. He is an avid traveler and has even visited Bastogne, where crosses stand to mark the lives that were laid to rest there.

Mr. Pruitt, a native of Smyrna, Ga., ran an interior design business until he retired about 15 years ago. He and his wife of 50 years live in Augusta.

The two veterans put everything into their four-day reunion.

"We probably will never see each other again," Mr. Gabbs said.

"Yes, I doubt he'll get this way again," added Mr. Pruitt. "But we did have fun. We did have fun."

Reach Allison Martin at (706) 823-3708.


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