Funeral services for Robert Hodges Gayle, 87, are planned for 10:30 a.m. Friday at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Beeville.
While Gayle was an honored veteran, it was his time spent at A.C. Jones High School as a history teacher that many remember him for the most.
Veteran Joe Richard Rodriguez sounded surprised as he got the news that his former history teacher had passed.
“He was a good man. He was a very, very good man,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez recalled fondly those days at Jones High sitting in Gayle’s classroom listening to him talk.
“He had this way about him that people would listen,” he said. “He knew how to teach in a way that he didn’t have to use a strict method.
“The way he talked to you — you did your best to pass that exam.”
“You can talk to anybody about him and the first thing they will tell you is he was an excellent instructor and teacher.”
As they both grew older, Rodriguez remained friends with Gayle.
“He got along with everybody,” Rodriguez said. “He treated everybody as equal, if not better.
“I am sure God is going to look after him.”
Eloy Rodriguez, a veteran himself, recalls his days in high school with Gayle.
“He was just real humble about his service,” County Commissioner Rodriguez said. “He was so humble, we didn’t know he was a prisoner of war.”
E. Rodriguez said that he never really understood everything Gayle had been through until he too became a veteran.
But when asked about his service, Gayle would often respond, “I did what I had to do.”
The commissioner said that Gayle was often asked to veterans events as a reminder of many soldiers captured and held as prisoners during the war.
“He didn’t do it to applaud himself,” E. Rodriguez said. “He did it as part of the veterans ceremony.
“He would represent all the men that were prisoners of war.”
E. Rodriguez described Gayle as “a veteran’s veteran.”
He was always willing to help when he could without thought of himself.
“We lost a heck of a veteran,” Commissioner Rodriguez said. “For me he was a role model.”
In September, Gayle told his story for an article in this paper to help people understand the importance of a POW ceremony held on the courthouse steps.
“It was the 7th of February 1945,” Gayle said for that story. “We flew mostly over the Adriatic (Sea). I think we were bombing Munich that day but I am not certain.”
As they flew closer to their target, they could see the shells exploding in the air around them.
“We knew what we were flying into.
“One of the flak shots hit our right engine and knocked it out,” he said then.
“We started jettisoning everything.”
They had hoped to stay airborne long enough to make to a friendly country.
Then the bell sounded. The pilot was calling for everyone to jump.
“The pilot gave the signal he couldn’t keep the plane up any longer and it was losing altitude,” Gayle said.
Gayle stood at the door of the plane waiting as another crewman stood frozen staring out into the open air.
“He turned back towards me and he was ash white. He turned back around and I kicked him out,” Gayle said.
“He told me later he was sure glad I did because he probably wouldn’t have jumped otherwise.”
Finally on the ground, Gayle and the rest of the crew were lost.
“The navigator had thrown out all of his work,” Gayle said. “We didn’t know where we were. He had thrown out everything and he couldn’t tell us where we were.”
They had another problem though. Their plummeting plane had drawn the attention of the enemy that was then sweeping the landscape like a human rake.
“I heard this shooting and bullets whizzed past me and I got down behind a big log,” Gayle said. “I could hear them approaching.
“They got within 15 or 20 feet of me and I stood up. This surprised them. You should have seen the looks on their faces.”
He was captured and marched to a camp in Hungary. For the next three months, Gayle would be shipped from prison camp to prison camp.
“It was a very hard three months because they didn’t feed us,” he said.
Gayle lived on rutabaga soup and whatever else the Germans would put before them, including a bread made from potato flour and sawdust.
It was not until April that Gayle saw a sight he thought he might never see — American soldiers coming to his rescue.
Gayle and the other soldiers were being held in a prison in southern German when help arrived.
“All we had were tents and the bare ground to sleep on,” Gayle said. “I don’t believe I had a warm day the entire time I was there.”
When he heard the shots, he knew help was on the way.
“(Gen. George) Patton was coming through with his Third Army,” Gayle said. “He came through shooting. Apparently there was some resistance.”
When the soldiers saw the condition of their comrades, they immediately got them food.
“They saw how skinny we were and they went to a German bakery and came back with big loaves of white bread.”
Jason Collins is the editor at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 121, or at editor@mySouTex.com.