He had the option of staying in France but decided to return to Puducherry

At the ceremony commemorating the end of the Second World War held at the French War Memorial in Puducherry on Thursday, a bright 94-year-old man observed the proceedings with much interest. Meet retired Chief Sergeant David Gabriel, who decided to forego his quieter Puducherry life to join the French Air Force in 1942, two years after De Gaulle’s ‘Appeal of 18 June’ speech on radio.

Twenty-two year-old Gabriel joined the forces at Beirut. “When we heard the appeal, we decided we must contribute. It was like how Gandhi gathered his followers in India. We signed an agreement that we will remain with the forces till the war is won. I was not scared,” he says. When De Gaulle called on his troops in Beirut, Gabriel was among the proud soldiers. “The first time I flew in an airplane, it was an air force carrier,” he adds.

Gabriel was later sent to France to fight German forces, from 1944 to 1945. With the end of the Second World War, he was sent to Vietnam and spent 14 years serving the forces there.

It was not, however, his first visit to Vietnam, as he had spent a considerable time of his childhood there as his father was also in the military and served in Vietnam, a former French colony like Puducherry. “In the Second World War, we at least knew who the enemy was. In Vietnam, anyone could turn out to be the enemy. They could speak to you well, become your friend and then stab you some day!” he says.

He remembers an incident where he fell into a ditch laid out for Europeans. He was tied up and ready to be taken away. “Thankfully, because I had grown up there and knew Vietnamese and because my brother was married to a girl from there, one of them recognised me and I was let go. God really saved me that day,” he says. “I am the only one remaining from our group of soldier friends,” he says rather matter-of-factly.

Gabriel had the option of staying in France but decided to return to Puducherry and married his childhood sweetheart, Janeine. “We share the same birthday. Only I am 16 years younger,” laughs Janeine, her face lighting up. Their eight children are settled in France and they are proud great grandparents today, adds Gabriel with a twinkle in his eye.

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