By Bretta Grabau
FCHS Assistant Director and Collections Managery
One of the most exciting parts of working at a museum is unraveling the mysteries of an artifact or collection of artifacts. In May 2022, I had the privilege to delve into the story of a man named Gibson O’Dell. Many items came in from his in-law, Lois Peterson of Lanesboro as a gift from the Lanesboro History Museum.
Gibson came from Wykoff and served in the South Pacific during WWII. He participated in well-known battles such as the liberation of the Philippines, Guam and Okinawa. The first thing I noticed was a piece of metal, identified as a portion of a Japanese plane shot down over Leyte. Excitedly, I realized it was a landing for the Americans retaking the Philippines in late 1944. I then pulled out a small black box depicting the “Bronze Star Medal,” the fourth highest award given out by the United States. Clearly this soldier had a war story to tell.
I started investigating. I had his discharge paper and separation qualification records, both of which I referred to for identifying medals and bar ribbons on the jacket. Not having experience in what bar ribbons mean and the bronze service stars adorning them, I turned to the U.S. Army’s website and located the meaning of all but one. Some coins were Japanese. My sister, who lived in Japan for a time, interpreted them for me, even placing the year they were minted. Some coins were Filipino, and showed the United States of America on one side, which prompted the question, “What’s this story?” I found some answers through the U.S. Treasury Department, and some interesting hypotheses from coin collectors. I also found a 5 pesos paper bill. I located the National Bank of the Philippines website, which detailed the “evolution” of money in those islands. Based on this information, I identified Gibson’s bill as a guerilla note produced during the Japanese Occupation. The next puzzle piece was the Bronze Star itself. The citation explains what Gibson experienced on May 3, 1945, on the island of Okinawa, but what actually happened that day? I found an article with a brief overview of the battle, identifying it as the night of the first attempt by the Japanese to counterattack, rather than fight defensively.
The biggest and most baffling piece to this puzzle was the uniform itself. There are many patches on the uniform, which I matched to the discharge paper, now understanding more completely Gibson’s role in battle. However, I noticed a different name and serial number in the collar. This brought me to a standstill. Now I wondered, “Is this really his uniform?” and “Whose name and serial number is this?” Looking in Fold3.com, I found some answers. The serial number belonged to Haskell McAbee from Colorado. How did Gibson get it? Were the two men in the same unit and switched jackets? I sent an inquiry to the National Archives for his military records. Meanwhile, Val Tindall from the Lanesboro History Museum assisted in my investigation by discovering a possible answer from the National World War II museum in New Orleans. It was common for the United States to repurpose uniforms to men of similar height and build, like Gibson and Haskell. Knowing that, I felt confident the jacket was Gibson’s, unless both truly were in the same unit AND Haskell had gotten the exact same medals as Gibson. About 10 days later, I received a record from the National Archives. Unfortunately it was not a slam dunk, as Haskell’s discharge record had been among those destroyed by a fire. However, there was a unit referred to in the document, which was definitely not the same unit as Gibson’s. Even with some questions remaining, Mr. O’Dell’s service is one of the most complete in the FCHS collection and one I am grateful to have researched. I am proud that we are able to communicate and preserve stories like his and can bring them to life for future generations.
Formed in 2020, the Fillmore County History Partners is a voluntary collaborative of local history organizations and museums. Participants include: Canton Historical Society, Chatfield Historical Society, Fillmore County Historical Society, Harmony Area Historical Society, Historic Forestville, Lanesboro Historic Preservation Association, Lenora Pioneer Church, Mabel Historic Preservation, 1877 Peterson Station Museum, Preston Historical Society, Rushford Area Historical Society, Whalan Town Hall Museum, Wykoff Area Historical Society.