Mr. American Legion: Oral ‘Moose’ LaCombe

Oral J. LaCombe was born in Negaunee Feb. 19, 1896, the oldest of Oral and Albina (Duquette) LaCombe’s seven children. He quickly earned his nickname when the doctor who delivered him commented that “He’s a big moose.” Moose dropped out of school at the age of 12, working a plumbing shop until World War I broke out. When the U.S. entered the war he went to city hall and promptly enlisted.

He served in Company C of the 107th Engineers, 32nd Division, eventually earning the rank of sergeant. When they arrived in France in January 1918, the fact that he could speak a little French made him popular with his unit. He would go with the officers to translate while they tried to find billets- houses with rooms available where they could stay. He recalled “It worked out pretty well with the rest of the guys, too. I could talk enough French to ask for things, and they had the money so it worked out to be a pretty nice arrangement. I enjoyed my time over there. We knew we were there to do a job, and we weren’t going to leave until it was finished.” Well, almost finished. Moose caught some shrapnel in the leg during action in the Argonne Forest a week before the Armistice and was sent home on a hospital ship.

Following the war, Moose owned a successful wholesale doughnut bakery in Negaunee in the 1920s. In 1927 he accidentally became a mail carrier after serving as a substitute for Leonard Villeberg while he went fishing. When Villeberg unfortunately drowned in Lake Superior, LaCombe took over the route permanently (see Mining Journal article “Women plan remembrance of late grandfather” April 15, 2017). When he started, the run consisted of 150 stops and during the winter months was made with a horse and sleigh and could take 12 hours or more. The route peaked at 67 miles a day with 519 stops before being split. When he retired in 1957, his route was 50 miles with 400 stops and only took four or five hours.

One of Moose’s other claims to fame was a brief acting career, playing one of the jurors in the film “Anatomy of a Murder.” He’s easy to spot, sitting in the front row with a white bandage on his head. On the first day of filming he had fallen and gashed his head, so every morning for the 23 days of filming, he had to go get a clean bandage from the doctor to maintain continuity. For this he was paid “$10 a day, minus Social Security.”

In addition to his work, he became very involved in the community. He helped organize the Negaunee Soldiers and Sailors Club in 1919 and the Negaunee post of the American Legion in 1920. Over the years he served on almost every post committee, as post adjutant, vice commander and commander, county commander and U.P. commander. With all this work he earned the nickname “Mr. American Legion.” Moose also organized the Legion’s softball team and in 1927 they laid out a baseball diamond in Negaunee which he considered to be his most notable accomplishment. The field was later taken over by the city and named LaCombe Field in his honor.

LaCombe participated in numerous veterans’ and patriotic functions across Michigan and the nation, becoming a symbol of the World War I veteran. He attended veterans’ conventions, raised funds for veterans’ relief and pushed the government to observe Armistice Day on November 11, the date the war ended in 1918 instead of moving it to a Monday.

Following his retirement from the Post Office, Moose moved to Sault Ste. Marie where he became the commander of the Sault American Legion World War I Drum and Bugle Corps. Originally more than 200 strong, the corps had all but disappeared during World War II. Under Moose’s leadership it was reorganized in 1964 with 30 members. In 1978, he and ten other veterans from the Drum and Bugle Corps travelled to England and France for the 60th Anniversary of the World War I Armistice. At the time of the trip he said, “We do with not just because we want to come back, but we want to look forward. We want to be sure that nobody ever forgets our war. It must be remembered for the terrible thing it was.”

The Sault Corps was the last surviving World War I drum and bugle corps in the country. Towards the end they no longer marched in parades but rode on a jeep-pulled trailer. Their last parade was for Armistice Day in 1979 and they made their final appearance in August 1981 at the dedication of the D.J. Jacobetti Veterans Center in Marquette.

Oral J. “Moose” LaCombe died at the Jacobetti Veterans Center on February 14, 1993, five days before his 97th birthday. He was the last surviving member of the Sault Drum and Bugle Corps and the last World War I member of the Negaunee VFW. At the time of his death Chippewa County Commission Chairman Len Pianosi paid tribute saying “He represented honor and faithfulness, and wasn’t shy about seeming to be overly patriotic. He wore his love of country on his sleeve for all to see.”