Francis “Gabby” Gabreski
On July 5th, 1944 Francis Gabreski shot down his 28th German plane. With the victory, Gabreski became America’s leading ace in Europe and the country’s newest celebrity. The War Department, eager to take advantage of his newfound notoriety, immediately made arrangements to have the pilot shipped home so he could help sell war bonds. Just as Gabreski was about to leave, however, he decided to fly one more mission. The final flight turned disastrous when his plane crashed near Koblenz, Germany and the Nazis captured him. Gabreski soon realized that the Americans weren’t the only ones anticipating his arrival. “We’ve been expecting you for a long time,” a Nazi interrogator told him, as he handed Gabreski a copy of a military newspaper that documented the pilot’s historic 28th kill.
- Stationed in Hawaii in 1941 and he was on of the few Americans to get airborne during the Pearl Harbor attack.
- Was a member of the RAF’s 315th Fighter Squadron made up of Polish pilots.
- Became a member of Hubert Zemke’s Wolfpack the 56th Fighter Group and commanded the 61st Fighter Squadron and became the leading American ace in Europe with 28 victories in 17 months. He ended World War II with 28 victories before becoming a POW at Stalag Luft I.
- During the Korean Conflict he scored 6.5 more combat victories over Korea, bringing his total to 34.5 and making him America’s top living ace.
One of aviation’s outstanding pioneers, Francis Stanley “Gabby” Gabreski began flying lessons while a pre-medical student at Notre Dame. When World War II erupted with the Nazi invasion of Poland, his ancestral homeland, Gabreski eagerly joined the Army Air Corps and earned his wings in 1941. Assigned duty in Hawaii with the 45th Pursuit Group, Gabreski settled into what he thought would be a relaxing assignment in paradise.
On December 7th, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor shattered Gabreski’s idyllic existence. In the following months, Gabreski worked hard to perfect his skill in the air.
In 1942, Gabreski received orders to a Polish Air Force Squadron flying with the Royal Air Force in England, for the purpose of learning its combat tactics and teaching them to American pilots arriving in Europe. This squadron was part of the group that Winston Churchill praised during the Battle of Britain when in his famous quotation: “Never in the field of human conflict have so many owed so much to so few.” Assigned a Spitfire fighter plane, Gabreski began missions escorting bombers to the French Coast. But when he finally met the enemy in the air he did not get an opportunity to fire his guns. “Get in close so you can not miss,” the Poles advised, words that he never forgot. After flying 20 missions, Gabreski gained skill and a swagger in the air. Later he was assigned to the American 61st Fighter Squadron. Learning to fly its P-47 Thunderbolt, best known as the Jug, he earned the admiration of his colleagues for his skill and the affectionate nickname of “Gabby.” Before long Gabreski taught his men every tactic learned from the Poles. Then, after completing ten more combat missions, he received the Air Medal and was presented the Polish Cross of Valor by General Sikorsky, the Polish Premier in exile.
In June 1943, soon after becoming Commander of the 61st, Gabreski led his Allied bombers on their historic raid on ballbearing factories at Regensburg and Schweinfurt. Finally, on August 24th he scored his first air victory, the beginning of an incredible string. On his 75th mission, Gabreski became an Ace and received the Distinguished Service Cross. In a subsequent mission, Gabreski nearly went down when a 20 millimeter shell exploded at his feet, sending him tumbling down out of control. Fortunately, he recovered and made it back to England.
In January 1944, when the Allies set out to cripple the Luftwaffe (German Air Force), Gabreski became Deputy Flying Executive Officer of the 56th Fighter Group and before the month ended he was a double Ace. After “Operation Big Week” was launched to destroy enemy aircraft production, he scored his first triple victory.
June 6th, 1944, D-Day, Gabreski led his squadron in long sweeps over the beaches of Normandy. Three weeks later, he surpassed Eddie Rickenbacker’s World War I record and on July 5th scored his 28th victory, making him America’s leading Ace. When Gabreski’s total reached 30 victories he earned a leave back to the States. While awaiting orders, he volunteered for “just one more mission.” After his plane was armed for battle, he met no opposition over the target. Seeking targets of opportunity, he spotted enemy fighters parked on an airdrome. During his second strafing pass, his plane suddenly began to vibrate violently and Gabreski crash landed. Uninjured, he jumped to the ground and ran toward a dense forest with German soldiers in pursuit. Eluding them, Gabreski began to make his way toward Allied lines. Eventually, however, the Germans captured him and he was interrogated by the famed Hanns Scharff.
The Germans eventually transferred him to Stalag Luft I, a permanent prisoner-of-war camp holding Allied air officers. Gabreski received quarters in one of the 20-man shacks surrounded by two rows of barbed wire fence. There he shared the bad food, hunger and punishments of the prisoners. But he was proud of the men’s spirits under such miserable circumstances. The prisoners had their own clandestine radios to listen to war news, a newspaper printed under the very noses of their guards, and supervision of the simultaneous digging of as many as 100 escape tunnels, few of which led to freedom.
By March 1945, after Gabreski received command of a newly completed prisoner compound, food quality was at rock bottom. But he did not lose faith. Soon he began to hear artillery from the east. When Soviet soldiers arrived at the camp, it was a joyous occasion and soon American planes evacuated the airmen to freedom. The war and its privations had ended. Returning home a hero, as America’s top Ace in Europe, Gabreski married beautiful Kay Cochran and then received orders to Wright Field where he attended the Engineering Flight School and qualified as a test pilot. In 1946, he left the service and took a job with Douglas Aircraft, promoting sales of its transports throughout South America.
When the independent United States Air Force formed in 1947, Gabreski reentered the military. After receiving a degree in Political Science from Columbia University, he became commanding officer of his World War II unit, the 56th Fighter Group at Selfridge Field, and learned to fly jet fighters.
After war erupted in Korea in 1951, Gabreski reported to that country for combat duty as Commander of the Fourth Fighter-Interceptor Wing. When he flew his first mission against a target in “MIG Alley,” south of the Yalu River, for the first time in his life he could see the enemy, but was not permitted to attack them in their privileged sanctuary in Manchuria. It was a difficult way to fight a war. But in July 1951 he scored his first victory in a jet and in the next few months added two more. Taking command of the 51st Fighter Interceptor Group, Gabreski converted it to F-86 Saberjets and introduced the concepts of a flight of four and hot takeoffs to increase combat effectiveness over targets. These innovations were highly successful and enabled his Wing to attain a 14 to 1 kill ratio.
On the humane side, in 1952, Gabreski’s Wing adopted an orphanage in Korea with 300 ill-fed, poorly clothed, sick children. Soon it became a haven of happiness.
On April 7th, 1951, Gabreski became an Ace in Korea with 5.5 victories and General Ridgway flew in to congratulate him. Then, after one more victory, bringing him to 6.5 victories, his combat days ended and he arrived home to a ticker tape parade. Secretary of the Air Force Finletter then presented him the Distinguished Service Medal.
After serving as Director of Safety Air Operations, then Chief of Combat Operations and finally Chief of Special Projects at Norton Air Force Base, Gabreski completed the command and Staff School, and became Deputy Chief of Staff Operations in the Ninth Air Force in 1955.
Gabreski went to Okinawa to become Commander of the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing in 1960. Two years later he served as Director of the Secretariat for the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Air Forces in Hawaii, and later as its Inspector General.
In 1964, Gabreski became commander of the 52nd Fighter Wing on Long Island. He left the Air Force from this assignment in 1967, bringing to an end a brilliant military career with 34.5 air victories and nearly every military air honor.
But Gabreski’s career in aviation was far from over, for he joined the Grumman Aerospace Corporation, serving in Public Relations and Customer Relations before becoming assistant to the corporation’s president.
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