Col. Francis S. "Gabby" Gabreski
"This is your last chance, so give it
your best." the flight instructor said to aviation cadet Francis S.
Uneasy as always, Gabby took the plane
up and put it through the basic required manoeuvres, stiffly, but
competently enough to convince Captain Ray Wassel that he might make a
decent pilot. After an indifferent two years at Notre Dame, Gabreski had
enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1940, and had had a tough time of
primary flight training.
Trainee Gabreski was a shaky pilot who
didn't get on well with his first instructor, Mr. Myers. He was scared to
death during his first solo, and afterwards knew that he wasn't
progressing as fast as the other students. Mr. Myers' brusque and
demanding style just didn't match Gabreski's uneasiness and awkward
handling. Eventually, Mr. Myers scheduled an "Elimination Flight" for him
with an Army flier, Captain Ray Wassel. An "Elimination Flight" was just
that, a cadet's final chance to prove himself worthy in the opinion of an
Thus in September 1940, Captain Wassel
told Gabby Gabreski, America's future "Greatest Living Ace", to
step into the plane and give it his best. He flew well enough for Capt.
Wassel to drew the same conclusion as he himself had drawn. He was a
marginal pilot, but probably could do better with a new instructor. He was
assigned to a different instructor and in November 1940 completed primary
flight training without further problems.
Polish Roots in Oil City, PA
Young Francis Gabreski was relieved not
to let down his parents. Both of them had emigrated from Poland to Oil
City, Pennsylvania in the early 1900's. He grew up in tough family
circumstances as his Dad got sick and couldn't keep his physically
strenuous job with the railroad. To support the family of five children,
his Dad borrowed enough money to buy the Purity Market, and worked at it
12 hours a day. Like many immigrant-owned small businesses, all the family
members worked at the market. Francis was an average student and did not
dream of aviation like many boys of the era did. His first memory of an
airplane was from the 1932
Cleveland Air Races
He graduated from high school in 1938,
and as his parents were determined that their children would go to
college, Gabby went to Notre Dame. Unprepared for real, academic work, he
almost flunked out in his freshman year. At college, he developed his
first interest in flying, thinking that it would be a neat way to get back
and forth between Oil City and South Bend; never mind that Oil City didn't
have an airport. He took flying lessons from Homer Stockert, owner
of Stockert Flying Services, in a Taylorcraft monoplane, but after six
hours under Mr. Stockert's patient tutelage, he just couldn't get the hang
of flying. He continued at Notre Dame, starting his second year there as
war raged in Europe and Poland was invaded and split up by Germany and
Russia. When Army Air Corps recruiters visited the campus, Gabby went to
hear them, largely because some friends went too. The Army's enticing
offer impressed him, especially the program's waiving of an academic test,
and he enrolled, reporting in July 1940 to Pittsburgh for a
physical and induction into the Army.
Army Air Corps Flight Training
After these preliminaries, he went to
East St. Louis, for primary flight training at Parks Air College, a
civilian program that the Army used for its novice cadets. Here they flew
Stearman PT-17 biplanes and
Fairchild PT-19 low-wing monoplanes. Gabreski struggled through
primary training, barely avoiding being washed out in the "Elimination
Flight" described above. But he passed, got a new instructor and in
November 1940 completed primary flight training.
He reported to Gunther Army Air Base
outside of Montgomery, Alabama, for basic flight training. Unlike Parks
College, this was real Army; everyone was in khaki, lots of saluting, the
whole bit. Here he flew the Vultee BT-13, a more powerful and less
forgiving plane, and so noisy that the cadets called it the "Vultee
Vibrator." On this plane they learned instrument flying with a hood over
the student's cockpit, which enabled them to begin learning how to fly in
bad weather. Here Gabby saw his first fatality, when a pilot named Blackie
went into a spin and bailed out, but the propeller chopped his legs off.
He bled to death before he reached the ground.
After completing basic training at
Gunther, Gabby and the other surviving pilots moved over to nearby
Maxwell Field for advanced training. Here they took a big step up and
started flying the famous AT-6 Texan, a bigger, more powerful, quieter
plane equipped with retractable landing gear and a radio. It was almost
like flying a fighter. At Maxwell, Gabby almost washed out again, this
time for fainting at early morning parade when he badly hung over. He
compounded the problem by not immediately explaining his reason for
passing out. From the Army's point of view, a pilot who fainted for no
apparent reason was an unacceptable risk, while one who fainted because he
was hung over was merely a mild disciplinary issue. But before it got to
expulsion, Gabreski coughed up the actual reason, and apart from some
extra guard duty and other punishments, escaped further repercussions. He
graduated in March 1941 and was commissioned as a Second
Lieutenant; his parents, family and friends from Oil City proudly
2nd Lt. Gabreski received his first
choice of duty assignments - fighter planes in Hawaii. He travelled
there in the SS Washington, passing through the Panama Canal and
San Francisco en route. About 20 Second Lieutenants were in his group
assigned to Wheeler Field on Oahu. It was a beautiful green, sod field
(sod being easier to maintain and easier on airplane tires than concrete),
with rows of Curtiss P-40s and P-36s, and even a few old
Boeing P-26 Peashooters (obsolete, but delightful to fly).
Two Fighter Groups with about 75 planes
each used Wheeler Field. Gabreski was assigned to the 45th Fighter
Squadron of the 15th Fighter Group. He and the other new pilots saw no
more 2-seat trainers; they flew only powerful (1000+ hp), single-seat
fighters. The P-40 had a lot of torque and in Gabby's first flight in one,
he narrowly avoided crashing on take-off and landed bumpily but safely.
The pilots flew about 30 hours a month, usually at 5,000 to 10,000 feet,
never higher because they didn't have oxygen equipment. Flying was hard
work, following all the leader's twists and turns, working the manual
controls, and pulling heavy G's. After a day's flying, they hung out at
the Officers' Club, mostly talking about flying, reviewing each other's
performance, and trying to improve their skills.
Among the pilots there in Hawaii,
Gabreski "got a big kick out of" George Welch of the
18th FG, "a real Hell-raiser." They also enjoyed the officers-only
beach at Haleiwa, with the timeless attractions of Hawaiian beaches -
surfing and girls (mostly daughters of Army officers and their friends).
Here, Gabby met Kay Cochrane, niece of an Army colonel. They began dating
in late 1941, and had their first falling out on the night of December 6,
1941. That night young Lt. Gabreski went to bed quite concerned about his
As he awoke on the morning of the 7th,
shaving and worrying about his girlfriend, he heard some explosions, which
were fairly common at a military base. Then he saw a gray monoplane with
red circles and fixed landing gear flying overhead. He realized the
Japanese were attacking. He heard louder and closer explosions and saw
smoke from the burning airplanes. The air crews hustled over to the
airstrip and pulled out some undamaged planes. Captain Tyler, the squadron
CO, ordered them fuelled and armed. About 10 planes were readied, and
Gabreski was one of the pilots selected to fly. As they flew over Pearl
Harbour, they could see that everything was a horrible, burning mess.
Jittery AA crews fired away at anything in the the sky, including the
P-36s and P-40s. Gabby and his group searched the area for about 45
minutes, but the Japs were long gone. Having gotten into the air earlier,
George Welch of the 18th FG had downed four.
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbour,
Gabreski realized that everything about his life had changed. But after
discussions with Kay and her family, the young couple decided to get
engaged. Not long afterward, in March of 1942, all the military dependents
on the islands, including Kay, were evacuated to the mainland. The pilots
of the 45th FS helped clean up Wheeler Field, dispersed planes into
revetments, etc. They then moved to an airstrip near Kaena Point, at first
flying constant daytime patrols, which quickly wore out both men and
machines. They received new planes, P-40E's and Bell P-39 Airacobra, both
of which had their drawbacks. The Model E Warhawk was even heavier and
more sluggish than its predecessors, and the Airacobras had an unfortunate
tendency to tumble. Throughout the summer of 1942, the 45th FS
pilots led a fairly dull life: gunnery practice and flying patrols.
With the Pacific shaping up as primarily
a Navy theatre and his strong feelings about the German invasion of
Poland, Gabby wanted to get into the European Theatre. Capitalizing on his
ability to speak Polish, he got the idea to transfer to one of the RAF's
Polish squadrons. Perhaps surprisingly, the War Department okayed the idea
and in September, 1942, he flew in Pan Am's famous China Clipper
to San Francisco, from there on a DC-3 to Chicago, and then by train to
Washington. The Pentagon "bigwigs" were more interested in hearing about
the attack on Pearl Harbour than in his upcoming plans. As a junior
officer, he felt that he didn't have much insight on base preparedness,
etc., but he told them of his experiences. After a brief visit with Kay
and his family in Oil City, he returned to Washington, was promoted to
Captain, and shipped out to England.
In October of 1942, the new
Captain Gabreski reported to Eighth Air Force Headquarters in England, to
finalize his assignment to the RAF Polish squadrons. 8AF HQ seemed to him
to consist of about 20 people running around in complete confusion, none
of whom knew about him or his pending assignment.
After some weeks of inaction, he met some Poles from the RAF in London's
Embassy Club. He introduced himself to them in Polish and explained his
proposal to them. They were very enthused, and were interested generally
in America's war plans. His new friends of the 315 Sqn shared with Gabby
the origins of the RAF Polish squadrons and promised to help him.
Eventually both the US VIII Fighter Command and the UK War Ministry issued
their approvals, so that Gabby joined the 315 Squadron.
He reported to Group Captain Mumler at
Northolt in December, 1942. Northolt held six Polish squadrons of
Spitfires; it boasted a macadam runway and permanent buildings. Capt.
Gabreski was assigned to 315 Sqn., which was receiving the new Spitfire
Mark IXs. These bore standard RAF camouflage and roundels, plus
red-and-white Polish checkerboard insignia. They outperformed the P-40s
that he was used to. They weighed less, had more horsepower, flew faster,
and manoeuvred better. Their two-speed superchargers and radio-equipped
oxygen masks enabled the Mk IXs to operate at altitudes up to 30,000 feet
(compared to 20,000 feet for the P-40s). They were better than the P-40s
in every respect except diving; they were just too light. At that time
fighter combat in Western Europe was not too intense, just fighter sweeps
out over the Channel: "rodeos" - fighter-only missions and "circuses" -
missions which included a few bombers as lures for the Luftwaffe. The
Spitfires' short range prevented deep penetration raids. Tactically, the
Poles used a "line abreast" or "finger four" formation, which allowed
everyone to keep an eye on someone else's tail.
He flew his first Spitfire mission in
early Jan. 1943, a circus to Le Havre; he was flying wing for Flight
Lt. Tadeusz Andersz. They escorted a small formation of Douglas A-20
Bostons, twin-engine bombers. It was an uneventful mission, with no
contact with the Luftwaffe. Gabby flew several more missions in January
with the Poles, becoming quite familiar with the corner of France that the
Spitfire's range covered. He encountered the Germans on Feb. 3, when a
group of FW-190s jumped his squadron on a circus to St. Omer. As the
dogfight developed quickly, Flt. Lt. Andersz called on Gabby to fire at a
German right in front of him. All that the excited young flier could see
were two small dots far away, so he fired at them. When they returned to
Northolt and reviewed the gun camera footage, Gabreski was shocked to see
an FW-190 in plain sight in the lower corner of the screen. On this first
combat mission, he learned that he had to keep calm; he also observed the
Poles' strict radio discipline and he saw how difficult it was to estimate
the range to target. He flew another 25 missions with the 315 Sqn, but had
no more encounters with the Luftwaffe.
56th Fighter Group
On February 27, 1943, he rejoined
the U.S. Eighth Air Force, assigned to Hub Zemke's
56th Fighter Group, flying P-47 Thunderbolts, then stationed at
Kings Cliffe airfield. Two things struck him: 1) the immensity of the
P-47, a huge fighter with a 40 foot wingspan, and 2) the obvious military
bearing of the 56th FG personnel, the influence of Hub Zemke. Capt.
Gabreski was assigned to the 61st Squadron, commanded by Major Loren G.
"Mac" McCollom. The squadron pilots had all been through training
together, and regarded Gabreski, a Captain yet, as a bit of an outsider.
Merle Eby introduced him to the P-47 and showed him its operation,
especially the turbocharger that required careful monitoring. Despite its
size, the P-47 was a nice handling plane, with the smooth roar of its big
radial engine. Its climb performance wasn't much; but it had outstanding
roll and spectacular dive speed. Gabby liked its efficient cockpit heating
system and its eight .50 calibre machine guns.
The 56th trained during March and
adopted the "finger four" tactical formation. In keeping with his rank of
Captain, Gabby was made commander of the 61st Squadron's 'B' flight (nine
pilots). On April 1, 1943, the Group moved to Horsham St. Faith, about 100
miles northeast of London. They flew their first combat missions in
mid-April. They saw more combat in May, some pilots scoring, a few others
being shot down, but action continued continued to elude Gabby. He was
finally able to claim a damaged FW-190 on May 15, 1943, but didn't
encounter any more opposition for the next month. On June 9th, the
reserved Hub Zemke called Gabby into his office, explained that "Mac"
McCollom was being moved up to Group Executive Officer, and offered him
the command of the 61st FS, with the rank of Major. Forty years later
Gabby could still recall his shock at this unexpected honour. He related in
Gabby: A Fighter Pilot's Life, that he stammered his acceptance
"with as much military bearing as I could muster. A year earlier I had
been a carefree Lieutenant on the beaches of Hawaii, learning how to fly,
now I was CO of a P-47 squadron, about to lead it into combat against the
toughest opponents on Earth."
He led his squadron with skill and
courage, but victories eluded him. His frustration ended on August 24,
1943, when he scored his first victory. From that day on, victories
came frequently, often by doubles and triples, until he led both the group
and all AAF fighter pilots in the theatre.
In the book, American Aces Great
Fighter Missions of WWII by Edward Sims, Gabby described the mission
of Dec. 11, 1943, as the most exciting of his tour in Europe. The
weather was perfectly clear as he led the 61st Squadron from Halesworth on
a bomber escort mission to Emden. Minutes after take-off, they were over
the icy waters of the North Sea. The sixteen P-47s of the 61st were a part
of a 200-strong fighter escort that VIII Fighter Command had ordered for
the Emden raid. They continued the long climb to altitude; well out over
the North Sea, they reached 11,000 feet and continued to climb towards
their goal of 22,000 feet. As they reached the northern coast of Holland,
they approached 20,000 feet, cruising at 250 mph, looking to rendezvous
with the bombers.
When they came up to the bombers,
Gabreski and the Thunderbolt pilots saw the bombers under attack by German
Bf-109s and -110s. The twin engine -110s were equipped with rockets to
fling at the bombers. As the 61st squadron turned to go after the -110s,
two of them collided and exploded. The German attackers scattered in every
direction. The sky erupted into a wild melee of American bombers trying to
hold formation, others going down in flames, U.S. fighters hurling
themselves at the German attackers, German fighters swirling around, and
German fighter-destroyers firing rockets. Gabreski focused on a trio of
Bf-110s, that broke down and away; as usual, the superior diving of the
P-47 allowed him to catch them, and shoot down the "tail end Charlie." His
comrades took care of the two other Bf-110s. He watched his victim plunge
down, then searched the sky fruitlessly; he couldn't see any other planes
from the 61st. And worse, he was now getting low on fuel. He briefly tried
to join up with a group of radial engine fighters, but he edged away when
he realized they were FW-190s. When he checked his fuel again, he realized
that he might not have enough to get home. He headed west, leaned out the
mixture a little more than was safe, adjusted to the most economical
cruising speed and altitude, and prayed.
As Gabreski was checking gauges, he
spotted a lone plane coming in at 3 o'clock. It turned out to be a Bf-109.
With his fuel situation, Gabby was in no position to dogfight the German,
nor to take evasive action that would take him further from England. As
the German made firing passes at him, twice Gabby sharply flew into his
assailant, and continued his westward course. On the third pass, the
German's shells hit, shot away a rudder pedal and part of Gabreski's boot.
Even worse the engine had taken hits and began to run rough. The
Thunderbolt started to spiral down, and Gabby let it go as long as he
dared, playing 'possum' for the FW-190 pilot. The ruse worked for a few
seconds, but the German quickly dived in pursuit. Gabreski reached the low
clouds in time and eluded his pursuer. Nursing his damaged fighter and low
on fuel, he reached the advanced strip at Manston
On June 6, 1944 - D-Day.
Gabreski led his squadron in long fighter 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 28 air victories and 193 missions, he earned a leave back
to the States. While waiting to board the plane that would fly him to
the US, Gabreski discovered that a mission was scheduled for that
morning. He took his bags off the transport and wangled permission to
"fly just one more." 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 crash landed.
Uninjured, he jumped to the ground and runs toward a deep woods with
German soldiers in pursuit. Eluding them for five days, he began to make
his way toward Allied lines. He encountered a Polish-speaking forced
labourer whom he persuaded to bring him food and water. But eventually he
was captured and interrogated by the famed Hanns Scharff.
Finally transferred to Stalag Luft I,
a permanent prisoner of war camp holding Allied air officers, he was
barracked in one of the 20-man shacks surrounded by two rows of barbed
wire fence. There he shared the bad food, hunger and punishments, if
possible. But he was proud of the men's spirits under such miserable
circumstances, for they 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 lead to freedom.
By March, 1945, after Gabreski was
given command of a newly completed prisoner compound, food was at rock
bottom. But he did not lose faith. Soon he began to hear artillery to
the East. When Russian soldiers arrived, it was a joyous occasion and
soon American planes evacuated the airmen to freedom.
After the war, Gabreski spent several
years in flight testing and in command of fighter units before he
succeeded in getting an assignment to Korea.
In July, 1951, now-Colonel Gabreski
downed his first MiG, flying an F-86 Sabre jet, despite its unfamiliar
new gunsight which he replaced with a piece of chewing gum stuck on the
windscreen. Two months later, after a huge dogfight over the Yalu on
Sept. 9, he was pleased to congratulate two of his pilots, Capt. Richard
Becker and 1st. Lt. Ralph Gibson, when they became the 2nd and 3rd
American jet aces. In December 1951, he transferred from the 4th to the
51st FIW. In April, 1952, he scored his fifth kill of the Korean air war,
to become one of the few pilots who became aces in two war. That summer,
cooperating quietly with Bud Mahurin, Bill
Whisner, and other commanders, he participated in the clandestine
'Maple Special' missions across the Yalu River, into Manchuria. He was
credited with 6.5 kills in Korea.
He ended a distinguished Air Force
career as commander of several tactical and air defence wings. After his
retirement from the Air Force, he worked in the aviation industry and as
President of the Long Island Rail Road. He lived in retirement on Long
Island, for many years as "America's Greatest Living Ace". he passed
away on Jan. 31, 2002.