Lt. Col. Francis S. "Gabby" Gabreski
Scored 28 kills with 56th Fighter Group in WWII, POW
By Stephen Sherman, June, 1999. Updated June 28, 2011.
"This is your last chance, so give it your best." the flight instructor said to aviation cadet Francis S. Gabreski.
Uneasy as always, Gabby took the plane up and put it through the basic required maneuvers, 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 Major Ray Wassall (Actually, Wassall was a civilian but was know as "the Major" in St. Louis in the 30's and 40's. He was a superb instructor from the first, beginning in 1917 flying Jennys.) An "Elimination Flight" was just that, a cadet's final chance to prove himself worthy in the opinion of an Army officer.
Thus in September 1940, Wassall told Gabby Gabreski, America's future "Greatest Living Ace", to step into the plane and give it his best. He flew well enough for Major Wassall 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. Born on , 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 attending.
2nd Lt. Gabreski received his first choice of duty assignments - fighter planes in Hawaii. He traveled 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 future.
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 fueled and armed. About 10 planes were readied, and Gabreski was one of the pilots selected to fly. As they flew over Pearl Harbor, 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 Harbor, 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 afterwards, 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 Harbor 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 maneuvered 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 caliber 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 honor. He related in his autobiography, 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 theater.
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
Excerpts from: Valor, July 1997, Vol. 80, No. 7, by John L. Frisbee, Contributing Editor
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 laborer whom he persuaded to bring him food and water. But eventually he was captured and interrogated by the famed Hans 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 defense wings. After his retirement from the U.S. 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 .
- Valor, July 1997, Vol. 80, No. 7, by John L. Frisbee, Contributing Editor
- Francis S. Gabreski and Carl Molesworth, Gabby: A Fighter Pilot's Life, Schiffer, 1998
- Roger Freeman, 56th Fighter Group, Osprey, 2000 - from Osprey's new Aviation Elite series