28 January 1919: Colonel Francis Stanley (“Gabby”) Gabreski, United States Air Force, was born at Oil City, Pennsylvania. He was the second child of Stanley Gabryszewski, a railroad car repairer, and Jozefa Kapica Gabryszewsky, both immigrants from Poland. He attended Oil City High School, graduating in 1938.
After two years of study at the University of Notre Dame, where he was a member of the Cracow Club, Francis S. Gabreski enlisted as a Flying Cadet in the United States Army Air Corps, 28 July 1940, at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was 5 feet, 8 inches (172.7 centimeters) tall and weighed 146 pounds (66.2 kilograms). Gabreski was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, Air Corps Reserve, 14 March 1941.
Lieutenant Gabreski was a fighter pilot assigned to the 45th Pursuit Squadron, 15th Pursuit Group, at Wheeler Army Airfield, Territory of Hawaii, flying Curtiss P-36 Hawks and P-40 Warhawks, when the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked there on 7 December 1941.
On 1 March 1942, he was promoted to First Lieutenant, Air Corps, Army of the United States, and to Captain, 16 October 1942. He was sent to Britain with the 56th Fighter Group.
Because of his Polish lineage and his fluency in the language, Gabreski requested assignment to a Polish fighter squadron fighting with the Royal Air Force. His request was approved and he was assigned to No. 315 Squadron, based at RAF Northolt, London, England, where he flew the Supermarine Spitfire Mk.IX. One of those Spitfires, Spitfire Mk.IXc BS410, is currently under restoration at the Biggin Hill Herritage Hangar.
As American involvement in the European Theater increased, “Gabby” returned to the 61st Fighter Squadron, 56th Fighter Group, and flew the Republic P-47C Thunderbolt. He was promoted to the rank of Major, 19 July 1943.
Major Gabreski took command of the 61st, 13 April 1944. He was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, 23 January 1944.
By July 1944, he had shot down 28 enemy fighters in aerial combat and destroyed another three on the ground, making him the leading American fighter ace up to that time.
Having completed his combat tour and waiting transport to the United States, on 20 July 1944 Gabreski decided to take “just one more” combat mission. As he made a low strafing run across an enemy airfield near Bassenheim, Germany, the tips of his propeller blades hit the ground, causing a severe vibration. He put his Thunderbolt down on its belly, climbed out and ran to avoid being captured. He was caught after evading the enemy for five days, and was held as a Prisoner of War at Stalag Luft I until April 1945.
Gabreski was promoted to the rank of Colonel, Army of the United States, 24 October 1945. He was released from active duty in September 1946. He then joined the Air National Guard with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, 6 December 1946.
During the the Korean War, Lieutenant Colonel Gabreski served with the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing and commanded the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing. He is credited with shooting down 6.5 MiG 15 fighters with North American Aviation F-86A and F-86E Sabres. (The “.5” represents credit for one enemy airplane destroyed shared with another pilot.) He flew 100 combat missions over Korea.
After a staff assignment, Gabreski attended the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama. He was then assigned as Deputy Chief of Staff, 9th Air Force.
He went on to command two tactical fighter wings, the 354th and the 18th, flying North American Aviation F-100 Super Sabres.
Colonel Gabreski’s final fighter command was the 52nd Fighter Wing (Air Defense) based at Suffolk County Airport, New York, which was equipped with the McDonnell F-101 Voodoo interceptor.
Colonel Gabreski retired from the Air Force 1 November 1967 after 27 years of service and 37.5 enemy aircraft destroyed. At the time of his retirement, he had flown more combat missions than any other U.S. Air Force fighter pilot.
Gabby Gabreski married Miss Catherine Mary (“Kay”) Cochran, 11 June 1945. They would have nine children. Two of their sons graduated from the United States Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, Colorado, and became U.S. Air Force pilots. His daughter-in-law, Lieutenant General Terry L. Gabreski, USAF, was the highest-ranking woman in the United States Air Force at the time of her retirement. Mrs Gabreski died in a car accident in 1993.
Colonel Gabreski was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in combat on 26 November 1943, when he shot down two enemy Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters. His other decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star with oak leaf cluster (two awards), Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross with two silver and bronze oak leaf clusters (thirteen awards), Bronze Star, Air Medal with one silver and one bronze oak leaf cluster (seven awards), and Prisoner of War Medal. He was awarded the Royal Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross, France’s Légion d’honneur and Croix de Guerre with Palm, Poland’s Krzyż Walecznych and the Belgian Croix de Guerre with Palm.
In 1991, Suffolk County Airport, New York, was renamed Francis S. Gabreski Airport in his honor.
Colonel Gabreski died 31 January 2002 at the age of 83 years. He is buried at Calverton National Cemetery, Long Island, New York.
© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes