Tag Archives: 56th Fighter Group

Francis Stanley Gabreski (28 January 1919–31 January 2002)

Lieutenant Colonel Francis Stanley Gabreski, United States Army Air Forces. (Getty Images)

28 January 1919: Colonel Francis Stanley (“Gabby”) Gabreski, United States Air Force, was born at Oil City, Pennsylvania. He was the second child of Stanislaw Gabryszewski, a railroad car repairer, and Jozefa Kapica Gabryszewsky, both immigrants from Poland. He attended Oil City High School, graduating in 1938.

Francis Gabreski, 1940. (The Dome)

After two years of study at the University of Notre Dame, on 28 Francis S. Gabreski enlisted as a Flying Cadet, Air Corps, United States Army, at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was 5 feet, 8 inches (172.7 centimeters) tall and weighed 146 pounds (66.2 kilograms). After completing flight training, on 14 March 1941, Gabreski was commissioned as a second lieutenant, Air Reserve.

Lieutenant Gabreski was assigned as a fighter pilot with the 45th Pursuit Squadron, 15th Pursuit Group, at Wheeler Army Airfield, Territory of Hawaii. He flew  Curtiss P-36 Hawks and P-40 Warhawks. While at Wheeler, Gabreski met his future wife, Miss Catherine Mary Cochran. They planned to marry, but this was delayed  when the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Hawaii on 7 December 1941.

On 1 March 1942, Gabreski was promoted to first lieutenant, Air Corps, Army of the United States (A.U.S.), and then to captain, 16 October 1942. Captain Gabreski 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 Heritage Hangar.)

Captain Francis S. Gabreski, U.S. Army Air Corps, in the cockpit of his Supermarine Spitfire Mk.IX, PK E, BS410, with No. 315 Squadron, Royal Air Force, at RAF Northolt, England, 1943. This airplane was shot down 13 May 1943. It is currently under restoration. (Royal Air Force)

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 was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, 23 January 1944. He took command of the 61st Fighter Squadron on 13 April 1944.

Lieutenant Colonel Francis S. Gabreski, commanding 61st Fighter Squadron, in the cockpit of his Republic P-47D-25-RE Thunderbolt, 42-26418, 1944. The marks indicate 28 enemy aircraft destroyed. (American Air Museum in Britain)

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.

Lieutenant Colonel Gabreski’s Republic P-47D-25-RE Thunderbolt, 42-26418, RAF Boxted, Essex, England, 1944. (U.S. Air Force 68268 A.C./American Air Museum in Britain UPL 33594)
Lieutenant Colonel Gabreski, at right, with the ground crew of his Republic P-47D Thunderbolt, circa July 1944. Left to right, crew chief, Staff Sergeant Ralph H. Safford,of Ionia, Michigan; assistant crew chief Corporal Felix Schacki, Gary, Indiana; and armorer Sergeant Michael Di Franza, East Boston, Massachussetts. (American Air Museum in Britain)
Lieutenant Colonel Gabreski (standing, just left of center) with the pilots of the 61st Fighter Squadron, July 1944. (American Air Museum in Britain)

Having flown 193 combat missions and awaiting transport to the United States, on 20 July 1944 Gabreski decided to take “just one more.” 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 evaded the enemy for five days before he was caught. Gabreski was held as a Prisoner of War at Stalag Luft I until April 1945.

Two German officers stand on the wing of Lieutenant Colonel Gabreski’s P-47D-25-RE Thunderbolt, 42-26418, near Bassenheim, Germany. (Luftwaffe)
Lieutenant Colonel Gabreski’s P-47D-25-RE Thunderbolt, 42-26418, near Bassenheim, Germany. (Luftwaffe)

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.

Gabreski resumed his college education, enrolling as one of the first students at the School of General Studies of Columbia University in 1947. He graduated with a bachelor of arts degree (B.A.) in political science, in 1949.

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 Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG 15 fighters netween 8 July 1951 and 13 April 1952, while flying North American Aviation F-86A and F-86E Sabres. (The “.5” represents credit shared with another pilot for one enemy airplane destroyed, 20 February 1952.) Gabreski flew 100 combat missions over Korea.

Colonel Gabreski in the cockpit of a North American Aviation F-86E Sabre, Korea, 1952.

After an assignment as Chief of Combat Operations, Office of the Deputy Inspector General, at Norton Air Force Base in southern California, Colonel Gabreski attended the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama. He was then assigned as Deputy Chief of Staff, Ninth 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 Francis Stanley Gabreski, United States Air Force. (Imperial War Museum FRE 13934)

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.

Lieutenant Colonel and Mrs. Francis S. Gabreski, 11 June 1945. (andrezejburlewicz.blog)

Gabby Gabreski married Miss Catherine Mary (“Kay”) Cochran, 11 June 1945, at Our Lady of the Angels Chapel, Campion College, Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. They would have nine children. Mrs Gabreski died in a car accident in 1993.

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.

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.

Lieutenant Colonel Francis Stanley Gabreski, United States Air Force, 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing, standing in the cockpit of his North American Aviation F-86E Sabre, Korea, ca. 1952. (U.S. Air Force)
Lieutenant Colonel Francis Stanley Gabreski. Fighter Pilot. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

13 November 1942

Two Republic Aviation Corporation P-47C Thunderbolts of the 56th Fighter Group retract their landing gear after takeoff. (U.S. Air Force)
Two Republic Aviation Corporation P-47C Thunderbolts of the 56th Fighter Group retract their landing gear after takeoff. (U.S. Air Force)

13 November 1942: Lieutenants Harold E. Comstock and Roger B. Dyar were fighter pilots assigned to the 63rd Fighter Squadron, 56th Fighter Group, at Bridgeport, Connecticut. They were often sent to test new P-47 Thunderbolt fighters at the Republic Aviation Corporation factory in nearby Farmingdale, New York. According to Wikipedia:

Because of the need to manufacture airplanes quickly and the close proximity to the Republic Aviation factory, active duty pilots were used for some of the test flights of the new P-47. On 13 November 1942, Lts. Comstock and Dyar were ordered to test a new type of radio antenna on the P-47C. Lt. Comstock climbed to an indicated altitude of 49,600 feet (15,118 meters) while trying to reach 50,000 feet. Due to poor response from the controls, he decided to let the aircraft fall off rather than risk a spin. He started to dive straight down and after passing below 40,000 feet he found that his controls had frozen. He then felt a bump and was unable to move the controls as the aircraft continued to dive. Even with maximum exertion, he was unable to move the control stick so he started to roll the trim tab back and after passing below 30,000 feet, the aircraft started to pull out of the dive and he recovered between 20,000 and 25,000 feet.

Lt. Dyar started his dive and encountered the same conditions. After landing, Lt. Comstock reported what happened and the chief designer of the P-47 Thunderbolt, Alexander Kartveli, questioned Lt. Comstock at length and made numerous calculations. Republic Aviation soon issued a press release claiming that Lts. Comstock and Dyar had exceeded the speed of sound. This was picked up in the national media and also drawn in Ripley’s Believe It or Not!. Soon after the press release, the 56th Fighter Group received a telegram from Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold that “there would be no more discussion about the dive.” The actual speed attained was probably less than the speed of sound but this speed which caused the flight controls to lock up was referred to as “compressibility.” This effect was encountered by many pilots flying in combat but training and proper procedures allowed them to recover from it. In 1959, the Air Force published “A Chronology of American Aerospace Events” and included an entry for 15 November 1942 which stated “Lts. Harold Comstock and Roger Dyar set a new speed record for airplanes when they power-dived their P-47 fighters at 725 mph from 35,000 feet over an east coast air base.” While the Air Force acknowledged the speed of 725 miles per hour, it is not known whether the P-47 could actually exceed the speed of sound in a dive. Capt. Roger Dyar was killed in action on 26 June 1943.Wikipedia

1st Lieutenant Harold E. Comstock, 56th Fighter Group. (American Air Museum in Britain)

The Los Angeles Times reported:

Plane Diving 725 m.p.h. Surpasses Speed of Sound

Bulletlike, 12-Mile-Minute Plunge of Thunderbolt P-47 Froze Control Sticks, Intrepid Army Pilots Report

     Farmingdale, N.Y., Dec. 2. (AP)—How two Army lieutenants dived their Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter plane at a speed of 725 miles an hour—more than 12 miles a minute and faster than the high-altitude speed of sound—was disclosed today.

     The terrific speed—perhaps faster than any human being has traveled before—froze their control sticks, the pilots reported, causing them to resort to the use of emergency cranks to move the elevator tabs and pull their ships out of the dive.

     “My body was pushed back against the rear armor plate and I had a feeling that any second the plane was going to pull away from me and leave me stranded right there, five miles above the ground. It;s a breathless feeling, your stomach curls up; it’s something like stepping from a hot shower to a cold one,” Lieut. Roger Dyar, one of the pilots, said.

     “When I rolled back on the tabs,” Lieut. Harold Comstock said, “the plane shuddered as though it had been hit by a truck.”

     Both pilots became air cadets in 1941. Lieut. Comstock is from Fresno, Cal., and Lieut. Dyar from Lowell, O.

Los Angeles Times, Vol. LXI, Thursday, 3 December 1942, Page 1, Columns 4 and 5

The instrument panel of a Republic P-47D-40-RA Thunderbolt in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force. The Airspeed Indicator is in the second row of instruments, just left of center. Note that the maximum speed marked on the face of the gauge is 700 miles per hour. (U.S. Air Force)
The instrument panel of a Republic P-47D-40-RA Thunderbolt in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force. The Airspeed Indicator is in the second row of instruments, just left of center. Note that the maximum speed marked on the face of the gauge is 700 miles per hour. (U.S. Air Force)

Almost certainly, the diving Thunderbolts did not exceed the speed of sound:

In July 1944 Major [Frederic Austin] Borsodi [Chief, Fighter Test Branch, Army Air Forces Material Command, Wright Field] made a number of full power vertical dives from 40,000 feet in a North American P-51D to assess the compressibility effects on the aircraft’s handling. He achieved a maximum Mach number of 0.86, at which point severe buffeting of the empennage was noted. . . many World War II pilots remained firmly convinced that they had taken their propeller-driven fighters supersonic in steep dives, often as local shock waves rattled their craft and caused the angle of those dives to become uncontrollably steeper. More often than not the center of lift moved aft on their wings, and Mach-induced turbulence blanketed the normal control surfaces on the tail. For the lucky ones, the descent into denser air slowed the airplane, while the higher temperatures at lower altitude meant that the Mach number for a given true airspeed was lower. Consequently, local shock waves tended to disappear. A normal recovery as from any steep dive, could usually be effected. . . the later [Supermarine] Spitfires, with a demonstrated ceiling of 45,000 feet, a much thinner wing of elliptical planform, and a lower profile liquid-cooled engine, could never register a maximum speed greater than 0.9 Mach number. That is the highest recorded speed, by a substantial margin of any propeller driven fighter. Oh yes, in the course of one such dive, on entering the denser air around 20,000 feet, the Spitfire’s propeller and much of the engine cowling parted company with the rest of the aircraft. Getting to 0.90 Mach number wasn’t easy. . . the speed of sound at sea level and 59° Fahrenheit is 761 miles per hour. At an altitude of 40,000 feet, where our standard atmosphere charts tell us that the temperature is -67° Fahrenheit, sound travels at 662 miles per hour.

Aces Wild: The Race For Mach 1, by Al Blackburn, Scholarly Resources, Inc., Wilmington, Delaware, at Pages 6–7, 24–27.

Captain Harold E. Comstock, United States Army Air Corps. (U.S. Air Force)
Captain Harold E. Comstock, United States Army Air Corps, 1944. (U.S. Air Force)
Harold E. Comstock, circa 1940.

Harold Elwood Comstock was born 20 December 1920 at Fresno, California. He was the son of Clinton Elwood Comstock, a telephone company repairman, and Leona M. Sutherland Comstock. He graduated from Roosevelt High School in Fresno, in February 1939. Comstock then entered Fresno State College. He was a member of the F.S.C. Pilots Club and the Aero Mechanics Club.

Harold Comstock was appointed an Aviation Cadet, Air Corps, Army of the United States (A.U.S.), 10 October 1941. He was 5 feet, 10 inches (1.78 meters) tall and weighed 149 pounds (67.6 kilograms). After completing flight training, on 3 July 1942 Comstock was commissioned as a second lieutenant, Air Reserve. Comstock was promoted to first lieutenant, A.U.S., 29 May 1943. Lieutenant Comstock advanced to the rank of captain, A.U.S., on 12 March 1944, and to major, A.U.S., 17 September 1944. On 3 July 1945, Major Comstock’s permanent Air-Reserve rank was advanced to first lieutenant.

UN Y, Bunny Comstock’s P-47C-5-RE Thunderbolt, 41-6326. (American Air Museum in Britain)
Detail of artwork on P-47C 41-6326 UN-Y “Happy Warrior” assigned to Harold “Bunny” Comstock. (American Air Museum in Britain)

Harold Comstock flew two combat tours in Europe with the 56th Fighter Group during World War II. He completed his second tour as commanding officer of the group’s 63rd Fighter Squadron. He flew 138 combat missions and is officially credited with destroying 5 enemy aircraft in aerial combat, with 2 probably destroyed and 3 damaged, and another 3 destroyed on the ground.

Low on fuel after a combat mission, 1st Lieutenant Comstock’s Republic P-47C-5-RE Thunderbolt 41-6326 crashed at Lyons Farm, Mutford, Suffolk, England, 3 February 1944. (U.S. Air Force)
Harold Comstock’s P-47C, 41-6326, UN Y. (American Air Museum in Britain)
Comstock’s P-47 (American Air Museum in Britain)

During his World War II service, Major Comstock was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with three oak leaf clusters (four awards); the Air Medal with 11 oak leaf clusters (12 awards) and the Purple Heart.

Republic P-47 Thunderbolts of the 63rd Fighter Squadron, 56th Fighter Group, ready for takeoff at RAF Boxted. (American Air Museum in Britain)
Miss Barbara Lucille Joint, circa 1940.

Lieutenant Comstock married Miss Barbara Lucille Joint, also from Fresno, 10 June 1942 at Bridge City, Texas. They would have two children, Harold Eric Comstock, and Roger Joseph Comstock.

On 16 May 1947, Major Comstock was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, Air-Reserve. On 10 October 1947, Comstock’s permanent military rank became fist lieutenant, Air Corps, with date of rank retroactive to 3 July 1945. When the United States Air Force was established as an independent branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, Comstock’s commission was converted. (1st Lieutenant, No. 7779.)

During the Vietnam War, Lieutenant Colonel Comstock commanded the 481st Tactical Fighter Squadron, 27th Tactical Fighter Wing from 1965 to 1968. He flew another 132 combat missions in the North American Aviation F-100D Super Sabre, and 38 as commander of an airborne command and control unit of the 7th Airborne Command and Control Squadron. Colonel Comstock’s final assignment was as commanding officer, 602nd Tactical Control Group, Bergrstom Air Force Base, southeast of Austin, Texas.

Lieutenant Colonel Harold E. Comstock, U.S. Air Force, 481st Tactical Fighter Squadron, 26th Tactical Fighter Wing, with a North American Aviation F-100D-26-NA Super Sabre, 55-3623, at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, 1964. (Jet Pilot Overseas)
Lieutenant Colonel Harold E. Comstock, U.S. Air Force, 481st Tactical Fighter Squadron, 26th Tactical Fighter Wing, with a North American Aviation F-100D-26-NA Super Sabre, 55-3623, at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, 1964. (Jet Pilot Overseas)

Colonel Comstock retired from the Air Force on 30 September 1971. He was twice awarded the Legion of Merit, and he held the Distinguished Flying Cross with six oak leaf clusters, a Purple Heart, and 17 Air Medals.

Harold E. Comstock died at Clovis, California in 2009 at the age of 88 years. He was buried at Fresno Memorial Gardens, Fresno, California.

Republic P-47 Thunderbolt “22931,” 56th Fighter Group, RAF Kings Cliff, 11 March 1943. (American Air Museum in Britain)

The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt was the largest single-engine fighter that had yet been built. The first P-47C variant was completed 14 September 1942, only one month before Bunny Comstock’s famous dive. An early change (P-47C-1) was the addition of 8 inches (0.203 meters) to the forward fuselage for improved handling. The P-47C-5-RE was 36 feet, 1-3/16 inches (11.003 meters) long with a wingspan of 40 feet, 9-5/16 inches (12.429 meters) The overall height was 14 feet 3-5/16 inches (4.351 meters). The fighter’s empty weight was 9,900 pounds (4,490.6 kilograms) and maximum gross weight was 14,925 pounds (6,769.9 kilograms).

The P-47C was powered by an air-cooled, supercharged, 2,804.4-cubic-inch-displacement (45.956 liter) Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp TSB1-G (R-2800-21) two-row, 18-cylinder radial engine with a compression ratio of 6.65:1. The R-2800-21 had a Normal Power rating of 1,625 horsepower at 2,550 r.p.m. to 25,000 feet (7,620 meters) and a Takeoff/Military Power rating of  2,000 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m. to an altitude of 25,000 feet (7,620 meters). A large General Electric turbosupercharger was mounted in the rear of the fuselage. Internal ducts carried exhaust gases from the engine to drive the turbocharger and the supercharged air was then carried forward to supply the engine. The engine drove a 12 foot, 2 inch (3.708 meter) diameter four-bladed Curtiss Electric propeller through a 2:1 gear reduction. The R-2800-21 was 6 feet, 3.72 inches (1.923 meters) long, 4 feet, 4.50 inches (1.340 meters) in diameter, and weighed 2,265 pounds (1,027 kilograms). Approximately 80% of these engines were produced by the Ford Motor Company. It was also used as a commercial aircraft engine, with optional propeller gear reduction ratios.

63rd Fighter Squadron P-47C-5-RE Thunderbolt 41-6325 ready for takeoff at RAF Horsham St. Faith, 16 March 1943. (American Air Museum in Britain)

The P-47C had a maximum speed in level flight of 433 miles per hour (697 kilometers per hour) at 30,000 feet (9,144 meters). The service ceiling was 42,000 feet (12,802 meters), and it could climb to 15,000 feet (4,572 meters) in 7 minutes, 12 seconds. It had a maximum range of 1,250 miles (2,012 kilometers) with external fuel tanks.

The Thunderbolt was armed with eight Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns, four in each wing, with 3,400 rounds of ammunition. It could also carry external fuel tanks, rockets and bombs. The structure of the P-47 could be described as “robust” and it was heavily armored.

602 P-47Cs were built in the five months before the P-47D entered production. A total of 15,683 Thunderbolts were built; more than any other Allied fighter type. In aerial combat it had a kill-to-loss ratio of 4.6:1. The amount of damage that the airplane could absorb and still return was remarkable. The P-47, though, really made its name as a ground attack fighter, destroying aircraft, locomotives, rail cars, and tanks by the many thousands. It was one of the most successful aircraft of World War II.

Republic P-47D-6-RE Thunderbolt 42-74742 at RAF Duxford during World War II. The maintenance technicians show the fighter's enormous size. (Daily Mail)
Republic P-47D-6-RE Thunderbolt 42-74742 at RAF Duxford during World War II. The four maintenance technicians show the fighter’s enormous size. (Daily Mail)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes