Tag Archives: Prisoner of War

24 March 1944

Stammlager Luft III prison in Province of East Silesia, World War II. (Muzeum Obózow Jenieckich W Żaganiu)
Stammlager Luft III prison in Province of East Silesia, World War II. (Muzeum Obózow Jenieckich W Żaganiu)

24 March 1944: At about 2230 hours, the first of 76 Allied prisoners of war interred at Stammlager Luft III (Stalag Luft III) began to escape through a 30-foot-deep (9 meters), 320-foot-long (98 meters) tunnel, code-named “Harry.”

The prison, located just south of Sagan (Żagań) in East Silesia (now a part of Poland) was specially constructed to house captured Royal Air Force and other Allied airmen, and was controlled by the German air force, the Luftwaffe. Prior to this escape, the German captors had discovered at least 98 tunnels at the prison.

A drawing showing the proposed route of one of the escape tunnels, by wartime artist Ley Kenyon, a prisoner-of-war in Stalag Luft III at the time of the Great Escape in March 1944 [Picture: from the original drawings of Ley Kenyon 1943] (GOV.UK)
A drawing showing the proposed route of one of the escape tunnels, by wartime artist Ley Kenyon, a prisoner-of-war in Stalag Luft III at the time of the Great Escape in March 1944 [Picture: from the original drawings of Ley Kenyon 1943] (© Crown copyright)
The weather was the coldest in thirty years and five feet of snow lay on the ground. The last escapee left the tunnel at 0455, 25 March. Of the 76 prisoners who escaped, 73 were soon recaptured, and of those, 50 were murdered by the Gestapo.

Popularly known as “The Great Escape,” this was the subject of a 1950 book, The Great Escape, by Paul Brickhill, who was a POW at the prison. His book was adapted into a very popular motion picture, “The Great Escape,” in 1963.

Squadron Leader Thomas Gresham Kirby-Green, RAF, and Flight Lieutenant Gordon Arthur Kidder, RCAF, were murdered by Gestapo agents near Zlín, Moravia, 29 March 1944. (This photograph may be of a reconstruction by the RAF Special Investigations Branch, circa 1946)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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1 March 1972

Lieutenat Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger II, 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, in the cockpit of a McDonnell F-4 Phantom II, Udorn RTAFB, 1972. (U.S. Air Force)
Lieutenant Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger II, 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, in the cockpit of a McDonnell F-4 Phantom II, Udorn RTAFB, 1972. (U.S. Air Force)

1 March 1972: Lieutenant Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger II, United States Air Force, and 1st Lieutenant Leigh A. Hodgdon, were flying McDonnell F-4D-29-MC  Phantom II serial number 66-7463, call sign Falcon 54. Along with a second F-4, they were assigned to a combat air patrol (MiGCAP) mission over northern Laos.

At approximately 2000 hours, Disco, a Lockheed EC-121T Warning Star airborne early warning aircraft, alerted Kittinger to the presence of several Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG 21 interceptors and gave him radar vectors toward the enemy aircraft.

Lockheed EC-121T Warning Star. (U.S. Air Force)
Lockheed EC-121T Warning Star. (U.S. Air Force)

Colonel Kittinger reported:

At approximately 18 miles the system broke lock but it was quickly reacquired. A slow left turn ensued to keep the dot centered. Altitudes were slowly increased from 8,200 feet to 11,500 feet. The Vc on the scope was extremely difficult to interpret; however, it appeared that we were not really overtaking the target, so the outboard tanks were dropped. Heading of the aircraft changed to approximately 360° at time of firing. At approximately 6 miles the “in-range” light illuminated, followed by an increase in the ASE circle. Trigger was squeezed and crew felt a thump as the missile was ejected; however, missile motor did not ignite. The trigger was squeezed again and held for approximately 3 seconds; however missile did not fire. Trigger was squeezed again and missile #3 fired. The missile made a small correction to the left then back to the right and guided straight away. Pilot maintained the dot centered.

Approximately 5 to 6 seconds after launch, detonation was observed. Almost simultaneously, two enemy missiles were observed coming from the vicinity of the detonation. Evasive action prevented more thorough observations of detonation. The flight turned to a heading of 210°, maintained 9,000 feet, airspeed 500 knots, and egressed the area.

— Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia 1965–1973, by R. Frank Futrell, William H. Greenhalgh, Carl Grubb, Gerard E. Hasselwander, Robert F. Jakob and Charles A. Ravenstein, Office of Air Force History, Headquarters USAF, 1976, Chapter III at Page 87.

Joe Kittinger is officially credited with the destruction of the MiG 21.

McDonnell F-4D-29-MC Phantom II 66-7463, flown by Captains Richie and DeBellevue, 28 August 1972. (U.S. Air Force)
This McDonnell F-4D-29-MC Phantom II, 66-7463, was flown by LCOL Joe Kittinger and 1LT Hodgdon when they shot down a MiG-21, 1 March 1972. Flown by several different crews, this airplane is officially credited with shooting down 6 enemy fighters. It is on display at the United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado. (U.S. Air Force)

Joseph W. Kittinger II is best known for his participation in experimental high-altitude balloon flights. On 2 June 1957, he ascended to 97,760 feet (29,490 meters) aboard the Project MAN-HIGH 1. On 16 August 1960, he reached 102,800 feet (31,333 meters) and then stepped off for the longest free-fall parachute jump—a record that would stand for 52 years.

Joe Kittinger flew 483 combat missions in three tours during the Vietnam War. He was shot down 11 May 1972, when his F-4D, 66-0230, was struck by a missile fired by a MiG 21. (Kittinger’s wingman shot down the MiG.) He and Weapons System Officer 1st Lieutenant William J. Reich were captured and held at the infamous Hanoi Hilton for the next 11 months.

Captain Kittinger steps off the Excelsior gondola, 102,800 feet above the Earth, 16 August 1960. (U.S. Air Force)
Captain Kittinger steps off the Excelsior gondola, 102,800 feet above the Earth, 16 August 1960. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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Group Captain Sir Douglas R. S. Bader, C.B.E., D.S.O. and Bar, D.F.C. and Bar (February 21, 1910 – September 5, 1982)

Group Captain Douglas Robert Steuart Bader, D.S.O. and Bar, D.F.C. and Bar. (Paul Laib)

21 February 1910: Group Captain Sir Douglas Robert Steuart Bader, Royal Air Force, C.B.E., D.S.O. and Bar, D.F.C. and Bar, FRAeS, DL, the legendary fighter pilot of the Royal Air Force during World War II, was born at St. John’s Wood, London, England. He was the son of Frederick Roberts Bader, a civil engineer, and Jessie Scott MacKenzie Bader.

Bader attended Temple Grove School, Eastbourne, East Sussex, and St. Edward’s School in Oxford. After graduating in 1928, he joined the Royal Air Force as a cadet at the Royal Air Force College Cranwell in Lincolnshire. Bader was granted a permanent commission as a Pilot Officer, “with effect from and with seniority of 26th July 1930.”

Left to right, Pilot Officer Douglas R.S. Bader, Flight Lieutenant Harry Day and Flying Officer Geoffrey Stephenson, of No. 23 Squadron, during training for the 1931 Hendon Airshow, with a Gloster Gamecock. (RAF Museum)

Bader lost both legs in the crash of a Bristol Bulldog fighter while practicing aerobatics 14 December 1931 and was medically retired, 30 April 1933.

Following his medical retirement, Douglas Bader joined the Asiatic Petroleum Co., a subsidiary of the Koninklijke Nederlandse Petroleum Maatschappij (Royal Dutch Petroleum Company) and the Shell Transport and Trading Company.

Mrs. Douglas R. S. Bader, 1942

On 5 October 1933, Mr. Bader married Miss Olive Thelma Exley Edwards at the registry office of Hampstead Village, London. Miss Edwards was the daughter of Lieutenant Colonel Ivo Arthur Exley Edwards, R.A.F. On their fourth anniversary, 5 October 1937, a formal wedding ceremony took place at St Mary Abbots Church in Kensington, London.

In 1939, feeling that war with Germany was imminent, Bader applied to the Air Ministry for reinstatement. He was turned down, but was told that if there was a war his request might be reconsidered.

The Air Ministry did reconsider Douglas Bader’s request for reinstatement and after a medical evaluation and other tests, and on 26 November 1939, he was sent to refresher flight training at the Central Flying School where he was evaluated as “Exceptional,” a very rare qualification.

A page from Douglas Bader’s pilot log book, showing his “exceptional”evaluation. (Royal Air Force Museum)

Flying Officer Bader was posted to No. 19 Squadron, RAF Duxford, 7 February 1940. The squadron was equipped with the Supermarine Spitfire. In April, he was reassigned as flight leader of A Flight, No. 222 Squadron, also flying Spitfires from Duxford. On 24 June 1940, Bader took command of No. 242 Squadron at RAF Coltishall, Norfolk, in East Anglia. No. 242 operated the Hawker Hurricane.

Squadron Leader Douglas Bader with his Hawker Hurricane Mk. I, LE D, V7467, of No. 242 Squadron, RAF Colitshall, Norfolk, East Anglia, September 1940. (Royal Air Force)

On 24 September 1940, Flying Officer Bader was granted the war substantive rank of Flight Lieutenant.

Distinguished Service Order

On 1 October 1940, George VI, King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions, appointed Acting Squadron Leader Douglas R. S. Bader a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order. The notice in The London Gazette reads,

“This officer has displayed gallantry and leadership of the highest order. During three recent engagements he has led his squadron with such skill and ability that thirty-three enemy aircraft have been destroyed. In the course of these engagements Squadron Leader Bader has added to his previous successes by destroying six enemy aircraft.”

Acting Squadron Leader Bader, D.S.O., was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross 7th January, 1941: “Squadron Leader Bader has continued to lead his squadron and wing with the utmost gallantry on all occasions. he has now destroyed a total of ten hostile aircraft and damaged several more.”

In March 1941, Acting Squadron Bader was promoted to Acting Wing Commander and assigned as Wing leader of 12 Group’s “Big Wing” at RAF Tangmere, just east of Chichester, in West Sussex. The Big Wings were large formations of three to five fighter squadrons acting together to intercept enemy bomber formations.

Acting Wing Commander Bader was awarded a Bar to his Distinguished Service Order, 15 July 1941: “This officer has led his wing on a series of consistently successful sorties over enemy territory during the past three months. His qualities of leadership and courage have been and inspiration to all. Wing Commander Bade has destroyed 15 hostile aircraft.”

Douglas Bader climbing into the cockpit of his Supermarine Spitfire.

On 9 August 1941, Bader was himself shot down while flying his Supermarine Spitfire Mk Va, serial W3185, marked “DB”, along the coast of France. His prosthetic legs caught in the cockpit and made it difficult for him to escape, but he finally broke free and parachuted to safety.

Transcript of message giving status of Bader and requesting a replacement prosthetic leg. (from Bader’s Last Flight: An In-Depth Investigation of a Great WWII Mystery, by Andy Saunders, Frontline Books, 2007, Appendix L at Page 214)

Bader was captured and held as a prisoner of war. He was initially held at a hospital in occupied France and it was there that he met and became a life long friend of Adolf Galland, also a legendary fighter pilot—but for the other side! After arrangements were made for replacement legs, Bader escaped.

Adolph Galland arranged for a replacement prosthetic leg for Bader to be airdropped at a Luftwaffe airfield at St. Omer, in occupied France.

On 9 September 1941, Acting Wing Commander Bader was awarded a Bar to his Distinguished Flying Cross. “This fearless pilot has recently added a further four enemy aircraft to his previous successes; in addition he has probably destroyed another four and damaged five hostile aircraft. By his fine leadership and high courage Wing Commander Bader has inspired the wing on every occasion.”

Prisoners of War held at Colditz Castle, a maximum security prison during World War II. Squadron Leader Douglas Bader is seated, center.

He was recaptured and taken to the notorious Offizierslager IV-C at Schloss Colditz near Leipzing, Germany, where he was held for three years. Units of the United States Army 273rd Infantry Regiment, 69th Infantry Division, and the Combat Command Reserve, 9th Armored Division, liberated the prison 15 April 1945 after a two-day battle.

Schloss Colditz, April 1945. (United States Army)

Douglas Bader was repatriated to England. On 28 August 1945, Squadron Leader D.R.S. Bader, DSO, DFC (Ret) was promoted to Wing Commander (temp), and in September Wing Commander Bader was assigned as commanding officer of the R.A.F. Fighter Leaders School. On 1 December 1945, Wing Commander (temporary) D.R.S. Bader DSO DFC (Ret.) is granted the rank of Wing Commander (War Substantive).

On 21 July 1946, Wing Commander Bader reverted to the retired list, retaining the rank of Group Captain.

During World War II, Group Captain Bader was officially credited with 22 enemy aircraft destroyed, shared credit for another 4; 6 probably destroyed, shared credit for another probable; and 11 damaged. (26–7–11). Group Captan Bader was appointed a Chevalier de la légion d’honneur by France in 1945, and awarded the Croix d’ Guerre.

Group Captain Bader’s medals at the RAF Museum: Distinguished Service Order and Bar; Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar; 1939-1945 Star with clasp BATTLE OF BRITAIN; Air Crew Europe Star with clasp ATLANTIC; Defence Medal; War Medal 1939-45 with Mention in Despatches; Legion d’Honneur, Chevalier, badge; and Croix de Guerre 1939-1940

Bader received civil aviator’s license 3 July 1946. He returned to work for Shell in a management position which involved considerable travel. He flew the company’s Percival Proctor around Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He remained with Shell until 1969, having risen to managing director of Shell Aircraft International.

Bader with a Percival Proctor which he flew while working for Shell.

In the years following World War II, he also worked unceasingly to better the lives of other disabled persons. He would tell them,

Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t do this or that. That’s nonsense. Make up your mind, you’ll never use crutches or a stick, then have a go at everything. Go to school, join in all the games you can. Go anywhere you want to. But never, never let them persuade you that things are too difficult or impossible.

In the New Year’s Honours, 2 January 1956, Douglas Bader was appointed an Ordinary Commander of the Most Excellent Order (C.B.E.), by Her Majesty The Queen, for services to the disabled.

He was the subject of Reach For The Sky, (Collins, London, 1954) a biography written by Paul Brickhill, who also wrote The Great Escape. (Brickhill had been a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft III.) In 1956, a movie of the same name was released, starring Kenneth More as Bader. Bader was the author of Fight For The Sky: The Story of the Spitfire and Hurricane (Sidgwick and Jackson, London, 1973).

Bader and companion in his 1938 MG TA Midget roadster, circa 1945. He was the original owner, but sold it in 1948. This car was recently offered for sale by Bonham’s.(Getty Images)

Thelma Bader died in 1971 at the age of 64 years. The couple had been married for 38 years.

Bader later married Mrs. Joan Eileen Hipkiss Murray. She had three children from a previous marriage, Wendy, Michael and Jane Murray.

4 June 1976: The London Gazette announced that The Queen would confer the Honour of Knighthood on Group Captain Robert Steuart Bader, C.B.E., D.S.O., D.F.C., “For services to disabled people.”

Sir Douglas Bader, Knight Bachelor, and Lady Bader, 1976. (Daily Mail)

Group Captain Sir Douglas Robert Steuart Bader, CBE, DSO and Bar, DFC and Bar, FRAeS, DL, passed away 5 September 1982, at the age of 72 years.

Sir Douglas Robert Steuart Bader, by Godfrey Argent, 12 May 1970. (© National Portrait Gallery, London)
Sir Douglas Robert Steuart Bader, by Godfrey Argent, 12 May 1970. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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13 February 1923

Brigadier General Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Air Force (Retired), at Edwards AFB, 14 October 1997, the fiftieth anniversary of his Mach 1 flight. (Photograph © 2017 by Tim Bradley Imaging. Used with permission.)

13 February 1923: Brigadier General Charles Elwood Yeager, United States Air Force (Retired), was born at Myra, West Virginia.

Who is the greatest pilot I ever saw? Well, uh. . . Well, let me tell you. . . .

The following is from the official U.S. Air Force biography: (Photographs from various sources)

“The world’s first man-made sonic boom told the story. On Oct. 14, 1947, over dry Rogers Lake in California, Chuck Yeager rode the X-1, attached to the belly of a B-29 bomber, to an altitude of 25,000 feet. After releasing from the B-29, he rocketed to an altitude of 40,000 feet. Moments later he became the first person to break the sound barrier, safely taking the X-1 he called Glamorous Glennis to a speed of 662 mph, faster than the speed of sound at that altitude. His first words after the flight were, ‘I’m still wearing my ears and nothing else fell off neither.’

Captain Chuck Yeager on Rogers Dry Lake with the Bell X-1, 1948.
Captain Charles E. (“Chuck”) Yeager, USAF, at Rogers Dry Lake with the Bell X-1, 1948.

“Yeager was born in February 1923 in Myra, W. V. In September 1941, he enlisted as a private in the Army Air Corps. He was soon accepted for pilot training under the flying sergeant program and received his pilot wings and appointment as a flight officer in March 1943 at Luke Field, Ariz.

Aviation Cadet Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Army Air Corps. (U.S. Air Force)

“His first assignment was as a P-39 pilot with the 363rd Fighter Squadron, Tonopah, Nev. He went to England in November 1943 and flew P-51s in combat against the Germans, shooting down one ME-109 and an HE-111K before being shot down on his eighth combat mission over German-occupied France on March 5, 1944. He evaded capture by the enemy when elements of the French Maquis helped him to reach the safety of the Spanish border. That summer, he was released to the British at Gibraltar and returned to England. He returned to his squadron and flew 56 more combat missions, shooting down 11 more enemy aircraft.

First Lieutenant Charles Elwood (“Chuck”) Yeager, U.S. Army Air Corps, standing on the wing of his North American Aviation P-51D-5-NA Mustang, 44-13897, “Glamorous Glenn II,” at Air Station 373, 12 October 1944. (American Air Museum in Britain)

“Returning to stateside, Yeager participated in various test projects, including the P-80 Shooting Star and P-84 Thunderjet. He also evaluated all the German and Japanese fighter aircraft brought back to the United States after the war. This assignment led to his selection as pilot of the nation’s first research rocket aircraft, the Bell X-1, at Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.). After breaking the sound barrier in 1947, Yeager flew the X-1 more than 40 times in the next two years, exceeding 1,000 mph and 70,000 feet. He was the first American to make a ground takeoff in a rocket-powered aircraft. In December 1953 he flew the Bell X-1A 1,650 mph, becoming the first man to fly two and one-half times the speed of sound.

Captain Charles E. Yeager, USAF with a North American Aviation F-86A Sabre, Los Angeles, 21 January 1949. (© Bettman/CORBIS)
Captain Charles E. Yeager, USAF with a North American Aviation F-86A Sabre, Los Angeles, 21 January 1949. (Bettman/CORBIS)
Major Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Air Force, in the cockpit of the Bell X-1A rocketplane. (U.S. Air Force)
Major Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Air Force, in the cockpit of the Bell X-1A rocketplane. (U.S. Air Force)
Major Charles E. Yeager, USAF, Ramstein Air Base, Germany, 1958. (Stars and Stripes)
Lieutenant Colonel Charles E. Yeager, USAF, 1st Fighter Day Squadron, with North American Aviation F-100F-15-NA Super Sabre, 56-3950, George Air Force Base, California, 1958. (U.S. Air Force)
Lieutenant Colonel Charles E. Yeager, USAF, 1st Fighter Day Squadron, 413th Fighter Day Wing, with North American Aviation F-100F-15-NA Super Sabre, 56-3950, George Air Force Base, California, 1958. (Jet Pilot Overseas)
Colonel Charles E. (“Chuck”) Yeager, United States Air Force, 306th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 31st Tactical Fighter Wing, 1958. (U.S. Air Force)
Colonel Yeager became Commandant of the U.S. Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, 23 July 1962. (U.S. Air Force)
Colonel Charles E. (“Chuck”) Yeager, USAF, commanding the 405th Fighter Wing, with crew chief TSGT Rodney Sirois, before a combat mission with a Martin B-57 Canberra during the Vietnam War. (Stars and Stripes)

“After a succession of command jobs, Yeager became commandant of the Aerospace Research Pilot School (now the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School), where all military astronauts were trained.

Colonel Charles E. Yeager, USAF, in the cockpit of a Lockheed NF-104A Aerospace Trainer, 4 December 1963. (U.S. Air Force)
Colonel Charles E. Yeager, USAF, in the cockpit of a Lockheed NF-104A Aerospace Trainer, 4 December 1963. (U.S. Air Force)

“On Dec. 10, 1963, he narrowly escaped death while testing an NF-104 rocket-augmented aerospace trainer. His aircraft went out of control at 108,700 feet (nearly 21 miles up) and crashed. He parachuted to safety at 8,500 feet after battling to gain control of the powerless aircraft. He thus became the first pilot to make an emergency ejection in the full pressure suit needed for high altitude flights. Yeager has flown more than 200 types of military aircraft and has more than 14,000 hours, with more than 13,000 of them in fighter aircraft.

Brigadier General Charles E. Yeager, United States Air Force, July 1969. (Stars and Stripes)

“Yeager retired from active duty in the U. S. Air Force in March 1975, after serving as the United States defense representative to Pakistan and director of the Air Force Inspection and Safety Center, Norton AFB, Calif.

Brigadier General Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Air Force, made his final flight as an active duty officer aboard A McDonnell F-4C Phantom II at Edwards AFB, 25 February 1975. (U.S. Air Force)
Brigadier General Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Air Force, made his final flight as an active duty officer aboard a McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II at Edwards AFB, 25 February 1975. (U.S. Air Force)

“Retirement was never part of his plans. He remains an active aviation enthusiast, acting as adviser for various films, programs and documentaries on aviation. He has published two books, entitled Yeager, An Autobiography and Press On: Further Adventures in the Good Life.”

Brigadier General Charles E. Yeager, United States Air Force

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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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

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