All of us, in uniform or not, can learn much from the career of Col. Francis S. “Gabby” Gabreski. He was, as most readers know, the leading US ace in the World War II European theater and is now the top living American ace, with 34.5 victories. He was not a born fighter pilot–if there is such a thing–but a man who reached the pinnacle of his profession by determination, dedication, and intelligence. His aggressive nature and competitive spirit were tempered by personal charm, good humor, and what Col. Hubert A. “Hub” Zemke noted as Gabreski’s “natural exuberance.”
Born of Polish immigrant parents in Oil City, Pa., he grew up bilingual, a fact that influenced the development of his Air Force career and probably saved his life many years later. While he worked his way through college at Notre Dame, he became interested in airplanes and used the few dollars he could spare for flying lessons. He did not excel. After his second year in college, he joined the Army Air Forces and squeaked through primary pilot training after being recommended for elimination by his instructor. Determination and faith in his ability got him through and, after graduation, to an assignment at Wheeler Field, Hawaii.
At Wheeler, Gabreski met Catherine Cochran, who later would become his wife. Their romance was interrupted on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. As soon as the rubble could be cleared from the field, Gabby took off in an obsolete P-36 in pursuit of the departing enemy but too late to shoot or to be shot at by anyone other than trigger-happy Yanks on the ground.
Gabreski spent the next several months perfecting his flying. After several requests for a combat assignment were turned down, he tried another tack. Since he spoke fluent Polish, why not an assignment with one of the Polish squadrons flying with the RAF? After many delays, he was posted to the Polish-manned 315th Squadron at Northolt in the UK. The 315th was delighted to see him and gave him operational training in Spitfires, under combat conditions.
After some weeks with the Polish squadron, Gabreski was assigned to Zemke’s 56th Fighter Group, flying P-47 Thunderbolts. The group was still in training, so Gabreski held an edge in operational experience when they entered combat in April 1943. Much to his disappointment, he flew several missions when no enemy airplanes were sighted, and by chance he was not on the board when the 56th did find targets. 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 his book, Gabby, A Fighter Pilot’s Life, he describes the mission of Dec. 11, 1943, as the most exciting of his tour in Europe. Then a major, he was leading a squadron of P-47s on an escort mission. When they rendezvoused with the bombers, the B-17s were under attack by 40 Bf-110s. In the melee, Gabreski became separated from the rest of the squadron and found himself perilously alone at 30,000 feet, when he spotted three more Bf-110s below him. Diving to the attack, he shot down one of them.
By this time, Gabby’s fuel was getting low and he was heading for home, when he was attacked by a single Bf-109 coming up from below. Clearly, this man was a hunter with serious intent. Not having enough fuel to mix it up with an aggressive enemy, Gabreski decided the best tactic was to run his pursuer out of ammunition. This would call for very precise timing and maneuvering. Twice, he eluded the -109 with steep climbing turns as it began to fire. The third time, his opponent got a hit that shot off one of Gabby’s rudder pedals and creased his boot. The P-47 lost power due to a damaged turbocharger. Gabreski was about to bail out when he noted that his engine was producing enough power to keep him in the game. But there was no way he could survive unless he could reach a cloud bank below. The enemy pilot followed, but Gabby finally lost him and turned for the UK, hoping he had enough fuel to make it across the North Sea. He landed at Manston, on the English coast, just as his engine quit.
Several months later, after he completed 193 missions, the Air Force sent him home. 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.” While strafing an enemy airfield, his prop hit a rise at the end of the field and he was forced to belly-in. He eluded the enemy for five days. During his run for freedom, he encountered a Polish-speaking forced laborer whom he persuaded to bring him food and water, but he finally was captured and was a POW at Stalag Luft I in Germany for eight months until the war ended.
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 as commander of the 51st Fighter Wing. He played a major role in developing tactics for a new kind of war—a jet war—and shot down 6.5 MiG-15s between July 1951 and April 1952. He is one of only seven USAF pilots who were aces in both World War II and the Korean War. He ended a distinguished Air Force career as commander of several tactical and air defense wings before launching another successful career with the aviation industry and as president of the Long Island Rail Road.
No aspiring fighter pilot can become a 34.5-victory ace by reading about Gabby Gabreski’s combat career, but his unflagging determination to reach the top of his profession is an inspiration for all.
Published July 1997. Some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy for presentation on this web site.