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Profiles In Aviation: Francis S Gabreski’s Perseverance Transformed Weak Flying Skills Into Heroic Aviation Career

“Gabby” Gabreski Had To Pass An Elimination Check Ride To Continue USAAC Pilot Training

Stanley Gabryszewski was born in Poland and came to the United States during the early 1900s. He and his wife bought stock in the American Dream early, settling in Oil City, Pennsylvania, opening a market, and working hard to support their family. Their son Franciszek Stanislaw was born on January 28th 1919. His parents managed to send him to Notre Dame University in 1938. Initially overwhelmed by the academic rigors of college, Francis Stanley “Gabby” Gabreski became interested in aviation as an “Irish” freshman.

Gabby was certainly no natural as a pilot. In fact he inspired so little confidence in his instructor that he was discouraged from continuing his flight instruction. But the bug had bitten Gabby hard. After getting his academic game back on track he enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) at the beginning of his sophomore year. Aviation Cadet Gabreski underwent primary flight training flying PT-17 Stearman trainers at Parks Air College. Gabreski still lacked piloting skills as a trainee, even facing the dreaded elimination check ride before advancing to basic flight training.

Gabreski went through basic flight training flying the Vultee BT-13 Valiant trainer at Gunter Army Air Base in Alabama. His skills continued to improve and he progressed to the advanced training phase, in his case taught at Maxwell Field in Alabama flying the North American AT-6 Texan trainer. Francis Gabreski received his Army Air Corps pilot’s wings and commission as a Second Lieutenant in March of 1941. Gabreski was assigned to the 45th Pursuit Squadron of the 15th Pursuit Group at Wheeler Army Airfield on Oahu in Hawaii.

Gabby learned to fly both the Curtiss P-36 Hawk and the derivative Curtiss P-40 Warhawk while assigned to the 45th. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, Gabby was one of several P-36 Hawk pilots who managed to get airborne after the initial attack and were prepared to intercept subsequent Japanese raids- raids that thankfully never materialized. Gabreski remained in Hawaii with the 45th Fighter Squadron (renamed in May 1942) flying improved variants of the Warhawk as well as Bell P-39 Airacobras the unit began to receive during the spring and summer of 1942.

Franciszek Stanislaw Gabryszewski was keenly interested in the exploits of the justifiably famous No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron during the Battle of Britain. So much so that, being of Polish descent himself and knowing the language, his ability to converse in that “Polish chit-chat” might be useful not only to the Royal Air Force but to the USAAF as well. Gabby sold the brass on the idea and left for Washington and a promotion to Captain in September of 1942. From there Gabby made his way to England and the new Eighth Air Force VIII Fighter Command headquarters.

Gabby wanted to be attached to 303 Squadron but those particular Poles were inactivated at that time. Another Polish Squadron, No.315 at RAF Northolt, brought him onboard early in 1943. Gabreski was one of the first American pilots to fly the new Supermarine Spitfire Mark IX while flying with the Poles. Their primary mission was flying fighter sweeps over the English Channel. Gabreski’s first and only aerial combat while flying with 315 occurred on February 3rd when Focke-Wulf Fw 190s bounced the Poles. Although he scored no victories during his total of 20 missions with the Poles, Gabby gained experience and learned plenty.

Gabreski became part of the legendary 56th Fighter Group on February 27th 1943. He was assigned to the 61st Fighter Squadron and began flying Republic P-47D Thunderbolts. Gabby became a flight leader quickly and his experience helped him advance to the rank of Major by May. In June he took command of the 61st. He achieved his first aerial victory, against a Fw 190 over France, on August 24th 1943. Gabby became an ace on November 26th 1943 when he downed two German fighters who were attacking a large formation of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses.

Gabby continued shooting down Luftwaffe aircraft while also enjoying some familiar company. He pulled a few strings to get a handful of the Polish RAF pilots with whom he had flown attached to the 56th Fighter Group. This helped alleviate the experience gap developing due to pilots reaching the ends of their tours. One Pole in particular, Squadron Leader Boleslaw “Mike” Gladych, became a minor legend in the Group. On March 27th of 1944 Gabby had 18 confirmed victories including five multiple-kill missions to his credit.

In April of 1944 Gabreski was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. In May he shot down three Fw 190s on a single mission over Germany. His 28th victory, scored on July 5th 1944, made him the leading American fighter ace in the European Theatre of Operations (ETO). Gabby’s 28 would stand as the highest score against the Luftwaffe. He was scheduled to return to the States to get married and sell War Bonds, but his desire to fly a last unscheduled 166th combat mission forced him to delay such plans for quite a while.

The mission Gabreski just couldn’t walk away from was a bomber escort to Russelheim in Germany. After all, his distinctively painted P-47 HV-A was sitting there with his name on it. The bombers were covered on their return so Gabby decided to strafe the Luftwaffe airfield at Bassenheim. There were some Heinkel He 111s ripe for attack. But Gabreski’s first strafing pass wasn’t effective and his second turned out to be his last. He flew so low that the propeller on his fifth P-47 hit the ground and he was forced to put his one-of-a-kind P-47D Thunderbolt down on German soil.

Although Gabreski was able to evade capture for five days the Germans eventually captured and interrogated him and then sent him to Stalag Luft I near Barth in far northern Germany. Gabby spent several months there with prisoners such as RAF pilot Jimmy James, author of “The Great Escape”, Hubert “Hub” Zemke, Robert “Bob” Hoover, John C Morgan, the only recipient of the Medal of Honor to become a POW in World War II, and future British actor Donald Pleasence. When the Russians liberated the camp on the last day of April 1945, Gabreski was released.

Gabreski returned to the United States and married Kay Cochran on June 11th 1945. He became both the Chief of Section for Fighter Aircraft Test and a student at the Engineering Flight Test School at Wright Field near Dayton in Ohio- simultaneously. Douglas Aircraft made him an offer he couldn’t refuse in April 1946 and for a year during 1946 and 1947 Gabby was a civilian. But he was recalled to active duty In April 1947 to command the 55th Fighter Squadron Shooters of the 20th Fighter Group based at Shaw Air Force Base (AFB) in South Carolina.

His command of the 55th FS only lasted a few months. He went to Columbia University in September of 1947 to complete his Bachelor’s degree and study Russian. He graduated from Columbia with B.A in Political Science in June of 1949. He was then assigned as commander of his old unit, the 56th Fighter Group, flying Lockheed F-80 Shooting Stars at Selfridge AFB in Michigan. The 56th converted to North American F-86 Sabres under his command and Gabby became a Lieutenant Colonel on March 11th 1950.

Gabby and few hand-picked pilots of the 56th took a slow boat to Korea, making the journey along with a boat-load of F-86Es aboard the escort carrier USS Cape Esperance (CVE-88) in June of 1951. There the cargo and their pilots became part of the core of the 4th Fighter-Interceptor Group (FIG) at K-14 (Kimpo) Air Base. Flying his fifth combat mission in an F-86E, Gabreski shot down a MiG-15 on July 8th 1951. He bagged two more MiGs between September and October 1951.

L to R Gabreski, fellow two-war ace Bill Whisner, and Korea jet ace George Jones.

When MiGs threatened Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber attacks along the Yalu River, the USAF decided to create a second F-86 Sabre wing to protect them. Gabreski had done this before with the 56th and he was transferred to K-13 (Suwon) Air Base to quickly convert the 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing from F-80s to F-86s. During his time commanding the 51st Gabreski scored another 3 and a half kills, putting him in some elite company. Gabby became one of only seven men to become aces in two wars.

Gabby returned to the United States to receive a key to the city from San Francisco from Mayor Elmer E. Robinson and a ticker-tape parade up Market Street. His career in the Air Force lasted for another 15 years. He commanded four different Wings and served two tours with the Office of the Inspector General and as a Deputy Chief of Staff. Colonel Francis Gabreski retired from the Air Force on November 1st 1967 with 5,000 flying hours, 4,000 of them in jet aircraft.

Gabby worked for Grumman Aerospace for 11 years. His involvement with the Long Island Railroad came at the request of New York Governor Hugh Carey. In the end he fought the good fight to improve the struggling company but lost out to its bureaucracy and a hellacious heat wave. But Gabby won in many other areas. He was married to his wife Kay for 48 years. They had nine children together. Franciszek Stanislaw Gabryszewski passed away from an apparent heart attack on January 31st 2002 at the age of 83. He was honored during his funeral by a missing man formation flown by the F-15E Strike Eagles of the 4th Fighter Wing.

Here’s a video of Gabreski’s 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing in action in Korea from an Air Force film made way back in the day. Thanks to YouTuber Nuclear Vault for uploading it.

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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