Our story begins during the early 1900s, when Francis ‘Gabby’ Gabreski’s parents emigrated from Poland to the USA. His whole family worked long hours at a market in Pennsylvania, which was owned by his father. Gabby was born in Oil City, just as the First World War drew to a close. Thanks to support and encouragement from his parents, he started attending Notre Dame University at the age of nineteen, where he received medical training. Gabby, who did not really adapt to an academic lifestyle, did not perform particularly well at the university and almost flunked his first year.
However, Gabreski’s life changed dramatically during his second year at the university. World War II had already begun in Europe and steps were being taken to enlist more men into the US armed forces. Army Air Corps recruiters visited the university campus, painting pictures of adventure, honour and heroism. Gabby, who already had an interest in flying, immediately decided to enrol.
If you think Gabreski was a natural pilot right from the start, you’re wrong. In fact, his flying career started out just as shakily as his medical career. Gabby only barely managed to slip though an elimination flight (a student’s final opportunity to prove that he has potential) and then completed his initial training in a Boeing Stearman as a ‘marginal’ pilot, according to an instructor. Finally, Francis Gabreski graduated as an Army Air Corps Second Lieutenant.
World War II
Gabreski was first based at Hawaii, where he flew patrol sorties in P-37s and P-40 Warhawks. However, being of Polish descent, he was much more interested in developments in Europe. Gabby was aware that the Royal Air Force (RAF) had incorporated Polish squadrons, so he volunteered to be transferred to one of those units. After arriving in England in late 1942, Gabby became a liaison officer to the Polish squadrons and flew combat air patrols (CAP) in Spitfires. During this time, he did encounter enemy fighters, but failed to shoot any of them down.
By 1943, Gabreski had become the Commanding Officer of 61 Fighter Squadron, operating P-47 Thunderbolts. However he had still failed to shoot down an enemy aircraft. At last, later that year, when Gabby scored his first kill, it was as if he had finally learnt to use his aircraft as a true weapon. He had developed a deep affection for P-47s and used their unique advantages to their full potential. P-47s could accelerate quickly during a dive, and the 2000 hp engine helped the pilots climb away from any uncomfortable engagements. Gabreski soon became the top scoring American ace in the European theatre, shooting down 28 Axis aircraft. Francis Gabreski pioneered a number of air combat tactics, particularly the correct use of wingmen. He emphasised the importance of effective teamwork during air combat by saying, “The wingman is absolutely indispensable. I look after the wingman. The wingman looks after me. It's another set of eyes protecting you. That's the defensive part. Offensively, it gives you a lot more firepower. We work together. We fight together. The wingman knows what his responsibilities are and he knows mine. Wars are not won by individuals. They're won by teams.” This approach was common among truly successful aces of the Second World War.
After almost 200 combat sorties, Francis Gabreski earned the opportunity to return to the USA on leave. Whilst waiting for the transport aircraft that would take him to the USA, he discovered that another mission had been scheduled for that day. Gabby quickly asked permission to participate in that mission, before returning to his home country. During that final sortie, Gabreski noticed targets of opportunity. Warplanes parked on an enemy airfield. As he lined up to strafe the targets, he noticed his P-47 was too low to score sufficient hits on the parked aircraft. Gabreski quickly tried to correct his approach angle, but by then it was too late – his propeller blades had touched the ground and he was losing power and control at an alarming rate. He crash landed the damaged Thunderbolt and managed to free himself from the wreckage, only to find that hordes of Germans were attempting to capture him. Gabby evaded capture for five days, but was finally caught and sent to a Prisoner of War (POW) camp, where he would spend the rest of the war.
World War II came to an end and Gabreski resumed his flying career, but now as a USAF test pilot. Eventually he found employment with The Douglas Aircraft Corporation, but this was only temporary, as a new war had come on the scene. Korea! Gabby returned to serve the USAF, this time as ‘Lieutenant-Colonel Gabreski’ – commanding officer of an F-86 Sabre squadron. According to legend, Gabreski was not familiar with the more modern gunsight and chose instead to rely on a piece of chewing gum stuck on the windscreen. In spite of this minor obstacle, the World War II veteran scored no less than six and a half MiG-15 kills during the Korean War. This meant that Gabby had become one of a handful of pilots to achieve ‘ace’ status in both World War II and in Korea.
From starting out as a clumsy student pilot who almost failed his ‘elimination flight’, Francis Gabreski had become a highly decorated pilot, and received medals for valour from several countries. In fact, Gabby was even inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, whilst Gabreski Airport in Westhampton was named after him. After the Korean War, Gabby worked in aerospace and transport industries, before retiring to his home in Long Island, New York.
Sadly, Francis Gabreski died in January 2002. Four F-15E Strike Eagles from 336 Fighter Squadron (Gabby was a member of that squadron when he flew Sabres) performed a ‘missing man formation’ over the cemetery where he was buried – a suitable tribute to one of the great pilots of aviation history.
This article was written by Divan Muller and was first published in African Pilot Magazine - www.africanpilot.co.za