Gabby Gabreski: America’s Two-War Ace – WW II and Korea

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Francis Stanley “Gabby” Gabreski was a Polish-American career pilot in the United States Air Force (USAF). He was the top American and United States Army Air Force (USAAF) fighter ace over Europe during World War II and a jet fighter ace with the Air Force in the Korean War. Although best known for his credited destruction of 34½ aircraft in aerial combat and being one of only seven U.S. combat pilots to become an ace in two wars, Gabreski was also one of the Air Force’s most accomplished leaders. In addition to commanding two fighter squadrons, he had six command tours at group or wing level, including one in combat in Korea, totaling over 11 years of command and 15 overall in operational fighter assignments. After his Air Force career, Gabreski headed the Long Island Rail Road, a commuter railroad owned by the State of New York, and struggled in his attempts to improve its service and financial condition. After two and a half years, he resigned under pressure and went into full retirement.

Col Francis “Gabby” Gabreski. Picture Source:

Early Years

          Gabreski’s parents had emigrated from Poland to the Oil City, Pennsylvania, in the early 1900s. His father (Stanisław “Stanley” Gabryszewski) owned and operated a market, putting in 12-hour days. As in many other immigrant-owned businesses in those days, the whole family worked at the market. But Gabreski’s parents had dreams for him, including attending the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. He did so in 1938, but, unprepared for real academic work, almost failed during his freshman year.

Taylor Cub Aircraft. Picture Source: Wikipedia

Interest in Flying – Could Not Do Solo

During his first year at Notre Dame, Gabreski developed an interest in flying. He took lessons in a Taylor Cub and accumulated six hours of flight time. However, his autobiography indicates, he struggled to fly smoothly and did not fly solo, having been advised by his instructor Homer Stockert that he did not “have the touch to be a pilot”.

Stearman PT-17. Picture Source:

Joins U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF)

          At the start of his second year at Notre Dame, Gabreski enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, volunteering as an aviation cadet. After his induction into the U.S. Army at Pittsburgh, he undertook primary flight training flying the Stearman PT-17, Gabreski was a mediocre trainee and was forced to pass an elimination check ride during primary to continue training. He advanced to basic flight training on the Vultee BT-13 and completed advanced training at Maxwell Field, Alabama, on the North American AT-6 Texan. Gabreski earned his wings and his commission as a second lieutenant in the Air Corps in March 1941. He then sailed for Hawaii for his first assignment.

Picture Source: Wikipedia

First Fighter Squadron – Meets His Future Wife

          Assigned as a fighter pilot with the 45th Pursuit Squadron of the 15th Pursuit Group at Wheeler Army Airfield, Hawaii, he trained on both the Curtiss P-36 Hawk and the newer Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. He met his future wife, Catherine “Kay” Cochran, in Hawaii and became engaged shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. During that action, Gabreski joined several members of his squadron in flying P-36 fighters in an attempt to intercept the attackers, but the Japanese had withdrawn. During the spring and summer of 1942, Gabreski remained with the 45th (renamed as 45th Fighter Squadron in May 1942), training in newer model P-40s and the Bell P-39 Airacobras that the unit began to receive.

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. Picture Source: Wikipedia

Offers to Serve as Liaison Officer to Polish Squadrons

          He closely followed reports on the Battle of Britain and the role played by the Polish RAF squadrons, especially by the legendary No.303 Polish Fighter Squadron. Gabby felt strongly about what the Nazis had done to Poland and was anxious to get into the war. Hearing about Polish fliers who were helping the British fight the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, he got an idea: “I was a fighter pilot, of Polish origin, and I could speak Polish. Why not see if I could get myself assigned to Europe so I could learn from the Poles and pass the information along to my own people.” He became concerned that the US did not have many experienced fighter pilots. Polish squadrons had proved to be capable within the RAF.  The idea was approved, and he left Hawaii for Washington D.C. in September 1942, where he was promoted to Captain.

RAF duty With Polish Squadron

            In October, Gabreski reported to the Eighth Air Force’s VIII Fighter Command in England, at that time still a rudimentary new headquarters. After a lengthy period of inactivity, he tried to arrange duty with 303 Squadron, but that unit had been taken out of action for a period of rest. Instead, he was posted to No. 315 (Deblin) Squadron in January 1943. The well-seasoned Poles, who had been fighting the Germans since 1939, accepted Gabreski, if reluctantly at first. Squadron Leader Tadeusz Andersz helped him transition to the Spitfire and fly the squadron’s “finger-four” formation as well as “rodeo” and “circus” maneuvers designed to entice Luftwaffe pilots to come up and fight. Andersz also taught Gabby how to hold his fire until he got close behind an enemy aircraft, as well as to resist the tendency to overshoot by going too fast. And there was that basic lesson every fighter pilot should learn: Always be alert for enemy fighters attacking out of the sun. Gabby remembered an early combat mission with the Poles that reinforced this imperative. “One moment I had looked back into an empty sky above me,” he recalled, “and the next moment it had been full of Focke Wulf 190s that seemed to come out of nowhere. I was lucky to have survived the lesson; a lot of inexperienced pilots didn’t.”

Supermarine Spitfire Mark IX. Picture Source: Pinterest

          Gabreski flew the new Supermarine Spitfire Mark IX, flying patrol sweeps over the Channel. He first encountered Luftwaffe opposition on February 3, when a group of Focke-Wulf Fw 190s attacked his squadron. He was too excited about wanting to make a “kill”. Later Gabreski realised and learned that he had to keep calm during a mission, a lesson that served him well later in the war. This squadron was part of the group that Winston Churchill praised during the Battle of Britain when in his famous quotation: “Never in the field of human conflict have so many owed so much to so few.” Gabreski began missions escorting bombers to the French Coast. But when he finally met the enemy in the air he did not get an opportunity to fire his guns. “Get in close so you can not miss,” the Poles advised, words that he never forgot. After flying 20 missions, Gabreski gained skill and a swagger in the air. He later spoke with great esteem about the Polish pilots and the lessons they taught him. In all, Gabreski flew 20 missions with the Poles, engaging in combat once. Gabby’s experience with No. 315 Squadron gave him confidence in his abilities as a fighter pilot, which he might not have gained had he been sent immediately to an American unit upon his arrival in Britain. Although he didn’t score any victories, he was awarded the Polish Cross of Valor.

Gabreski and S/Sgt Ralph Safford, his crew chief. The assistant crew chief Felix Schacki is in the background. Picture Source: Wikipedia

CO 61st Fighter Squadron – Ill Will in the Unit

            In February, 1943, Gabreski joined the 61st Fighter Squadron of  56th Fighter Group (FG), flying the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. Lieutenant Les Smith recalled 40 years later that the group’s pilots at first did not accept Gabreski. “That was unfortunate,” he said, “but I think not unexpected, since he had not trained with us in the States, had not shipped with us, and had no personal relationships within the group. There was another unfortunate factor over which he had no control—his rank as captain. This put him in direct competition with the old captains already assigned and in indirect competition with our older first lieutenants who hoped to become captains. We new second lieutenants were not really involved in this rivalry, but we held the older pilots in great esteem, and if they didn’t like the new stranger, we weren’t going to be too friendly either. We eventually recognized Gabby’s superior ability as a pilot and his very aggressive fighting spirit, and we respected him for them.”

Republic P-47N Thunderbolt. Picture Source Wikipedia

          Learning to fly its P-47 Thunderbolt, best known as the Jug, he earned the admiration of his colleagues for his skill and the affectionate nickname of “Gabby.” Before long Gabreski taught his men every tactic learned from the Poles. Then, after completing ten more combat missions, he received the Air Medal and was presented the Polish Cross of Valor by General Sikorsky, the Polish Premier in exile. He was quickly cleared a flight leader. He was resented by many of his fellow pilots, and the fact that he was opinionated and verbose made it worse. In May, Gabreski was promoted to Major. On June 9, he took command of the Squadron when its commanding officer was moved up to group deputy commander. This also stirred ill feelings toward him since he had jumped over two more senior pilots.

Focke-Wulf Fw 190. Picture source: Wikepedia

First Victory

          Gabby scored his first confirmed kill, an Fw-190, on August 24. He described his feelings afterward: “That evening before I went to sleep I thought about the implications of what I had done that day. I had killed a man, I was sure of it. Yet I felt no remorse. It wasn’t that I particularly wanted to kill people, Germans or otherwise. But this was war, and for three years I had been preparing myself mentally and physically for the day when I would begin shooting down enemy aircraft. Yes, there was a man inside of the Fw-190 I’d destroyed today, but I never saw him, never heard him, never knew his name or what he looked like.”

          The general ill will in the unit against him was soon exacerbated when both of his much more respected pilot colleagues were lost in combat on June 26 and did not subside until he recorded his first credited kill, an Fw 190 on August 24, 1943. Gabreski escorted the Allied bombers on their historic raid on ball-bearing factories at Regensburg and Schweinfurt. After his first air victory, began an incredible string. His first kill presaged criticism that followed him throughout his combat career, when his wingmen complained that his attack had been too hastily conducted to allow them to also engage.

Piper L-4. Picture Source:

          Although he gained confidence on every flight, a simple mishap almost ended his career as a fighter pilot. He was hand-propping a Piper L-4 for a short flight when the engine backfired, causing the prop to kick back, barely missing his head and striking his right hand. One finger bled profusely, attached only by a piece of skin and a tendon. At first when Gabby was whisked to a nearby hospital it seemed the finger couldn’t be saved, but a surgeon managed to set it in a permanently curved position. Gabby was grounded for the next three months.

Becomes an “Ace” – Has a Close Shave

          Gabreski’s first mission following his return to duty was disappointing, since he was forced to break off when his belly tank malfunctioned, while the remaining pilots downed five Messerschmitt Me-110 twin-engine fighters with no losses. That day, August 17, 1943, was called “Black Thursday” after the bomber force they were escorting lost 60 planes.

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          On November 26, 1943, the 56th FG was assigned to cover the withdrawal of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers that had bombed Bremen, Germany. The P-47s arrived to find the bombers under heavy attack near Oldenburg and immediately dived into the fray. Gabreski recorded his fourth and fifth kills to become an “Ace”. He was leading a bomber escort flight when they were attacked by a group of Me-110s. Gabby was making a stern attack on one of them when it suddenly exploded. Large pieces of the Messerschmitt skimmed off his canopy and smashed into the P-47’s right wing. His plane was still flyable, though, so he climbed back up to continue the fight and downed a second 110. The 56th set a record that day with 23 confirmed victories, and Gabby was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his leadership. This was his 75th mission. He had a close brush with death on December 11, when a 20 mm cannon shell lodged in his engine without exploding, destroying its turbocharger. Low on fuel and ammunition, Gabreski outmaneuvered a Bf-109 until it succeeded in placing a burst of fire into his P-47, disabling the engine. Gabreski stayed in the airplane, however, until it restarted at a lower altitude, where the turbocharger was not needed.

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Responsibilities at 56th FG

          In November 1943, the group commander of the 56th, Colonel Hubert Zemke, was replaced in command for two months by Colonel Robert Landry, a staff officer at VIII FC. Because of Landry’s inexperience, combat missions of the 56th were alternately led by deputy commander Lt Col Schilling and Gabreski, who acted as deputy group operations officer. When Zemke resumed command on January 19, 1944, Gabreski relinquished command of the 61st Squadron. In February 1944, Gabreski brought two Polish pilots into the 56th, who had flown with him in 1943 while serving with the RAF, including future USAAF ace Squadron Leader Boleslaw “Mike” Gladych. With Gabreski’s support and to ease a shortage of experienced pilots caused by many veterans reaching the completion of their tours, the 61st FS in April accepted five other Polish Air Force pilots into the squadron as the “Polish Flight”.

Republic P-47D Thunderbolt. Photograph Courtesy the US Air Force. Picture Source:

Becomes Leading American Ace in European Theater

          Gabreski’s victory total steadily climbed through the winter of 1943–44. Meanwhile, larger fuel tanks were installed on the P-47Ds, giving them greater range, and in early 1944 Eighth Air Force commander Maj. Gen. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle authorized fighters to leave the bombers and seek out enemy aircraft wherever they could be found. As a result, the fighters were able to destroy scores of German planes in the air and on the ground. In January 1944, when the Allies set out to cripple the Luftwaffe (German Air Force), Gabreski became Deputy Flying Executive Officer of the 56th Fighter Group and before the month ended he was a double Ace. After “Operation Big Week” was launched to destroy enemy aircraft production, he scored his first triple victory. By March 27, he had 18 victory credits and had six multiple-kill missions to rank third in the “ace race” that had developed within VIII Fighter Command. He downed only one more aircraft in the next two months, during which time the two pilots ahead of him (Majors Robert S. Johnson and Walker M. Mahurin also of the 56th FG) were sent home. In April 1944, the 56th FG moved to RAF Boxted and Gabreski was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. During his most productive mission, on May 22, he downed three Fw-190s and scored a “probable.” He resumed command of the 61st FS when its commander was transferred out.

Lieutenant Colonel Gabreski (standing, just left of center) with the pilots of the 61st Fighter Squadron, July 1944. (American Air Museum in Britain)

          On May 22, Gabreski shot down three Fw 190s over a Luftwaffe airfield in northwest Germany. June 6th, 1944, D-Day, Gabreski led his squadron in long sweeps over the beaches of Normandy. He tied with Johnson as the leading ace in the European Theater of Operations on June 27, passing Eddie Rickenbacker’s record from World War I in the process. On July 5, 1944, became America’s leading ace in the European Theater of Operations (ETO), with his 28th victory, destroyed while leading the group on an escort mission over a German air base in France, thus matching the total at the time of confirmed victories of the Pacific Theatre’s top American ace, Richard Bong. This total was never surpassed by any U.S. pilot fighting the Luftwaffe. His 61st Squadron’s five kills that day brought its total to 230, the best record in the ETO.

Gabreski in the cockpit of his P-47 after his 28th victory. Picture Source: Wikipedia

          The publicity resulting from Gabby’s 28th victory was almost overwhelming for him. “I hardly had a moment to spare doing what I was in England to do,” he said, “which was to fly airplanes. I felt I had an obligation in the war, just like everybody else. But I was being taken out of that environment and put on a little pedestal. It was an awkward position for me, and I never did fit into it very well.”

Francis “Gabby” Gabreski With The 61st Fighter Squadron On The Wing Of His P-47. Picture Source: Pinterest

All Set for Marriage, Becomes a Prisoner of War

            Since Gabreski became America’s leading ace in Europe and the country’s newest celebrity. The War Department, eager to take advantage of his newfound notoriety, immediately made arrangements to have the pilot shipped home so he could help sell war bonds. On July 20, 1944, Gabreski had reached the 300-hour combat time limit for Eighth Air Force fighter pilots and was awaiting an aircraft to return him to the United States on leave and reassignment. He had already advised “Kay” Cochran to proceed with wedding plans, and his hometown of Oil City, Pennsylvania, had raised $2,000 for a wedding present in anticipation of his return. Gabreski found, however, that a bomber escort mission to Russelheim, Germany, was scheduled for that morning, and, instead of boarding the transport, he requested to “fly just one more.” Returning from the mission, Gabreski observed Heinkel He 111s  parked on the airfield at Bassenheim, Germany, and took his airplane down to attack. He was dissatisfied with his first strafing run on an He 111, and he reversed for a second pass. When his tracers went over the parked bomber, he dropped the nose of his Thunderbolt to adjust, and its propeller clipped the runway, bending the tips. The damage caused his engine to vibrate violently and he was forced to crash land. Gabreski ran into nearby woods and eluded capture for five days. Gabreski soon realized that the Americans weren’t the only ones anticipating his arrival. Dazed but unhurt, Gabby knew he was hundreds of miles inside Germany and needed to avoid capture. For the next five days he managed to elude searchers, but was finally apprehended by a policeman who turned him over to the military at Oberursel on July 25. Hanns Scharff, an affable English-speaking German intelligence officer, interrogated him. “Hello, Gabby,” he greeted him. “We have been waiting for you for a long time.” He handed Gabreski a copy of a military newspaper that documented the pilot’s historic 28th kill. After being captured and interrogated, he was sent to Stalag Luft I.

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

POW Days

            Gabby was transferred to Stalag Luft I at Barth on the Baltic Sea, north of Berlin. By then his former group commander, Colonel “Hub” Zemke, who had been shot down in October 1944, was the camp’s ranking officer. Stalag Luft I was a permanent prisoner-of-war camp holding Allied air officers. Gabreski received quarters in one of the 20-man shacks surrounded by two rows of barbed wire fence. There he shared the bad food, hunger and punishments of the prisoners. But he was proud of the men’s spirits under such miserable circumstances. The prisoners had their own clandestine radios to listen to war news, a newspaper printed under the very noses of their guards, and supervision of the simultaneous digging of as many as 100 escape tunnels, few of which led to freedom.

Stalag Luft I at Barth on the Baltic Sea. Germany held nearly 9,000 USAAF and RAF airmen at Stalag Luft I. Picture Source:

          Gabby’s most enduring memory of the next nine months as a POW besides boredom was increasing hunger. Red Cross parcels kept the prisoners from starving, but as the war got worse for Germany, the parcels stopped coming. The winter and early spring of 1945 was a horrific period marked by subzero temperatures and increasingly inadequate sustenance. By March 1945, after Gabreski received command of a newly completed prisoner compound, food quality was at rock bottom. But he did not lose faith. Soon he began to hear artillery from the east. On April 30, however, Russian troops liberated the camp. Many of the captives wanted to open the gates and take off, but Zemke ordered them to stay put and wait for aircraft to fly them out to Camp Lucky Strike, near Le Havre, France. The war and its privations had ended.

Summary of WW II Flying

          Gabreski flew 166 combat sorties and was officially credited by the USAAF with 28 aircraft destroyed in air combat and 3 on the ground. He was assigned five P-47s during his time with the 56th FG, none of which he named, but all of which bore the fuselage identification codes HV: A.

Lieutenant Colonel and Kay Cochran Mrs. Francis S. Gabreski, 11 June 1945. (

Repatriation and Fighter Command

            Following his repatriation, Gabby managed a detour to visit his old unit in England and then persuaded authorities to allow him to make a flight directly to New York. Gabreski returned to the United States a hero, as America’s top Ace in Europe. Gabreski married beautiful Kay Cochran on June 11, 1945. Like so many veterans after World War II, Gabby didn’t know what to do next. He wanted to complete his college degree as well as continue flying. After a 90-day recuperative leave, he became Chief of Fighter Test Section at Wright Field, Ohio, and at the same time completed test pilot training at its Engineering Flight Test School. In April 1946, he left the service. He meanwhile received a job offer from Douglas Aircraft Co. as a foreign sales representative. He accepted the offer in May 1946 and toured Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and Chile attempting to sell the Douglas DC-6, a pressurized version of the DC-4. The trip was not very successful, though, and Gabby found the traveling life and especially being away from his wife, now with one child and another on the way, uncomfortable.

Gabby With His Wife. Picture Source: You tube

He decided to see if he could rejoin the Army Air Forces, and was pleased to be accepted in April 1947 as a regular lieutenant colonel assigned to command the 55th Fighter Squadron, flying North American P-51s at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. “It was great to get back in the cockpit again,” he said, “and it was great to be a squadron commander in peacetime conditions. The P-51 was a beautiful airplane with a lot of range. It was a joy to fly.”

North American P-51 Mustang. Picture Source:

          The Air Force sent him to Columbia University in September 1947 to complete his degree and study Russian. In June 1949, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political science. He returned immediately to flying, becoming commander of his former unit, the 56th Fighter Group, now flying Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star, the Air Force’s first operational jet fighter. It was a great leap forward for the prop plane pilots, but the early jets had their share of difficulties. The jet engines had a voracious appetite for fuel at low altitudes, and Gabby admitted to nearly running out of gas several times. The jets also suffered from slow engine acceleration, and in addition there was the possibility of a compressor stall if the throttle was advanced too quickly. While in command of the 56th, Gabreski oversaw conversion of the unit to North American F-86 Sabres and was promoted to Colonel on March 11, 1950.

North American F-86 Sabre. Picture Source:

          In June 1950, the peacetime routine changed drastically for American fighter pilots when Communist North Korean forces invaded South Korea. The 56th exchanged its P-80s for North American F-86 Sabrejets, and Gabby was transferred to the 4th Fighter-Interceptor Wing (FIW), based in Japan with units in Korea. He embarked on his second combat career as the deputy wing commander, and could fly with any squadron he chose to learn about tactics and techniques in a new kind of war.

Initial Days in Korean War

          In June 1951, he and a group of selected pilots of the 56th Fighter Interceptor Wing (FIW) accompanied the delivery of F-86Es of the 62nd Fighter Interceptor Squadron (FIS)  to Korea aboard the escort carrier USS Cape Esperance. The planes and pilots joined the 4th Fighter Interceptor Group at K-14 (Kimpo) Air Base, where most engaged in combat. Taking command of the 51st Fighter Interceptor Group, Gabreski converted it to F-86 Saberjets and introduced the concepts of a flight of four and hot takeoffs to increase combat effectiveness over targets. These innovations were highly successful and enabled his Wing to attain a 14 to 1 kill ratio.

Gabreski stepping out of his Sabre, April 1950. Picture Source: Wikipedia

            He was engaged in aerial combat again during the Korean War. On June 17, 1951, Gabby took off with some trepidation on his first Korean War mission. “I searched the deep blue sky for signs of enemy fighters and began to wonder if I still had what it took to fly combat,” he recalled. “I was thirty-two years old now, and my eyesight might not be as sharp as it was in Europe. Had my reflexes slowed? Would I still have the old fire in my belly that made me want to climb up their tails before opening fire? Only time would tell.”

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The MiG Alley

          When Communist MiG-15s appeared, he experienced one of the frustrations that dogged all F-86 pilots at that time. The higher the Sabres flew, the more unstable they became, while the MiGs could fly higher and loiter longer because they were lighter and were close to their bases on the Chinese side of the Yalu River. When he flew his first mission against a target in “MIG Alley,” south of the Yalu River, for the first time in his life he could see the enemy, but was not permitted to attack them in their privileged sanctuary in Manchuria. The international border with North Korea was theoretically a line over which American interceptors could not cross, since China was not officially involved in the war. It was a difficult way to fight a war.

MiG Alley. Imahe Source:

          Leading a flight of four F-86s on July 8, 1951 Gabby saw some F-80s and MiGs scrambling at 10,000 feet and barreled down behind a MiG that was breaking away from the fight. As he had in Europe, he got on its tail, held his fire until close enough, then blasted it to pieces with his six .50-caliber machine guns. He knew now he was still able to attack an enemy aircraft and make a kill, shooting down a MiG 15. Gabby got his second victory, over Pyongyang, on 02 September, a stray MiG-15 was heading home when he took it out with a deflection shot. A month later he downed another one on 02 October. Meanwhile, Communist air tactics changed. Taking advantage of their numerical superiority, they formed two long lines of 50 to 60 fighters—“MiG trains” flying down both sides of the peninsula. More F-86s and pilots were clearly needed, so two new wings were formed in November, with Gabby commanding the 51st FIW. Its first mission was on 01 December.

F-86 Sabres of the 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing. Picture Source:

          Around this time, the Americans noted that the MiG pilots seemed more skilled, and suspected they were facing experienced Russian pilots, though they couldn’t be sure. That suspicion was officially confirmed, much later, after the fall of Soviet Union. There was always the temptation to cross the Yalu River after them, and Gabby and others admitted they sometimes did so if they thought they could shoot down a MiG without going too far (reported in “MiG Madness,” March 2008 issue).

A Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-15 sits square in the sights of F-86 Sabre. Picture Source:

51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing – Becomes a “Jet Ace”

            Gabby flew all of the 51st’s early missions, and devised a new tactic known as the “fluid four,” a more flexible version of WWII’s finger-four that was better suited to jets. The growing MiG threat against Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber attacks along the Yalu River caused the Fifth Air Force to create a second Sabre wing by converting the 51st FIW from F-80s to F-86s in a 10-day period. Gabreski was transferred to K-13 (Suwna Air Base, accompanied by most of the former 56th FIW pilots who had come with him to Korea, and took command on November 6, 1951. By January 1952, the wing had destroyed 26 MiGs with only seven losses. Gabreski got one on January 11, and shared credit for another on February 20. During its first seven months as an F-86 wing, the 51st, with only two operational squadrons, scored 96 MiG kills, comparing favorably to the 125 of the veteran 4th FIW, which operated three.

Gabreski 51st Fighter Wing Cronicled in this Book: Image Source:

          Combat operations picked up with the clearing spring weather. Gabby was leading a flight along the Yalu River on 07 April 1951 when he sighted the contrails of 30 MiGs climbing up from Antung in the safety of Chinese airspace. He was very conscious of the imaginary line he should not cross, but he couldn’t pass up the opportunity. The sun was behind his formation as 15 MiGs came out of the contrails, and Gabby pounced on a straggler returning to his Chinese base. He fired until the enemy pilot blew off his canopy and bailed out. That brought his jet tally to 5½ victories and made him the first American to become an ace in two wars. General Ridgway flew in to congratulate him. Gabby scored again on 12th April, and got his next, the last kill, taking his total at 6½. As per policy American fighter aces were to return back after crossing five kills. His combat days effectively ended.

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          Combined with his 28 kills in Europe, that made him the third-highest-scoring American ace of all time, after Lockheed P-38 pilots Dick Bong and Thomas McGuire. He was grounded after completing his 100th mission, returning Stateside to a ticker tape parade in San Francisco and a visit with President Harry Truman at the White House. The airman commented in his memoirs that “it was quite a thrill for a Polish kid from Oil City who had almost flunked out of flight school.”

Visit with President Harry Truman at the White House. Picture Source:

Aggressive Commander – Overflies China

          He was an aggressive commander and fostered a fierce rivalry between the two F-86 wings, fueled in part by the fact that the 4th had also been the keenest rival of the 56th FG during World War II. While this aggressiveness paid off in the destruction of MiGs and air superiority over all of Korea, it also led Gabreski to make the first intentional violation of rules of engagement that prohibited combat with MiGs over China. The MiG force was based in this ostensible sanctuary during the entire war. Gabreski and a fellow former 56th pilot, Colonel Mahurin, planned and executed a mission in early 1952 in which the F-86s turned off their IFF equipment and overflew two Chinese bases.

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

Opinion of His Wingmen

          Gabreski was also criticized for having a poor attitude towards wingmen. One historian, citing five interviews with pilots and an unpublished manuscript by a sixth, observed that Gabreski flew the fastest aircraft available and failed to notice when his slower wingmen could not keep up. These pilots, reportedly afraid to fly with him, commented that he was more interested in personal achievement than in his wingmen. He was also criticized for a lack of discipline among his off-duty pilots and for allegedly encouraging exaggerated kill claims. Nonetheless, at least three wingmen had different views. 1st Lieutenant Joe L. Cannon of the 51st FIW flew over 40 missions with him and described Gabreski as a mentor and “my kind of fighter pilot”. 1st Lt. Harry Shumate, another 51st FIW pilot, stated that while flying wingman in Gabreski’s flight, Shumate was the first to spot a MiG-15 heading for its base and Gabreski told him to “go get him” while the leader covered.

Gabby at left and Eugen Barnum watch as Frank Klibbe describes an aerial encounter. Picture Source:

          A 4th FIW pilot, 1st Lt. Anthony Kulengosky, observed, “I moved up in the world of wingmen by flying Col. Francis Gabreski’s wing on a mission. I was absolutely thrilled to fly on this legend’s wing…He was a tiger and went on to become an ace again. When asked who I looked up to the most as a pilot and a gentleman in all my flying, I still have to say it was “Gabby” Gabreski. When he took over the 51st Wing, he asked me to move over as a flight leader in his outfit.” Capt. Robert W. “Smitty” Smith, a 4th FIW pilot in Korea, recalled, “Shortly after my arrival, Gabby flew the first F-86E to arrive on base in simulated combat over the field against an F-86A and whipped the other guy badly, with every Sabre jock on the base as witness. After he landed he briefed all pilots and announced that the limited number of E’s would be reserved for flight leaders. I never forgot his response, when someone asked about the problem of wingmen staying with leaders. He replied “Wingmen are to absorb firepower” and I never knew him well enough to judge whether he had a dry sense of humor, but he made the right choice. One thing I know for sure, Gabby proved himself the greatest at our skills and talents, when he added 6 ½ MIG kills to his 28 victories in WW II and become the all-time American Fighter Ace, he did it in the P-47, not the better air-to-air P-51. And he didn’t have a chance to fly the much more powerful F-86F, which arrived after us.”

Francis Gabreski and a couple of his ground crewmen. Picture Source:

Combat Grace and Magnanimity

          A noted pilot also rebuts some of the criticism. Major Whisner had been a P-51 double-ace with the 352nd FG in World War II and was one of the pilots Gabreski brought with him from the 56th FIW in June 1951. Before the mission of February 20, 1952, Gabreski and Whisner each had four MiGs credited as destroyed. During the mission, Gabreski attacked and severely damaged a MiG 15 that fled across the Yalu River into China. He broke off the engagement and returned to base after his own airplane was damaged, where he claimed the MiG as a “probable kill”. Whisner trailed the MiG deep into Manchuria trying to confirm Gabreski’s kill, but his Sabre ran low on fuel. He completed the shoot-down and returned to K-14 where he confirmed the kill for Gabreski but did not claim it himself. Gabreski confronted him and angrily ordered him to change his mission report, confirming Whisner’s own role in the kill. Whisner refused. Soon after, Gabreski recanted his anger and the two shared the claim, as a consequence of which three days later Whisner and not Gabreski became the first pilot of the 51st FW to reach jet ace status.

Gabreski (left) congratulating Whisner. Picture Source: Wikipedia

Stops Logging Sorties to Avoid Return to USA

          Gabreski’s Korean tour was due to end in June. As he approached his mission limit in early April, he quit logging sorties to avoid being transferred from his command. He was, however, grounded by Fifth Air Force from further combat in mid-May when his deputy commander, Colonel Mahurin, was shot down. Gabreski was subsequently replaced by Colonel John W, Mitchell, who had led the mission to shoot down Admiral Yamamoto in World War II.

Air Ace Col. John William Mitchell. the leader of Operation Vengeance, the mission to shoot down Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. He served in World War II and the Korean War. Picture Source: Wikipedia

Humane Side

            It wasn’t all war all the time for Gabby, especially when winter weather prohibited operations. Although he didn’t make it a practice to flaunt his faith, he was a deeply religious and compassionate man despite his “killer” military reputation. The wing chaplain had located an orphanage in Suwon that was crowded with 300 poorly clothed, sick and starving children. When Gabby heard about it, he had the wing sponsor the orphanage and appealed to the citizens of Oil City for help. They responded with mountains of donated clothing, medicine, school supplies and building materials. Soon it became a haven of happiness.

Mission Summary After Korea

          On his return to the United States, Gabreski received the key to the city from San Francisco Mayor Elmer E. Robinson and was given a ticker-tape parade up Market Street on June 17. Gabreski’s 6½ MiG-15 kill credits make him one of seven U.S. pilots to become an ace in more than one war (the others being Whisner, Colonel Harrison Thyng, Colonel Hagerstrom, Colonel V. Garrison, Lt Col George A. Davis, and U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel John F. Bolt). Gabreski was officially credited with 123 combat missions in Korea, totaling 289 for his career. Although he flew many F-86s in combat, his assigned aircraft was F-86E-10-NA 51-2740, nicknamed “Gabby”.

Lt Col George Andrew Davis Jr. the Only American Ace to be Shot in Korea. Picture Source:

Aerial Victories Summary

          As a member of Hubert Zemke’s Wolfpack the 56th Fighter Group and commanded the 61st Fighter Squadron and became the leading American ace in Europe with 28 victories in 17 months. He ended World War II with 28 victories before becoming a POW at Stalag Luft I. During the Korean Conflict he scored 6.5 more combat victories over Korea, bringing his total to 34.5 and making him America’s top living ace.

Image Source: You Tube


          Gabreski’s Air Force career continued for another 15 years, during which time he held three wing commands totaling nearly nine years of duty. His assignments were: Chief of Combat Operations Section, Office of the Inspector General (July 1952 – June 1954), Student, Air War College, Maxwell (1954–1955), Deputy Chief of Staff, Headquarters 9th Air Force (July 1955 – August 1956), Commander, 342d Fighter-Day Wing (September 10, 1956 – November 19, 1956) (inactivated before operational and succeeded by 354th TFW). Commander, 354th TFW (F-100 Super Sabre) (November 19, 1956 – July 13, 1960), Commander, 18th Tactical Fighter Wing (F-100) Okinawa (August 8, 1960 – June 19, 1962).

          The aerial refueling capability of the F-100 and fighters like it enabled the Air Force to quickly send reinforcements to trouble spots around the globe. Gabby found that in-flight refueling required special training, and after flying a number of such missions, described them as “a dramatic experience.” He said later, “I would rather attack a squadron of Fw-190s alone in a P-47 than face one of those drogues again in an F-100. That was nightmare fodder.”

F-100D, Mid-Air Refueling. Picture Source:

          Director of the Secretariat, Headquarters Pacific Air Forces, Hawaii (July 1962 – July 1963), Inspector General, Pacific Air Forces — Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii (July 1963 – August 1964), and Commander 52nd Fighter Wing (F 101 Voodoo) (August 17, 1964 – October 31, 1967). Gabreski retired on November 1, 1967. He left the Air Force bringing to an end a brilliant military career with 34.5 air victories and nearly every military air honor. As per his USAF official biography, he retired with more than 5,000 flying hours, 4,000 of them in jets.

Picture Source: Wikipedia

Military Honours and Awards

          Gabreski’s military decorations and awards included Distinguished Service Cross (DSO),  Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) with two silver and two bronze oak leaf clusters, Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) (United Kingdom), Legion of Honour (France), Polish Cross of Valour(Poland), Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation, among many others.

Picture Source: Poles in America Foundation

Post Retirement Assignments

          Immediately after retirement, in 1967 nearby Grumman Aerospace Co. offered Gabby a job as a marketing vice president, looking after Public Relations and Customer Relations before becoming assistant to the corporation’s president. Gabreski worked for Grumman Aerospace until August 1978. He was asked by New York Governor to serve as president of the financially stressed and state-owned Long  Island Rail Road in an attempt to improve the commuter line. After what he described as an 18-month struggle with the board of the Metropolitan Transport Authority, Gabreski resigned on February 26, 1981. With the exception of a 2½-year stint in 1978-81 as president of the Long Island Railroad, he stayed with Grumman until his retirement in 1987.

With Col. Francis Gabby Gabreski during one of the Planes of Fames annual “air show” events. Picture source:

Personal Life and Death

          Francis and Kay Gabreski had nine children (three sons and six daughters) in 48 years of marriage. Two of their three sons graduated from the USAF Academy and became career Air Force pilots. His daughter-in-law Terry Lee (Walter) Gabreski was promoted to Lt. Gen in August 2005, the highest-ranking woman in the USAF until her retirement in 2010. His wife died as the result of an automobile accident as they both were returning from the Oshkosh Air Show on August 6, 1993. Gabreski died of an apparent heart attack on January 31, 2002, and is buried in Calverton National Cemetery. Gabreski’s funeral on February 6 was with full military honors and included a missing man formation flyover by F-15E Strike Eagles.

Terry Gabreski. Picture Source: Wikipedia


          The man who would become the top American fighter ace in Europe during World War II and a jet ace in Korea almost washed out of flight training. After six hours of civilian instruction in a Taylor Cub, he was deemed too tense at the controls, and the owner of Stockert Flying Services said he “didn’t have the touch to be a pilot.” Later, during Army Air Corps primary training, he barely survived a last-chance elimination flight in a Boeing-Stearman PT-17. But assigned a new instructor, he managed to complete his flight training. Francis Gabreski never looked back, embarking on a storied 27-year Air Force career that led in his twilight years to his designation as “America’s greatest living ace.”

Four F-15E Strike Eagles Flying the “Missing Man” Formation in Gabby’s Honour. Picture Source: USAF


          Francis S. Gabreski flew 289 combat missions in two wars and destroyed 34½ enemy aircraft. He was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1978 “for outstanding contributions to aviation by his displaying unusual valor and new combat tactics in becoming a leading ace in two wars and by devotion to duty in peace.” In 1992, Suffolk County Air Force Base in Westhampton Beach, New York,which became Suffolk County Airport in 1969, was renamed Francis S. Gabreski Airport in 1991. The collocated New York Air National Guard installation at the airport was also renamed Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base. Gabreski Road at Shaw AFB, SC, is named in his honour. The Colonel Francis S. Gabreski squadron of the Civil Air Patrol located in Bellport, New York is named in his honour. He wrote his  autobiography“Gabby: A Fighter Pilot’s Life” in 1998 along with Carl Molesworth.

Gabby Gabreski 1/6th Statue WWII on Sale. Image Source:

Credit: In addition to many other sources, this article has also borrowed from the Biography recorded for the “National Aviation Hall of Fame“, where Gabreski, Francis “Gabby” (1919-2002) name was enshrined in 1978. Their motto: Honoring Aerospace Legends to Inspire Future Leaders

Picture Credit: Pinterest


Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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