In 1961 and 1962, Colonel Francis S. 'Gabby' Gabreski the top living American Air Ace, commanded the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing, based at Kadena AFB, Okinawa. Today, late in the year 2001 he retains that Top Living American Air Ace title, with twenty-eight enemy aircraft destroyed in WW-II aerial combat, plus three on the ground, and an additional six and one-half victories during the Korean war ... for a total of 34.5 victories in the air and three destroyed on the ground.
Gabreski was born January 28, 1919 in Oil City, Pennsylvania, where he grew up, and graduated from Oil City Public High School in 1938. He then entered undergraduate Pre-Medical training at Notre Dame University, remaining until July 1940 when he entered AAF pilot training at Parks Air College, graduating in March 1941, at Maxwell Field, Alabama as a Second Lieutenant.
He was promptly sent to Wheeler Field, Hawaii where, as a member of the 45th Fighter Squadron, 15th Fighter Group, underwent the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941, and remained a pilot with the 45th until October 1942, when he was transferred to the 8th Fighter Command in the European Theater of Operations. Soon, in November '42, he was assigned as Liaison Officer to the Polish Air Force, flying British-built Spitfires on 20 combat missions with the 315th Fighter Squadron.
In February 1943 he was reassigned to the 61st Fighter Squadron, 56th Fighter Group in England, flying the Republic P-47s which served him so well in downing German aircraft. Four months later, in May 1943 he was assigned Command of the 61st Fighter Squadron, which he led until July 20, 1944 - when he was shot down over Germany.
On that day Gabreski was supposed to be on furlough, awaiting transportation to the 'States, but instead, he volunteered to lead his Squadron into Germany. Upon return, he elected to hit a German air field with many parked aircraft upon it. On his second pass at the field, his prop tips hit a small rise in the runway, bending the prop tips and causing severe engine vibrations, which forced him to make a crash landing. He fled from the crash scene and managed to elude capture for five days, but was ultimately captured and held in Stalag Luft I for ten months, until being liberated by the Russians in April 1945. He had flown 165 combat missions in Spitfires and P-47 Thunderbolts before being shot down and becoming a POW.
Upon his return to the United States, Gabreski promptly married Catherine Cochran of Grand Rapids, Michigan on June 11, 1945, after which the couple departed for a combined honeymoon and 90 days Rest and Recuperation Leave at the Miami Beach, FL, Rest Center. Their long-lived marriage later resulted in nine (9) loving offspring over the ensuing years. (Djoni, Donald, Mary Ann, Frances, Patricia, James, Linda, Debbie and Robert.)
He began Engineering Test Pilot Training at Wright-Patterson in September 1945, graduating in April 1946, after which he, like so many thousands of other service men - was separated from active duty, and took a position with Douglas Aircraft Corporation in Long Beach, California.
His time as a civilian was short-lived and he was recalled to active Air Force duty in April 1947, as CO of the 55th Fighter Squadron, 20th Fighter Group at Shaw AFB, SC. He remained with the 55th until September 1947, when he began AF Educational Program study of Russian Language and Political Science at Columbia University.
He returned to active flying duty in August 1949 as Commander of the 56th Fighter Group, Selfridge Field, MI, until June, 1951 when he was assigned to Korea War combat with the 4th Fighter-Interceptor Wing, later followed by Command of the 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing - during which time he became history's eighth "Jet Ace" on April 1, 1952. Upon his return to the U.S. in June, 1952, he was assigned to Norton AFB, CA as Chief of Combat Operations, Office of the USAF Inspector General. From there, in 1954 he was selected to attend the USAF Air War College, Maxwell AFB, AL, from which he graduated in 1955.
After a year as 9th Air Force DCS/Operations at Shaw AFB, SC, Gabreski was made Commander of the 354th Tactical Fighter Wing, Myrtle Beach AFB, SC, where he remained for four years - until he was transferred to Kadena AFB, Okinawa, to command the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing.
Although their F-100 aircraft were the same as he had flown at Myrtle Beach, Gabreski observed that the Okinawa duty was "considerably different". "We were on more of a wartime footing there, compared with the 'States. We actually stood Alert at Kadena, with tactical nuclear weapons loaded."
"We had practiced similar strafing and over-the-shoulder nuclear drops at Myrtle Beach, but there was a much greater sense of urgency at Kadena, where our proximity to Korea made the Communist threat seem much more real." After two "pleasant years" with the 18th Tac Fighter Wing at Kadena, Gabby, Kay and family moved to an even more delightful assignment .. as Executive Officer at Hickam AFB, Hawaii, serving with General Emmet "Rosy" O'Donnell, who had chosen him for the assignment. In mid-1963 he became Inspector General for Pacific Air Forces - another 'non-flying' assignment (except when he would schedule himself for surprise inspections of flying units).
Finally, after so many years of Tactical flying assignments, he opted to command the 52nd Fighter Wing at Suffolk County AFB, Westhampton Beach, NY, in August 1967, where he was exposed to the speedy and effective F-101 air-defense interceptor, and the techniques associated with aerial interception under control from radar operators on the ground. He commented that "after so many years as my 'own boss' in the air, the flow of detailed information from the ground, took a bit of getting used to... but it was effective."
It didn't take he and Kay very long to realize that the Suffolk County area was a delightful place to raise their family ... with summer visitors there to enjoy the countryside, and in winters they would have the place to themselves. After traveling for so many years with the Air Force, Col. Gabreski retired after 27 years, in November 1967, and settled down with his family, to play golf, hunt and fish.
During those twenty-seven years he had accumulated more than 5000 flying hours, of which 4000 was in modern jet fighter aircraft. His array of decorations include the U.S. Distinguished Service Medal, Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star with 1 OLC, Distinguished Flying Cross with 12 OLC, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Air Medal with 4 OLC, the British Distinguished Flying Cross, Polish Cross of Valor, French Croix de Guerre with Palm, Belgium Croix de Guerre, and French Legion d' Honneur.
Colonel Francis S. Gabreski was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in July, 1978.
As this report is compiled, in October 2001, Col. 'Gabby' Gabreski, 'America's Top Living Fighter Ace' is a registered member of the 18th Fighter Wing Association, and continues to reside in Dix Hills, Melville, New York.