Top Ace

My guess is that some folks have a natural (instinctual) flying ability; Chuck Yeager may have been one of those people. But if it doesn’t come naturally, then most people learn to fly the hard way. If there is one thing I know about flying, it is that flying will kill you. Nowhere is this truer than when flying high performance aircraft where there is not a lot of room for pilot or mechanical error. I personally enjoy reading the stories of these brave men; stories that lead you to conclude many of them had angels for co-pilots.

Francis Stanley Gabreski (1919-2002) (a.k.a. Gabby) found that he was interested in flying while attending Notre Dame in 1938, but at this point in his life, Gabreski was an ordinary young man with unimpressive grades at a prestigious university. College officials almost forced him out of college at the end of his freshman year but, fortunately, he rebounded. It was also about this time when his private flight instructor told him that he did not have the knack for flying. Gabreski had some soul-searching to do during that summer.

Boeing PT-17
Boeing PT-17

It was toward the beginning of Gabreski’s sophomore year when Germany attacked Poland. Gabreski’s parents migrated from Poland at the turn of the century; as a proud Pole, Gabreski found a renewed interest in flying and having listened to a presentation by Army Air Corps recruiters, he decided to enlist as an aviation cadet. After his induction, Gabreski attended primary flight training at Parks Air College in Illinois. His flying performance was sufficiently mediocre and his pilot instructors wondered if he had what it takes. They insisted that he pass an elimination check ride before continuing to the next phase of his training. He passed.

Gabby continued his training at Gunter Army Air Base in Alabama, completing advanced flight school at Maxwell Field, Alabama in the North American AT-6 Texan. Having earned his pilot’s wings, he received his commission as a second lieutenant in the U. S. Army Air corps. In March 1941, he was on his way to his first assignment —Wheeler Field, Hawaii.

Curtiss P-36
Curtiss P-36

Upon arrival in Hawaii, the 15th Pursuit Group assigned Gabreski to the 4tth Pursuit Squadron. He began training to fly the Curtiss P-36 and P-40. Not long after that, Gabby met his future wife, Kay Cochran. Not long after than, the Japanese Imperial Navy came calling on December 7, 1941. Wheeler Field was a primary target of the Japanese, which caused a great deal of confusion at the airfield. Gabby and his squadron mates did manage to get a few P-36 fighters in the air, but by the time they were able to get armed and airborne, the Japanese had already withdrawn. Gabreski remained at Wheeler through the summer of 1942 training in the newer model P-40 and Bell P-39.

Now that President Roosevelt declared a state of war to exist between the United States of America and the Empire of Japan, Gabreski became keenly interested in the European War and how Polish Air Squadrons were doing with the Royal Air Force. Realizing that the United States did not have many experienced fighter pilots, and because he spoke Polish fluently, Gabreski volunteered to serve as a liaison officer within the RAF with Polish Air Squadrons so that he could learn from their experiences. The Air Corps approved his request and in September 1942, Gabreski was promoted to captain and ordered to attend briefings in Washington DC.

Supermarine Spitfire IX
Supermarine Spitfire IX

In October, Captain Gabreski reported to the Eighth Air Force, 8th Fighter Command, which was at the time a rudimentary headquarters. Gabreski tried to arrange an assignment with 303 Squadron, but they had already been withdrawn for rest and recuperation. In January 1943, Gabby posted with 313 Squadron at Northolt where he flew a new fighter aircraft called the Super-Marine Spitfire (Mark IX). His first encounter with the Luftwaffe occurred on February 3, 1943 when a group of Focke-Wulf (Fw)-190s jumped his squadron. In Gabreski’s excitement, he failed to properly apply sound aeronautical tactics; he failed to bring down a single aircraft. He learned an important lesson about keeping one’s cool under pressure. In all, Gabby flew twenty missions with the Poles, engaging in combat only once.

Republic P-47 Thunderbolt
Republic P-47 Thunderbolt

In late February, Gabreski joined the 56th Fighter Group where he flew the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. Assigned to the 61st Fighter Squadron, he quickly became a flight leader; his success resulted in some resentment by his squadron mates —his arrogant personality did little to improve this. Gabreski received a promotion to major in May 1943; when his squadron commander was promoted in the following month, the Group Commander ordered Gabby to assume command of the 61st Fighter Squadron over two officers that were more senior. This sort of thing does happen in the course of a military career, but it did not endear Gabreski to his officers and the situation worsened still when both of these more senior officers were lost in combat in late June. Meanwhile, Gabreski still had not achieved a single kill.

His first kill came on August 24, 1943; an Fw-190 over Dreux, France —but he continued to receive criticism from other squadron pilots because his attacks were so hastily conducted that his wingmen had no opportunity to also engage. This did not seem to concern Gabreski.

On November 26, 1943, the Eighth Air Force assigned the air group to cover the withdrawal of B-17 bombers from Bremen, Germany. The P-47s arrived on station and found the bombers under heavy attack. During this engagement, Gabreski earned his fourth and fifth kills.

That month, the Colonel Robert Landry temporarily relieved Colonel Zemke as Group Commander, but because he lacked combat experience, command of combat missions fell to the deputy commander and operations officer, who by this time was Gabreski. When Zemke resumed command in January 1944, Gabreski relinquished command of the 61st Fighter Squadron and served as Air Group operations officer.

Gabreski arranged to have two Polish pilots assigned to the 56th Fighter Group to help ease a shortage of pilots, a shortage resulting from end-of-tour rotation of seasoned combat pilots. Five more Polish pilots were accepted in April; they called themselves “Polish Flight.”

By March 1944, Gabreski had earned 18 victory credits with six multiple kill missions. He ranked third overall in the ETO “Ace Race.” At this time, only two other officers had more kills: Major Robert S. Johnson, and Major Walker M. Mahurin. Both officers rotated back to the states in May 1944. After receiving his promotion to lieutenant colonel, Gabreski assumed command once more of the 61st Fighter Squadron. On May 22, 1944, Gabby shot down three Fw-190 aircraft. He tied Major Johnson’s record for aerial kills on June 27 (passing by Eddie Rickenbacker’s World War I record), and on July 5, 1944, became the leading Ace in the European theater. With 28 victories, Gabby matched the number of victories in the Pacific theater, achieved by Richard Bong.

Gabreski reached 300 combat hours on July 20, 1944; it was time to rotate home, and marry Kay Cochran. On the morning of his scheduled rotation back to the states, Gabby requested to fly one final escort mission. By that evening, Gabreski became a welcomed guest in a German Oflag. He remained as such until the end of the war.

After the war, Gabreski served as a chief test pilot, attended Engineering Flight Test School, and then decided to accept a position with Douglas Aircraft. [1] He was recalled to active duty in 1947, sent back to complete his degree at Columbia University, and resumed his US Air Force career flying the F-80 and F-86. He received his promotion to colonel in 1950.

Gabreski joined the Korean War in 1951; he and others delivered the F-86E to the 4th Fighter-Interceptor Group at Kempo Air Base. On July 8, 1951, Gabby shot down a MiG-15, followed by additional kills on September 2, 1951 and October 2, 1951.

F-86E Sabre
F-86E Sabre

At this time, a growing MiG presence threatened the B-29 attacks along the Yalu River. Fifth U. S. Air Force created a second Sabre wing by converting the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing from F-80s to F-86s —amazingly accomplished within a ten-day period. Fifth Air Force assigned Gabreski to command the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing stationed at Suwon Air Base. During its first seven months, the 51st scored 96 MiG kills with only two operational squadrons, comparing favorably with its rival 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, which operated three squadrons. Meanwhile, Gabby scored 3 ½ more MiG kills, making him a jet ace. [2]

Gabreski’s aggressive leadership helped the United States to achieve and maintain air superiority over the Korean peninsula … but it also led Gabreski to violate international rules of engagement. Chinese (and possibly Russian) MiGs were stationed in China; they would fly missioned into Korea, and then escape back into Chinese air space and “MiG sanctuary.” Gabreski and Lieutenant Colonel Walker M. “Bud” Mahurin quickly tired of this behavior and resolved to do something about it. In early 1952, Gabreski and Mahurin planned and executed a mission during which time the F-86E turned off their IFF equipment and overflew two Chinese air bases.

Col. Frances S. Gabreski USAF 1958
Col. Frances S. Gabreski USAF (1958)

Gabreski, meanwhile, continued to receive criticism from other pilots; if not about one thing, then about something else. Part of this had to do with his stubborn nature and his fierceness in combat. In spite of some claims that he exaggerated kills, or that he had little regard for his wingmen, other pilots swore that he was the finest jet pilot in the Air Force.

Upon his return to the United States, the City of San Francisco honored Gabreski with a ticker tape parade on Market Street —but this was a long time ago when San Francisco was still an American city.

Francis Stanley Gabreski is one of only seven American pilots to become an air ace in more than one war. Officially credited with 123 combat missions in Korea, he achieved 289 missions during his 26 year his career. He retired from active duty in November 1967. He passed away on January 31, 2002 and accorded full military honors at his funeral on February 6, 2002.

Colonel and Mrs. Gabreski had nine children in their 48-year marriage. Two sons were graduates of the USAF Academy; Terry L. Gabreski, his daughter-in-law, achieved promotion to lieutenant general in August 2005; she served as the highest-ranking female in the US Air Force until her retirement in 2010.


[1] I do not know this for certain, but I suspect that the odd move from Air Force Officer to Douglas Aircraft Corporation and return to active duty had to do with the fact that the US Army Air Corps was in the process of conversion to the United States Air Force.

[2] One-half of a kill is credit for an assist to another pilot.

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Retired Marine, historian, writer.

7 thoughts on “Top Ace”

  1. “But if it doesn’t come naturally, then most people learn to fly the hard way. If there is one thing I know about flying, it is that flying will kill you.”

    I include myself as one of those pilots…who had to work harder and above and beyond to standards set forth by men like Gabreski that I knew I would never achieve. My aviation skills were just as his was in the beginning. I slap my self on my back ever time I could walk away from any landing.

    In my limited and unremarkable aviation career, both as a civilian and military….this man was as unknown and under appreciated as most pilots were. Thanks for posting this Mustang…some heroes are never as appreciated as this one. Like the 1st Marines from Guadalcanal to Peleliu to Iwo Jima to Okinawa. Thank God for Americans like him…and shame on places like SFO where they’d demean and mock a man like he was today.


  2. Most here must know, but the American Heroes Channel, which used to be the military channel, had on a series of the top 10 combat Aviation Aces. Gabreski was one of these. Surely they will show this again. Each of the 10 were at least as interesting as this story. Very iconic.Very interesting stories all.


  3. A novel departure from your stories of our Marines, sir… and I liked your comment about San Francisco.

    Col. Gabreski is a long time hero of mine, along with Hub Zemke and his Wolfpack. I had the privilege of shaking the Colonel’s hand in I think 1991 at Virginia Bader Fine Arts. Virginia Bader is a relative of Sir Douglas Bader.

    Heroes of the like of Col. Gabreski is lost among many, many of the younger Americans…especially in the pansy in the WH that Putin shoves around. (Please don’t give me crap about my referring to him as an American. 🙂 ) My memory fails me at times now but I recollect his props chopped dirt on his last mission – low level strafing in the well suited Jug… and thank you for the tidbit on his DIL.


    1. I think you’re right about bending the props in the dirt, The AHC (AMerican Heroes Channel which used to be the military channel has had a special on the top ten Air Aces and one of these guys definitely was captured after the dround level straffing that killed his aircraft.

      The other 9 stories are equally awesome (a word I never use)

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