WWII ace shoots to high rank

LUKE AIR FORCE BASE -- Francis "Gabby" Gabreski was commissioned a second lieutenant in March 1941, and just three years later he traded gold bars for the silver oak leaves of a lieutenant colonel. 

This would be the first of many surprises for this legendary fighter pilot. He never dreamed that the same air cadet who struggled to complete pilot training would go on to become one of the top three aces in the history of the Air Force with 28 kills in World War II and seven in Korea. 

Gabby Gabreski was born of Polish parents in Oil City, Penn. His Polish language skills were put to good use when he was assigned as a liaison officer with Polish pilots flying with the Royal Air Force after the German occupation of their country. Soon after, he joined the 56th Fighter Group and flew the formidable P-47 Thunderbolt in the air war in Europe. 

During the week of Nov. 16, 1943, while on a bomber-escort mission, his group destroyed 23 enemy fighters attempting to intercept the bombers. Of that total, Gabby shot down two. That week ended with Gabby shooting down two more of the enemy's prized ME-109s. Gabby flew six more missions achieving double-kills, bringing his total aerial victories to 16. 

On May 22, 1944, the 56th FG's mission was revised from the fighter role to flying fighter-bomber missions. Armed with 500-pound bombs, the P-47s attacked targets in Munster, Germany. Not only did Gabby excel as a bomber pilot by destroying an enemy installation, but he kept up his talents as a fighter pilot that day when he also destroyed three more enemy fighters, bringing his victory total to 19 kills. 

There was another big surprise waiting for Gabby on July 5, 1944. On that day he got his 28th aerial victory to become the nation's top ace. Although Gabby's experiences in the war all seemed to be pleasant surprises up to this point, that changed as the month of July 1944 neared its end. Everyone was surprised when the nation's top ace was downed, not by an ME-109, but by a small hill. The mission was against an airdrome near Koblenz, Germany. As the P-47s strafed fighters parked on the airdrome, Gabby extended his strafing run and didn't pull up in time to miss a small hill at the end of the field. His prop contacted the ground, causing him to crash. He was quickly captured and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. 

He was released after the war and subsequently promoted to full colonel, ultimately receiving an assignment to Korea. During World War II, the P-47 was clearly superior to any other piston-driven fighter in diving, rolling, top speed and service ceiling. But in Korea the MiG-15 was not only faster, but had a better rate of climb and higher service ceiling than the F-86 Sabre. Despite the advantage, the enemy pilots were surely surprised to be facing seasoned veteran World War II fighter pilots. Those veterans brought into play better tactics, better training and superior airmanship which resulted in a 10-to-1 aerial victory record over North Korean pilots and their allies. Gabby contributed to that ratio by destroying seven of the highly-respected MiG-15s. 

During his career, Gabby claimed a number of pages in military aviation history. He is one of the three top scoring Air Force aces in history with a total of 35 kills. He is one of only seven men to make ace in both World War II and Korea. It's no surprise that Gabby is the 56th FG's top scoring ace.