Francis S. Gabreski, WWII Air Ace

Colonel Francis S. Gabreski, 83, America's air ace in Europe in World War II and an ace in the Korean War died January 31, 2002 of a heart attack.

One of five children, Gabreski was born in Oil City, PA, on January 28, 1919. His parents were Polish immigrants.

He would fly 266 combat missions in two wars destroying 37.5 enemy aircraft in World War II and 6.5 in Korea.

Flying single-engine P-47 Thunderbolt fighters, Mr. Gabreski downed 28 Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs over France and Germany between August 24, 1943, and July 5, 1944, and destroyed three more German aircraft on the ground.

He was captured in late July, 1944 after crash-landing near Koblenz, Germany, on what was to have been his last mission, and he spent 10 months as a prisoner of war.

He became an ace (a pilot shooting down at least five enemy planes) in the Korean War as well, flying an F-86 Sabre jet. He shot down six Soviet-built MIG-15 fighters and shared credit for the downing of another.

His flying days began after he graduated from basic training in March, 1941 as a second lieutenant, and joined a fighter unit at Wheeler Field in Hawaii. On the morning of December 7, 1941, he was shaving when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He scrambled to a P-36 fighter but by then the Japanese aircraft were nowhere in sight.

Because he spoke Polish and "I felt strongly about what the Nazis had done to Poland," he asked to be assigned to a Polish fighter unit attached to the Royal Air Force. He flew some two dozen missions over Europe with Polish pilots early in 1943 before joining the United States 56th Fighter Group in Britain.

After the war and a hero's welcome home, Gabreski worked for Grumman Aerospace and was head of the Long Island Rail Road, the nation's busiest commuter line. He tried but failed to rescue it.

Gabreski once said: "A pilot can contribute physical acumen, good eyesight and alertness. You have to be calm, cool and collected. Freeze, and you frighten yourself. But, beyond that you need some luck to survive."

Gabreski lived in Dix Hills, NY. Gabreski is survived by three sons, six daughters, two sisters, 18 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren.

Among Gabreski's decorations were: The Distinquished Service Cross, Silver Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, Distinquished Flying Cross with nine Oak Leaf Clusters, Air Medal with four clusters, the Bronze Star, The French Legion D'Honneur and Croix de Guerre with Palm, Polish Cross of Valor, the British Distinguished Flying Cross and the Belgian Croix de Guerre.