Interview with Francis Gabrski

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Senior Airman
Mar 21, 2005

CUNNINGHAM: Col. Gabreski, what was your total score - combat victories?
GABRESKI: During World War II, in the European Theater, 31. And six-and-a-half in Korea.

CUNNINGHAM: You were at Pearl Harbor during the japanese attack, weren't you?
GABRESKI: Yes, I was .... Unfortunately.

CUNNINGHAM: What were you flying then?
GABRESKI: I was assigned to the 15th Fighter Group, 45th Fighter Squadron, at Wheeler Field. We were flying P36s and the modern version of the P-40, which was the P40B.

CUNNINGHAM: Were you able to get into the air during the attack?
GABRESKI: Well, they attacked Wheeler Field practically simultaneously as they attacked Pearl Harbor, and we received our share of bombs and strafing and so forth. To put it all in a nutshell, I mean we lost just about half of our airplanes that were parked on the ramp - the P-36s and P-40s - and, uh, we didn't get off the ground during the attack. I was fortunate in getting off in about two-and-a-half, three hours later, with a group of about 12 airplanes. But that was after the fact. We didn't see anything.

CUNNINGHAM: Early in the war you flew the Spit-9 with a Polish squadron in England.
GABRESKI: I went over in the early days from, directly from Hawaii to Europe, with the nucleus of the Eight Air Force. I flew with the Polish squadron out of Northolt. The Spit-9 was the aircraft that they were using at the time. The Spit-9 was designed principally as a fighter interceptor. It was just a tremendous airplane in that particular role. However, it had its limitations. It didn't have the range, it didn't have the endurance. So as an escort airplane all it could do was escort probably to the coast of France and back. That's about all.

I served with the Polish Air Force from January to about March of 1942. The 56th Fighter Group came to Kings Cliffe from the United States during that period of time. They were actually the first P-47 outfit that was assigned to the European Theater of Operations. And after receiving my indoctrination experience with the Polish Air Force I joined the 56th at Horsham St. Faith.

CUNNINGHAM: How did your P47s compare to the German fighters?
GABRESKI: Well, Bob, it all depends on what P-47 you're talking about. The early P-47 - which was the basic airplane - had a very thin propeller, although it was a four-bladed propeller. It didn't have water injection. It didn't have all the niceties of the P-47D20 that came into the theater sometime in the latter part of, uh ... well, it was actually about March of 1944. So the improvement that we had (was) water injection, which gave you a power increase of from 52 inches of mercury to about 72 inches of mercury, which was a tremendous boost in power and performance. Then you had tremendous visibility with the teardrop canopy. You could cover your tail and look out freely without the crossbars kinda' restricting your vision. So I would say that the P-47I finally went down with on July 20, 1944, was one of the finest little airplanes that I have ever flown. It was more than a match for the Focke-Wulf 190. It was more than a match for the 109. I had absolutely no problem as long as I used water injection, and I used it quite frequently. We had water injection that would, with sustained power, keep us there for about three minutes up to five minutes, depending upon how you use it. But it gave us that tremendous edge that we needed against the German Luftwaffe.

CUNNINGHAM: I understand you liked to bore in really close, in combat, to your opponent.
GABRESKI: Well, I wouldn't have much of a choice when it came to, uh, firing in close and destroying the aircraft, or firing out at a distance - because my gunnery wasn't as good as perhaps Gerald Johnson's gunnery. So I kinda' felt that I had to come in very, very close in order to destroy the aircraft.

CUNNINGHAM: Colonel, what German aircraft did you feel was the toughest opponent?
GABRESKI: Well, as you well know, during the early days we encountered more 109s than we did anything else. There were some Me110's, there were some Me210s that were used against the bomber formations. But the Fw190 came at a later date . . . the latter part of 1943, and then by 1944 they had their full production set up. But, generally speaking, Fw190 was probably a little bit faster airplane. It had its limitations, though. It had a very bad snap. I other words, if you could get the pilot to pull excessive g's close to the ground and he decelerated at the same time because of the drag of the airplane, why, you could have him spin in. He would snap. And once they snapped close to the ground, there's no way they can recover. So I would say from that point of view the 109 was probably a little bit better airplane. But it's practically six of one and half-a-dozen of the other. I did not fear the 109, and I didn't have any apprehension about the Fw190s.

CUNNINGHAM: Did you ever fly the Hurricane?
GABRESKI: No, I never flew the Hurricane. The only British airplane I flew was the Spit-9. And it was the Cadillac of them all as far as interceptor work. But the Hurricane was really the backbone of the Battle of Britain.

CUNNINGHAM: What about maneuverability of the planes you flew?
GABRESKI: The maneuverability of the P-51 was probably just a little bit better than the P-47. I have never turned, really, with the P-51 versus the P-47. But I would say if I had a choice of the two airplanes .... I would say, for long-range work, the P-51 is probably a better plane, because it had a greater range than the P-47. The P-47 had its limitations. And that's the part that the P-51 played in the European Theater. But we had eight machine guns in the P-47, which was tremendous firepower compared to the six machine guns that you had in the P-51. So when you take your paddle-blade propeller improvement, you take your water injection improvement, and you take the eight machine guns into consideration versus the six ... all in all, I preferred the P-47. And I'm a little bit partial to the P-47s, since it was the only thing that I'd flown in combat in World War II, outside of the Spit-9, that really brought me home every time - except once. And it was my own fault.

CUNNINGHAM: That was on your last mission - strafing the German airfield.
GABRESKI: Yes, I got a little too low.

CUNNINGHAM: Did you get any of your kills in the Spitfire?
GABRESKI: No, I didn't. And it was ironical. Of course, you know, in the heat of excitement you're ... the first time you see an enemy aircraft, your adrenalin flows and you get all worked up. This particular time, I saw the Fw190 at a distance and I started firing at him. Naturally he was out of range, so I never did hit him and he finally rolled down. But in the meantime, when I landed and they developed the film, there was another 190 in the frame as big as could be. He was directly in front, below my nose, and I was concentrating on the aircraft that was about fifteen hundred or two thousand feet ahead. So I missed an opportunity.

CUNNINGHAM: did you ever encounter any of the Me262 jets?
GABRESKI: No I didn't. That came after my time. I went down July 20, 1944. The Me262s started coming into, uh, into the combat arena sometime after July and August.

CUNNINGHAM: Your combat experience, Colonel... was there any one action that stands out in your mind, any combat that you particularly remember?
GABRESKI: Well, there were two that kinda stand out in my mind. The one was on the positive side, where I destroyed four airplanes - three at the time and the fourth one was confirmed later. I went down to tree-top level at this aerodrome where there were 20 or 30 airplanes, Fw190s, taking off, and it was just like puttin' myself in a bees' nest. There were airplanes, German airplanes, all over the place. And, of course, the fortunate thing was I had a cloud cover of fair weather cumulus that gave me the opportunity to duck in and out when I got into trouble. Otherwise I probably wouldn't have survived. But anyway, I did the aggressive shooting and downed three airplanes. I was working on the fourth there at that point, and I looked behind and I had one on my tail. He was just about in firing range so I broke into him, went into the clouds, and lost him. When I came out of the clouds, I saw another airplane right beneath me and I went down and started firing at him. Just at that particular point there were airplanes on my tail again. They were firing at me, and I broke into them. So I have no idea. . . I did hit the airplane real well and I had no idea what happened to him so I went back into the clouds. And that just about ended my operation for the day. So I had, uh, three destroyed and one probable during that particular episode. And then, finally, the fourth was confirmed later on. So that was on the plus side.

Of course, on the minus side, I recall shooting down two Me110s on another mission and starting back to England alone. I was lost, everybody was doing a lot of shooting and so forth, and, uh, my wing man shot down a couple of airplanes and he separated from me. So I was going home all alone. And I saw a few airplanes off in the distance - about eight or ten airplanes together - and I thought they were P-47s , so I immediately threw my throttle forward and came in from the rear and went off to the side. And when I went off to the side I saw that they were Fw190s with great big noses. I didn't say a word. I turned around gracefully, hoping that they didn't see me. They didn't, and I made a 180 and started heading for home.

While I was heading for home, I saw this lone log above me going the opposite direction - going into Germany - and I was headed for England. He was about 3000 feet above me and I was hoping that he didn't see me and wouldn't see me, because I was practically at the end of my reserve fuel and it was time to go home. So I was running low. As a matter of fact, I was worried about getting home with the amount of fuel I had left., so, as he went by me, I saw a quick flicker and he made one turn and he looked . . . and sure enough, he made a 180 and started after me. I had one decision to make, either to break into him or run that throttle all the way forward and run out of gas or do something before I got home. I wasn't about to run that throttle forward, so I went up to about 42 inches of mercury, just enough power to have full control of the airplane, and as he came down I was going to run him out of ammunition. That was my decision, and I felt that I was good enough to do that.
So he came down, and I broke into him. And as he went on by me, firing, I pulled up in sort of a chandelle. As my airspeed was dropping, he came back up again, turned around, and started coming into me. As he was coming up, I gave him a 90-degree deflection shot. Well, the first deflection shot was great. In other words, he fired and I could see the 20 millimeter gun spittin' smoke, or spittin' fire. I broke and he lost his airspeed, and I went down into him and he came down after me and we picked up enough speed and went . . . I did that twice, and on the third one I had all the confidence now that I was gonna run him out of ammunition.

So the third time we went ahead and did this same thing and he came up with about a 90-degree deflection shot again, the same shot that I'd been giving him. I was very fortunate the first two times, but that last time he rang the bell. I mean, he really hit me! I heard an explosion in the cockpit and I felt my foot grow numb. I lost power in my engine. I says, "Oh, boy!" So the first thought that came to my mind was that the high explosive blew up as it hit my foot. And the second thought that came to my mind was, "oh, he hit my engine, so that's it. I'm out of power and I've gotta go down - bail out - whatever." So I pointed the nose down again, rolled over in kinda a steep dive, pointed the nose down and I was afraid to look at the foot because with the sight of blood, or something like that, I mighta gone into shock and passed out. So I didn't look. I pulled back on the canopy and was ready to bail out. I looked at my airspeed indicator and I still had plenty of airspeed, but my RPM started coming down and my manifold pressure started coming up. So the thought again occurred to me that, "Well, it must be the turbine supercharger and not the engine." And then I looked at the foot and at the pedal. The pedal was shot away but the foot was in good shape. I had heavy boots on and the bottom side of the boot was kinda shredded and broken up. But the foot was in good shape.

So then I had to make a decision as to whether or not I was gonna bail out before he came in to pick me up, or whether I was going to go down to the deck where there was a cloud layer. I decided to do that, so I went down as fast as I could, straight down into the overcast, hoping to get there before he could finish me off. He came down with me, but I did get into the overcast, leveled off, and stayed there. Periodically I'd pop up and I could see him behind me, looking around at the overcast. And then it was a question . . . I knew I could stay in the clouds and go home.

But then the fear went through my mind that I didn't have enough fuel to get home on. So I stayed in the clouds as long as I could and then, once I hit the channel, I decided to get down to the lower levels. I just rolled the RPM back as far as I could - which was about 1700 RPM - and started callin' in "MAYDAY" And I called in Mayday all the way across the channel and when I got to the shoreline, I saw an airfield, and I set it down.

Well, I ran out of fuel shortly after that, in a taxi situation. And I soon discovered, after the individuals at that airbase came out and met me on the runway with the engine shut down and so forth . . . they discovered that the oil tank was practically dry. He hit me once in the oil tank and I was losing oil. My turbine supercharger was shot away. He got in three good shots. And my boot was pretty well torn. So I left the airplane there, called the group, and told them where I was. Somebody came up and picked me up and I left the airplane there and went home. So that was the opposite end of my experiences.

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