America's greatest living ace, Francis S. Gabreski, achieved 31 victories over Europe in World War II before he was imprisoned in a German stalag. In Korea 5 years later, he was credited with destroying another 6 1/2 airplanes. Born in Pennsylvania in 1919, he attended Notre Dame University where he learned to fly before joining the Army Air Corps. After graduating from flying school at Maxwell Field, Alabama, he was stationed at Wheeler Field, Hawaii, where he had his first taste of combat during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Shortly thereafter, he was assigned to England where he flew 20 Spitfire sorties as a liaison officer with a Polish squadron in the Royal Air Force.
When American men and supplies began to arrive in England, Gabreski transitioned to the P-47 with the 61st Fighter Squadron and began scoring victories. Although his determination and aggressiveness were well known, he became famous for withholding fire until he was sure of hitting an enemy airplane. He thus accumulated 31 victories, a tally unsurpassed by any other American in Europe. Under his leadership, his squadron also became the first American unit to achieve 100 victories. His combat experiences ended in July 1944 when he was captured following a crash behind German lines.
After World War II, Gabreski served as a test pilot, left the service, and worked for Douglas Aircraft, and then returned to active duty prior to Korea. Flying an F-86 Saberjet, he downed his first MiG in July 1951 and then destroyed 5 1/2 more before ending his tour as commander of the 51st Fighter Wing. Before his retirement as a colonel in 1967, he served in various command and staff positions.
Francis S. Gabreski, Hubert Zemke, and David Schilling, all aces in the 56th Fighter Group, were nicknamed "The Terrible Three" by the Germans. Flying his P-47D, as shown in the painting, Lieutenant Colonel Gabreski helped earn this nickname by leading his squadron on a bomber escort mission in November 1943. After singling out the lead Me-110 in a formation which was about to attack the bomber force, he closed in and opened fire with short, effective bunts from dead astern. The enemy aircraft started to break up and Gabreski had to quickly dive to avoid collision; the Me-110 skimmed the top of his canopy, crushed his right wing, and tore into his left wing. Nevertheless, he continued his escort duties and, later in the sortie, downed another German fighter. For his deeds during this mission, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.