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Korean War aces gave Selfridge new nickname - Home of the MiG killers

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
(Part of an ongoing series of stories, highlighting key figures and events in Air Force history with a connection to Selfridge Air National Guard Base.)
When the names of more than a third of the initial American aces of the Korean War were compared, one thing was found to be in common. All had served at or had a direction connection with Selfridge Air Force Base. And thus a nickname was born for the base on the shores of Lake St. Clair - "Home of the MIG Killers."

When the U.S. entered the Korean War, both the U.S. and the North Koreans - as well as the North Korean's unofficial sponsor states of the Soviet Union and China - began air operations in the war primarily using World War II-vintage aircraft that were rapidly becoming obsolete in the new jet age. Within a few months, both sides moved to jet-powered fighter aircraft. MiG-15s flown by North Korea and its supporters quickly became the class of the fighter aircraft of the war - until it was countered by a new American entry: F-86 Sabre. It would be in the F-86 that the Selfridge-connected Airmen would earn their ace status.

Five of the six had served at Selfridge in the months prior to the war and had received their F-86 flying training in the 56th Fighter Group, assigned in 1947 to Selfridge after winning great distinction in World War II. They were Ralph "Hoot" Gibson, Francis "Gabby" Grabeski, Don Adams, Frederick "Boots" Blessy, and Robert Latshaw. Generally included on the list of Selfridge-connected Airman among the list of Korean War aces was Iven Kinchloe, a Detroit native who grew up in western Michigan. Kinchloe had made several visits to Selfridge, but was never permanently assigned to the base.

Selfridge had previously picked up the nickname "Home of the Generals" when it was realized that well over 100 key Air Force generals had spent some part of their early career at Selfridge - including the first USAF chief of staff, Gen. Carl "Tooey" Spaatz.

Col. Francis S. "Gabby" Grabeski
Grabeski was perhaps the best known of the Korean aces with ties to Selfridge. Grabeski was the leading American ace of the European Theater during World War II, recording 28 aerial victories there - despite spending the last year of the war in a German prisoner of war camp. After the war, Grabeski was serving as the commander of the 56th Fighter Wing at Selfridge, leading the unit as it transitioned from the F-80 Shooting Star to the F-86. The 56th was one of the most decorated flying units in World War II and Grabeski had served with that group during WWII. Assigned to duty in Korea, Grabeski asked for and received a number of volunteers to make the move with him, from the 56th.

In Korea, Grabeski, a colonel, was assigned command of the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing, which had converted to F-86s only a few weeks before. Grabeski was a lead-from-the-front type of commander and quickly began logging both combat missions and aerial victories. He fostered an intense rivalry with the 4th FIW, which had been in Korea flying the F-86 longer, to record to most aerial victories. Grabeski eventually recorded 6.5 kills in Korea, making him one of only seven Americans to become aces in both World War II and Korea. By the end of the Korean War, Grabeski had flown in 289 total combat missions in World War II and Korea, registering a total of 34.5 aerial victories, the third highest total in overall U.S. history. During his career, Grabeski was awarded 13 Distinguished Flying Crosses, the most earned by any individual in the 88-year history of that award.

Following his service in Korea, Grabeski remained on active duty with the Air Force, retiring as a colonel in 1967. Grabeski died in 2002. Francis S. Grabeski Air National Guard Base in Long Island, New York, is named in his honor.

Major Gen. Frederick C. "Boots" Blesse
Retiring as a major general, Blesse was eventually the highest-ranking of the Selfridge "MiG killers."

Blesse graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1945 as World War II was ending. He would go on, however, to fly more than 150 combat missions each in Korea and in Vietnam.

Prior to the Korean War, Blesse was a junior officer, assigned to Grabeski's 56th FW at Selfridge, learning to fly the F-86. While in Korea, Blesse was part of the transition in aircraft as he flew first in F-51s in combat then in F-80s and finally more than 120 missions in F-86s. All of his 10 aerial victories, nine against MiG-15s, came while flying the F-86.

Following the war, Blesse made what may have been his single-most important contribution to the Air Force, writing the fighter tactics book "No Guts, No Glory" which was used by the Air Force as a training tool for nearly 30 years.

Blesse earned a total of three Silver Stars for bravery and valor in combat during his career, including for one harrowing incident on the ground: helping to unload live bombs from a burning F-4 Phantom during an enemy rocket attack in Vietnam.

Blesse died in 2012 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Col. Ralph "Hoot" Gibson
Gibson joined the U.S. Air Corps mid-way through World War II, but did not see combat in that conflict. He served as a fighter pilot in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, serving a total of 31 years in the military.

Gibson was flying under Grabeski's command at Selfridge, but would serve in Korea in the rival 4th FIW. A skilled pilot operating in Korea's "Mig Alley" Gibson recorded five MiG-15 kills, two probable and three damaged in 94 combat missions.

After his Korean service, Gibson served at Wurtsmith AFB in Oscoda, Mich. In the 1960s, he would serve as the commander and lead pilot of the Air Force's flight demonstration team, the Thunderbirds. He served as commander of the 433rd Tactical Fighter Squadron for a year while that unit was assigned to Ubon Air Base in Thailand, flying F-4 Phantoms in Vietnam, where he recorded 105 combat missions.

Gibson retired in 1974 as a colonel. He died in 2009.

Major Donald E. Adams
A native of New York state, Adams earned a bachelor's degree at Western Michigan College (now University) before entering the Army Air Force as a pilot in 1943. While in World War II, he served in Europe and was credited with destroying two enemy aircraft while they were on the ground, but did not record an aerial victory.

Following WWII, Adams was among those serving in Grabeski's 56th FW at Selfridge when Grabeski asked for volunteers to transfer with him to Korea. Flying under Grabeski's command in Korea, Adams recorded 6.5 kills. His final two aerial victories came on a single day, in an engagement for which he would be awarded the Silver Star. On May 3, 1952, Adams was leading a formation of six F-86s when they were attacked by 20 "MiG-type aircraft." Adams recorded two kills in the engagement, driving off the enemy force and allowing his flight to remain intact.

Transferred back to the U.S. shortly after his Silver Star incident, Adams was killed in a crash at the International Aviation Exposition Air Show in Detroit, on Aug. 30, 1952. A wing detached from the F-89 Scorpion he was flying in the show. Adams was credited with maintaining control of the aircraft long enough to direct it away from the crowd at the show. Though both Adams and his radar operator were killed in the crash, only six people of the ground suffered minor injuries.

Major Robert T. Latshaw
Latshaw served briefly as an enlisted Airman in the Army Air Force during World War II before earning his wings in the closing months of the war. He did not fly in combat during the war.

Following WWII, Latshaw was another of the young pilots under the command of Grabeski at Selfridge and learned to fly the F-86 at the base. Like Gibson, however, Latshaw would serve as a pilot in the rival 4th FIW in Korea, where, flying the F-86, he recorded five kills and four damaged enemies in aerial combat.

Latshaw died in a flying accident in a 1956 while on an Air Force exchange program, serving as a flight instructor with the military in Venezuela. He was a major at the time of his death.

Capt. Iven C. Kincheloe, Jr.
Kincheloe, for whom an Air Force Base in Michigan was once named, primarily earned his fame as an Air Force test pilot. Kincheloe earned his commission in 1949 and was sent to Korea after spending a year as a test pilot in the F-86 prior to being sent to Korea to utilize the aircraft in combat. The Michigan native recorded five kills in 101 missions, flying the F-86 and earning a Silver Star, while in Korea.

Following the conclusion of the war, Kincheloe, now a captain, was assigned as a test pilot to the "Century Series" projects, serving as a test pilot with the F-100 Super Sabre, F-101 Voodoo, F-102 Delta Dagger, F-104 Starfighter, F-105 Thunderchief, and F-106 Delta Dart and their various prototypes. Later, Kincheloe was assigned to the Bell X-2 program and on Sept. 7, 1956, became the first person to ever fly above 100,000 feet (reaching a height in excess of 126,000 feet), and was dubbed "America's First Spaceman." Kincheloe was killed in a crash of an F-104 at Edwards AFB, July 26, 1958, shortly after being named to serve in the "Man in Space Soonest" project.

In 1959, the now-closed Kinross AFB in the eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan, was re-named in honor of Kincheloe.

Selfridge Air Force Base
Created as Selfridge Field as a training base for pilots during World War I, Selfridge is now one of the oldest military air fields in continuous use. The field opened on July 1, 1917, with flying training beginning about two weeks later. Selfridge was expanded from about 600 acres to more than 3,600 acres during World War II. With the creation of the separate U.S. Air Force in 1947, the field was re-named Selfridge Air Force Base. In 1971, the base was transferred to the control of the Michigan Air National Guard and re-named Selfridge Air National Guard Base. In 1996, two Michigan Air National Guard units - the 191st Airlift Group and the 127th Tactical Fighter Wing - were consolidated to create the 127th Wing. Today, the 127th Wing is the host unit at Selfridge ANGB.

About the 127th Wing
Comprised of approximately 1,700 personnel and flying both the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the KC-135 Stratotanker, the 127th Wing supports Air Mobility Command, Air Combat Command and Air Force Special Operation Command by providing highly-skilled Airmen to missions domestically and overseas. The 127th Wing is the host unit at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, which marks its 97th year of continuous military air operations in 2014.

About Selfridge Air National Guard Base
Located on more than 3,600 acres along Lake St. Clair in Macomb County's Harrison Township, Selfridge Air National Guard Base is among the most diverse Air National Guard facilities in the nation. The base houses units of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection. Selfridge is the primary training site for more than 3,000 uniformed members of the military Reserve and National Guard components.