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Two-War Ace Helped Dub Selfridge as “Home of the MIG Killers”

1940's -- Lt. Col. Frances S. Gabreski and Staff Sgt. Ralph Safford, crew chief, prepare for flight. The assistant crew chief is in the background.

Lt. Col. Francis “Gabby” Gabreski shakes hands with crew chief Staff Sgt. Ralph Safford before a mission in World War II in a P-47 Thunderbolt. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Col. Francis "Gabby" Gabreski was the first Air Force fighter pilot to become an ace in both World War II and the Korean conflict. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Col. Francis "Gabby" Gabreski was the first Air Force fighter pilot to become an ace in both World War II and the Korean conflict. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Col. "Gabby" Gabreski's F-86.

Col. "Gabby" Gabreski's F-86.

SELFRIDGE AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Mich. -- (Part of series of stories of fighter aces who served at Selfridge Air National Guard Base)

Among the many military pilots who have served at Selfridge, few amassed a record that could rival that of Col. Francis "Gabby" Grabeski. Grabeski, who learned how to fly jet-powered aircraft while commanding the 56th Fighter Group at Selfridge, was America's top ace in Europe during World War II and then became an ace again during the Korean War.

Grabeski is one of only seven pilots who registered as an ace - recording five aerial victories or more - in more than one war. Grabeski is just one of many of America's top aces - including World War I hero Eddie Rickenbacher and the first ace of World War II, Boyd D. "Buzz" Wagner - who served at Selfridge at various points in their careers.

Grabeski was already a seasoned veteran by the time he was assigned to Selfridge. After briefly leaving military service at the end of World War II in 1945, Grabeski was recalled to the military upon the creation of the new, independent U.S. Air Force in 1947. In 1949, he was assigned to the unit where he had served with great distinction - the 56th Fighter Group - during World War II. Only now, the 56th was stationed at Selfridge and was transitioning to what was to become the premier fighter aircraft of the Korean War, the F-86 Sabre.

A first-generation American, Grabeski was motivated to enlist in the military in part by the early-World War II German invasion of Poland, where both of his parents had been born. Entering the Army's Aviation Cadet program, in 1939, Grabeski was considered a below average student pilot. At least once, he was given an "elimination" check ride to be able to stay in the program. Despite his struggles, he earned his wings and was assigned as a P-36 Hawk and P-40 Warhawk pilot in Hawaii. He was at his base in Hawaii during the Dec. 7, 1941, attacks on Pearl Harbor. Grabeski and several other pilots from his squadron managed to get airborne following the attacks, but too late to fully engage the enemy and affect the outcome of the attacks.

Sent to the European theater, Grabeski was first briefly posted to a British Royal Air Force Squadron and, thanks to his bilingual abilities, served as a liaison officer with Polish pilots who were flying with the RAF.

In early 1943, Grabeski was assigned to the 56th Fighter Group, flying P-47 Thunderbolt aircraft in Europe. Over the next year and a half, he amassed 28 aerial victories, leading all American fighter pilots in Europe in the war. In the process, he accumulated more than 300 hours of combat time, which at the time was the point at which fighter pilots in his command were being rotated back to the U.S. Volunteering for one final mission before heading home to be married, Grabeski's P-47 was damaged when one of its wings touched the ground during a strafing run on an enemy airfield in Germany. Forced to bail out of the damaged aircraft, Grabeski eluded capture for five days before being captured by German forces. The pilot would spend almost a year in a German Prisoner of War camp before being liberated in April 1945.

After the war, Grabeski was briefly a civilian test pilot before being recalled to military duty. Assigned to Selfridge as the commander of his old war-time unit, his primary mission was to lead the Selfridge-based 56th as it transitioned from F-80 Shooting Stars to the more capable F-86s. While in command of the 56th at Selfridge, war broke out in Korea and Grabeski and his unit were shipped out for combat.

As a leader and commander in Korea, Grabeski pressed for an aggressive style of airmanship, helping the U.S. to gain air superiority in Korea - an advantage that the U.S. has enjoyed in every conflict since. Grabeski led by example, becoming a jet ace with 6.5 aerial victories. His leadership in Korea, along with the performance of a number of other pilots from the 56th FG, led Selfridge to be known for a time as the "Home of the MIG Killers," in recognition of the types of aircraft the Americans were competing against.

By the end of the Korean War, Grabeski had flown in 289 combat missions in both 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 since the award was established in 1926.

Following his service in Korea, Grabeski remained on active duty with the Air Force for 15 years, 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.

In an interesting quirk of history, most of Grabeski's victories came in the World War II-era P-47 Thunderbolt. Today, the A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft is flown by the 107th Fighter Squadron at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, which was once Grabeski's home station.

One of the oldest military air fields in continuous service, the military first took possession of Selfridge Air National Guard Base on July 1, 1917. The first military flight at the base took place on July 8 and formal flight operations began on July 16, 1917. Today the 127th Wing of the Michigan Air National Guard is the host unit at the base, which also houses units of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection.