A wreath-laying ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the death of U.S. Air Corps Colonel Francis S. Gabreski was held on January 31 at the Westhampton airport that bears his name.
Members of the Polish American Congress, New York Downstate Division, and Mr. Gabreski’s daughters, Frances Phillips of Westhampton and Patricia Covino of Quiogue, attended the special service held at the airport’s memorial stone, located between the terminal and runway.
“There aren’t a lot of Polish-American heroes, and they’re striving to keep my father’s name alive,” Ms. Phillips said in a phone interview this week. “The Polish American Congress really went out of their way and had a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for my father.”
Mr. Gabreski, who was stationed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, went on to become the nation’s top World War II fighter ace. At the controls of a P-47 Thunderbolt, he is credited with shooting down 28 German airplanes and destroying another three while on the ground.
A former executive at Northrop Grumman Aerospace and a former president of the Long Island Rail Road, Mr. Gabreski was the son of Polish immigrants who settled in Oil City, Pennsylvania. It was during his second year of studies at the University of Notre Dame, after Nazi Germany invaded Poland, when he joined the military.
“The colonel never forgot his Polish roots,” said Richard Romanski, chairman of the Gabreski Memorial Committee, in a prepared statement issued after last week’s ceremony.
Mr. Gabreski also served his country during the Korean War, downing another six enemy aircraft. He was also given a half-credit for shooting down a seventh enemy plane.
Upon his return home, Mr. Gabreski married Catherine “Kay” Cochran on June 11, 1945. He began working at Grumman and was later appointed president of the LIRR. Ms. Gabreski died in 1993.
Polish American Congress Co-Chairman Chet Szarejko said Mr. Gabreski looked “death squarely in the eye” every time he took his P-47 up in the sky. “It must have been his religious beliefs that gave him this amazing courage to accomplish all he did in [the] face of such risk,” Mr. Szarejko said.
Suffolk County officials honored Mr. Gabreski in 1992 when they named the Westhampton airport after him. He died 10 years later—on January 31, 2002—of a heart attack. He was 83.
According to Ms. Phillips, the Polish American Congress held a memorial marking the fifth anniversary of her father’s death at Calverton National Cemetery where he was laid to rest.