by Norman Berdichevsky (November 2014)
Franciszek Gabryszewski in flight suit
We need American heroes today more than ever, yet the lack of any single name in Korea, Viet-Nam or Iraq to match those of Sergeant Alfred York and Audie Murphy is a telling indication of how those conflicts did not generate the need for the hero worship of the two world wars and portends the disinterest of the public on glorifying American combat heroism. Two classic American heroic films are “Sergeant York” and “To Hell and Back.”
The film Sergeant York (MGM) released in 1941 culturally and psychologically prepared the American public for the ominous struggle ahead by reminding them that this nation had produced incredible acts of valor and heroism by simple American citizens inflamed with the belief in just war and American patriotism. Its star, Gary Cooper (whom the real Alvin York of Tennessee insisted was the only actor capable of playing him on the screen) went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal. The film also won awards for Best Film Editing and was nominated in nine other categories, including Best Picture, Director (Howard Hawks), Supporting Actor (Walter Brennan), and Supporting Actress (Margaret Wycherly). The American Film Institute ranked the film 57th in its 100 most inspirational American movies. It also rated Alvin York 35th in its list of the top 50 heroes in American cinema.
The dramatic story stirred the nation in its presentation of the real life conflict of conscience that York underwent in at first refusing to serve for the religious reasons of being a conscientious objector – indeed the most stirring non-battle scene in the film is Cooper’s rendition of his appearance at the revival meeting when he is swayed by the hymn of “Give Me That Old Time Religion.” In 2008, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress and defined as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Alvin York also had the appeal of being an “All American” (WASP) character from the Appalachian Hill Country, typifying the strong silent type, a he-man and yet devoutly religious who, while fasting and pondering, is given a sign from heaven by a breeze that blows his Bible open to the verse “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” York dutifully reports back for duty convinced that divine revelation has enabled him to serve his country and protect his fellow soldiers and trusting that God’s wisdom and mercy will lead him safely through the trials to come.
“To Hell and Back” was the successful Universal-International 1955 film that starred Audie Murphy as himself based on his 1949 autobiography of the same name and is an account of Murphy’s war experiences as a soldier in the U.S. Army. In many respects, in spite of an arch Irish family name, Audie grew up in a remarkably similar background to that of Alvin York, in a large, poor Baptist sharecropper family in Texas, the grandson of a Confederate veteran. His father deserted the family in 1939 leaving his mother unable to care and feed her nine children. As the eldest son, Audie Murphy, worked from an early age to help support his siblings. Following the death of his mother in 1941 he became head of the family. His brothers and sisters were sent to an elder sister and Murphy enabled her to support them with his GI pay.
Audie, like Alvin, was good looking but very short and with a baby face that would have excluded him from playing any role as a heroic soldier had his story not been the dramatic truth. Audie was rejected by the Marines, the Navy, and the Army paratroopers due to his small size and youthful appearance, eventually winning acceptance only in the Army as an ordinary infantryman. His looks made him the butt of sarcastic remarks by fellow soldiers in the Third Infantry Division in North Africa. Again, this scenario is the incredible background to Audie’s achievements that would make him the most decorated American soldier in history. Truth is stranger than fiction and Hollywood had to play catch-up ball but the public, knowing the truth flocked to see a real life hero and not a professional well groomed actor.
During his many battles in Africa, Sicily, Italy and France, culminating in a feat that earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor, Audie consistently showed incredible determination, innovation and daring by his actions. As German troops closed in on him in an isolated position behind an abandoned M4 Sherman tank, he single-handedly turned back the German attack, thereby saving his company.
No wonder Hollywood succeeded with these two films of “All-American” Heroes and hesitated, only to eventually reject any scenario for a third film that could have and should have been made about a man who would have completed a trilogy of great combat heroes and one, who unlike the previous two, represented a first generation of ethnic-Americans with an unpronouncable name. This is all the more regrettable because, Slavic Americans, Jews, and Blacks all deserved being given a national screen hero just as courageous but from a totally different background than Murphy and York whose names had become universally known. Even shortening Franciszek Gabryszewski to “Gabbi Gabreski” did not help much or convince Hollywood that America’s most successful flying Ace deserved to be represented on the screen -see NER November 2010, “What’s in a name?“
Gabbi racked up 28 definite kills against German pilots in aerial combat and became one of only seven U.S. combat pilots to become an ace (officially recognized after five victories in aerial combat) in two wars. Gabreski went on to command two fighter squadrons and had six command tours at group or wing level, including one in Korea.
His father, Stanley Gabryszewski emigrated from Poland to Oil City, Pennsylvania in the early 1900s and owned and operated a market which employed all his children. The parents stinted and saved to enable Gabbi to enter Notre Dame in 1938, but, he initially did quite poorly and was in danger of flunking out. During his second year at Notre Dame he buckled down to prepare for Army Air Corps recruiters who visited the campus and presented him with a career opportunity that appealed to his patriotic instincts.
His initial performance here too was poor – he was a mediocre trainee, and was forced to pass a “do or die” elimination flight in order to continue training. The German invasion of Poland added a new motivation that ignited his determination to succeed – like millions of other Polish-Americans, they had a double score to settle with the Axis. Here too – we have all the drama of a Hollywood fictional scenario except it was the truth.
During the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Gabreski, stationed in Hawaii, joined several members of his squadron in flying P-36 fighters attempting to intercept the attackers, but too late – the Japanese had already withdrawn. He closely followed reports about the Battle of Britain and the role played in it by Polish RAF squadrons, especially the valiant, legendary No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron. This was Gabreski’s chance! Since Polish squadrons had proven their worth within the RAF and since he himself was of Polish origin and spoke Polish, he offered to serve as a liaison officer to the Polish squadrons and learn all he could from their experience. The idea was approved by his superiors and he left Hawaii for Washington, D.C. in September 1942, where he received a promotion to captain.
His meteoric rise to fame occurred within a period of less than eighteen months. On May 22, 1944, Gabreski shot down three FW 190s over a Luftwaffe airfield in northwest Germany equaling the record for total “kills” as the leading ace in the European theater of Operations; on July 5, 1944, he became America’s leading ace with a score of 28 destroyed German fighter and bomber planes, matching the total at the time of confirmed victories of the Pacific Theatre’s top American ace. This total was never surpassed by any U.S. pilot fighting the Luftwaffe.
Had his career ended here, there would have been ample material to make a dramatic war film honoring him, but once again, no Hollywood script writer could have dreamed up the sequel to his combat accomplishments.
On July 20, 1944, Gabreski reached the 300-hour combat time limit for Eighth Air Force fighter pilots and was about to leave the European combat theater to return home to a hero’s welcome and reassignment. He had already advised his sweetheart Kay Cochran to proceed with wedding plans. His home town of Oil City, had raised $2,000 for a wedding present in anticipation of his return.
Incredibly (once again truth is stranger than fiction) instead of flying home that day as scheduled, he learned that a bomber escort mission to Russelheim, Germany, was planned and he requested to “fly just one more.” Upon returning from the mission, he observed several Heinkel He 111s parked on the airfield at Bassenheim, Germany, waiting as ‘sitting ducks” for his attack. He made one strafing run and dissatisfied, returned for a second pass. He passed so low his plane’s propeller clipped the runway, causing his engine to vibrate violently and he had to crash land. Gabreski fled to nearby woods and eluded capture for five days before being captured. After being interrogated by Obergefreiter Hanns Scharff, Gabreski was sent to Stalag Luft I. He was liberated when Soviet forces seized the camp in April 1945.
But wait! – as the tv commercials proclaim. …”There’s more!” The Air-force sent him to Columbia University after the war to complete his degree and study Russian. He earned a B.A. in Political Science and returned to service becoming commander of his former unit – The 56th Fighter group now flying jet F-80 Shooting stars. The Korean war saw Gabreski return to combat and on July 8, 1951, flying his fifth mission in an F-86, he shot down a MiG 15, followed by MiG kills on September 2 and October 2. He ended up with six credited kills of North Korean jet MIGS which made him an ace for the second time.
Why did Hollywood miss a chance to dramatize the accomplishments of a hero of no less dramatic stature than Sergeant York or Audie Murphy? Film fans can imagine many of the hypothetical scenes in such a production that would have portrayed Gabreski starting out as a “Polack from the wrong side of the tracks” (a line used by Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire). If there had been plans by one of the major studios to produce such a film, movie fans would have been salivating over which “star” should play him – would it be Gary Cooper again, or Humphrey Bogart, Victor Mature, Charlton Heston, or Jimmy Stewart (a real veteran combat pilot)? No one of similar “he-man” stature among today’s stars comes to mind.
Were Sergeant York and Audie Murphy – simply in the right time and the right place because the wars they fought in were universally supported by American public opinion whereas the subsequent conflicts in Korea, Viet-Nam and Iraq were much less popular? Of course these conflicts too had their heroes but no one name captured the personification of heroism and bravery. Did Gabbi Gabreski miss out on cinematic immortality because “diversity” was not valued on the screen. He didn’t meet the image then prevailing, that “all-American” stardom included a strong element of being identified as a recognizable part of the WASP majority or was America simply war weary by 1945 and that one war hero per war was adequate for the public?
What can be agreed upon is that his name does deserve to live forever in the annals of American military history and that American youth needs to be much more familiar with our heroes – something not taught in most schools today. And why is this? Not simply to demonstrate the historical record of patriots who performed exceptionally in battle. Each one of the three heroes had to face not only the enemy but adversity – the initial prejudice of their fellow soldiers, the weight of public opinion (York was ostracized for a time because of his commitment to pacifism), the failure to generate respect due to physical appearance (Murphy), or ethnic background and a sense of past failure at school and in his early flight training (Gabreski). It is for those reasons that “Sergeant York” and “To Hell and Back” were such memorable films and why Hollywood missed a chance to immortalize Franciszek Gabryszewski.
Norman Berdichevsky is the author of The Left is Seldom Right and Modern Hebrew: The Past and Future of a Revitalized Language.
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