WWII Veteran Gabe Gabrelcik Flew B-24 Missions to Guard Allied Shipping
LEXINGTON PARK, MD. (2006) — He’s a total nitpick when it comes to detail and maintains all records, neat and clean. As strong as a mule house, “stronger in the back than in the head” Robert Francis Gabrelcik, 84, more famous in St. Mary’s by his nickname “Gabe”, said he was a farm boy from Minnesota who cows loved to be around with.
“That’s because I have nice warm hands,” the man who is a pioneer of the Test Pilot School and a founding father of the town of Lexington Park said at his office on a Friday morning in 2006.
Gabrelcik donated land for the Lexington Park Library, part of the land for the new Bay District Volunteer Fire department, the Lexington Park Volunteer Rescue Squad and many other services for the community and the Navy.
Gabrelcik was a Navy aviator during World War Two, having served the Star-Spangled Banner for more than three and half years. He fought in the skies from a base at Dunkeswell, Britain, between August 2, 1944, to March 19, 1945, keeping the Germans at bay from the limeys.
As a 20-year-old Gabrelcik was in Seattle working at the Seattle-Tacoma Shipyard in the summer and fall of 1942. He said he was walking down the streets of Seattle one day and Navy’s golden wings and displayed on a storefront caught his fancy. “So, I went inside to check how I can become a naval aviator,” he said.
Before long, he was accepted in the Navy as a cadet officer, called V5. “At that time, they did not know how to see if anyone is coordinated or not. By that I mean, if a person is able to scratch his head with one hand, and his butt with the other,” he said.
Gabrelcik said he was sent to Wenatchee, Washington, on December 15, 1942, to see if he is coordinated. He was there for almost three months of rigorous regimentation, including book work, and was among five people selected who were then sent onwards to Del Monte, California.
The Navy had rented the prestigious and scenic Hotel Del Monte for $33,000 a month to house batches of 250 cadet officers who underwent intensive training there during World War Two. “That was once the top resort on West Coast,” Gabrelcik said. There were beautiful hostesses to serve meals to the cadets, he said.
The regimentation nonetheless was tough. “We were given half day off in one whole month to go to the town in Monterey,” he said.
After Del Monte, another year of rigorous pre-flight training and academics followed at Hutchinson, Kansas; and Pensacola and Jacksonville, Florida. “They wanted you to be smart up there too,” Gabrelcik points at his head. He said anyone who flunked twice in the tests would not have a chance to wear an officer’s cap but would rather get a white sailor’s cap. After the training was completed, Gabrelcik was dispatched to Dunkeswell, England, in Squadron No. 10.
Great Britain was almost on the verge of crumbling under German pressure when the first American troops arrived on British shores. “Churchill later said they were just three days short of surrender,” he recalls.
Gabrelcik said the Germans subs were crossing into the English Channel almost unimpeded and Britain, facing a shortage of fuel, was not in a position to thwart them.
“I flew 22 missions. We were hunting German submarines,” Gabrelcik said. The main duty of B-24 bombers was to escort the British war and commercial ships from as far as 600 miles back to the safety of British coasts and keep Germans submarines at bay.
At least on four occasions, Gabrelcik stared straight into the eyes of death.
On one occasion he was in the pilot seat, and the B24 bomber was stuck in an icy and stormy night. “The whole crew was there. I was in the pilot seat. After the plane touched the ground, it was sliding cockeyed, sideways on the runway. I did not want to push the outside prop or touch the brake. It slowed down and gradually taxied off,” he said.
At least on three different missions, German aircraft in droves of four came after the B24 he was in, he said. Gabrelcik said if an enemy aircraft managed to sneak under a B24 the plane would become defenseless. “We were chased by the enemy. So, we headed for the water. At least three times we called Spitfires, who came out fast. The German would never fight the Spitfires, they would leave,” he said. He said the Germans air casualty was high, and German pilots were ordered by their high command not to engage in dogfights.
Gabrelcik’s chance to fly did not come automatically, however. His wit and sense of humor helped him a lot. “I care two hoots if people make fun of me,” he said.
Frustrated at not getting enough chance to be in action at Dunkeswell, he got half of his mustache cut off. The commanding officer was shocked to see him and asked him what the problem was. “If I am a half-ass pilot, I should better have a half-ass mustache,” he replied. That put him into action.
Awards and honors won by Gabrelcik’s include Victory Ribbon World War II, American Area Campaign Ribbon, and European African (One Star) Air Medals.
Gabrelcik browses through his more than 60-year-old aviation logbook he maintained as a pilot. He said some strange things did happen that no one buys the story when he tells them about it.
The main officer-in-charge of the operation on a stormy night in England later surprised him by helping him get into Patuxent River Naval Air Testing Center in a higher grade. “Lucky,” Gabrelcik said he replied when the officer asked him how he got the job.
“We got along awfully well with the limeys,” he said and recalls the Brits used to call American soldiers, Yanks. “But it was all acceptable, and no one felt bad about it,” he said.
An astute investor even during the bitter war days, Gabrelcik would send one hundred dollars each month to his father who would invest the money in his farming business. “But I told my dad I am not interested in farming. When I got home, he said, ‘here’s your money.’”
Gabrelcik used his savings to start his first business at age 24, a Lincoln-Mercury dealership in Lexington Park. He later expanded his interests into real estate and home developments and later became Chairman of the Board of Maryland Bank & Trust, which was sold to Old Line Bank in 2010.