LEXINGTON PARK, MD. Gabe is relentless when it comes to details and maintains all of his records neat and clean.
As strong as a mule, “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.
“That’s because I have nice warm hands,” the man who is a pioneer of the Test Pilot School and founding father of the town of Lexington Park said at his office on a Friday morning.
“So you want to write about all the bad things I did to Lexington Park,” Gabrelcik joked when first called for an interview. His “bad” things include donating land for the Lexington Park Library, part of the land for the fire department, and many other services for the community and the Navy.
Gabrelcik was a Navy aviator during World War Two, having served for more than three and half years. He fought at Dunkeswell, Britain, between August 2, 1944, to March 19, 1945, keeping the Germans at bay from the limeys. The British were at that time called limeys because they sucked limes to prevent scurry.
Interviewing Gabrelcik is a Herculean task for two reasons. He wants to speak off the record most of the time as he does not want to hurt anyone’s sentiments. Two, he barely allows you to take down notes.
He is wary of interviews as bitter truths can be hurtful, he thought, especially when a person is no longer alive.
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 the Navy’s golden wings ad 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 into the Navy as a cadet officer called V5. “At that time, they did not know how to see if anyone was coordinated or not. By that, I mean, if a person can 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 was coordinated. He was there for almost three months of rigorous regimentation, including bookwork, 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 challenging. “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 instead 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 primary duty of B24 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.
He was in the pilot seat on one occasion, and the B24 bomber was stuck in an ice storm one night. “The whole crew was there. I was in the pilot seat. After the plane touched the ground, it slid 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. Gabrelcik said if an enemy aircraft managed to sneak under a B24, the plane would become defenseless. “We were chased by the enemy planes. So, we headed for the water. At least three times, we called Spitfires, who came out fast. The Germans 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 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 bought the story when he told them about it.
The primary officer-in-charge of the operation on the stormy night in England later surprised him by helping him get into the 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 awfully well with the limeys,” he said and recalled the Brits used to call American soldiers Yanks. “But it was all acceptable, and no one felt bad about it,” he said.
Even during the bitter war days, an astute investor, Gabrelcik would regularly send 100 dollars to his father, who would invest the money in his farming business. “But I told my dad I am not interested in farming, and 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.
(Editor’s Note: This interview took place in 2006. Gabe provided the land for the new Lexington Park Library, the Bay District Firehouse, and the Lexington Park Volunteer Rescue Squad. Gabe died on Saturday, September 29, 2012.)