Legends of World War II
Lt. Col Matt Urban
Francis “Gabby” Gabreski
The Ripkowski Brothers
Janusz Zurakowski


Lt. Col. Matt Urban:
"I Never Tried To Be A Hero"

Matt Urban died March 4, 1995. Efforts are now underway to have his image printed on a stamp of the United States Postal Service.

HOLLAND, Mich.—Retired Lt. Col. Matt Urban never pursued the recognition he received. However, the fortunate discovery of missing paperwork—filed 35 years earlier—resulted in the Congressional Medal of Honor for Urban.

"When I came home, I never thought about the war," said Urban. "That’s why the medal was 35 years late. I knew that there was an application in. The sergeant put it in ... I just never pursued it."


Humble about his accolades, Urban is one of the most-decorated World War II combat veterans in United States history.

He is also referred to as "The Ghost," a title Urban says was given to him by German soldiers. "I guess it was because I kept coming back," he said. "I was shot through the leg, and they thought I was gone but I came back. I was shot through the arm and came back. I was even shot through the neck and went AWOL, hitchhiked rides on planes. . .and got into Germany with my troops, crossed the channel with no voice at all. . .It took me about two weeks to get there."

In July, 1944, after the D-Day landings, Urban was involved in Operation Cobra, aimed at getting Allied forces out of Normandy and into northern France.

He still was recovering from a leg wound suffered after destroying two tanks with a bazooka. A third tank fired at him, and a shrapnel cut into the back of his leg.

A return to combat after a short stay in an English hospital found Urban inspiring to troops under fire. His actions gave them confidence which saved their lives. A few months later, he was shot through the neck. "The one through my neck finished me."

He returned home and struggled to regain his voice. He read the paper every morning out loud for five years until his voice started coming back.

Urban is a graduate of Cornell University. A week after graduation he found himself in Ft. Bragg, N .C. and eventually on the beaches of North Africa. From there he and the 60th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division moved to Sicily, Belgium, France and Germany.

Urban served as platoon leader, morale officer/special services officer, company executive officer and company commander, battalion executive officer and battalion commander.

Before his passing, Urband worked as recreation director for the City of Holland, and spoke to about 60 groups each year about his war experiences. His advice to young soldiers: "Take care of yourself, follow orders, and don’t try to be a hero. I never tried to be a hero."

Urban’s Medals

  • Medal of Honor
  • Silver Star (one oak leaf cluster)
  • Bronze Star (two oak leaf clusters with V Device)
  • Purple Heart (six oak leaf clusters)
  • Presidential Unit Citation (one oak leaf cluster)
  • American Campaign Medal
  • African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal (one Silver and one Bronze Service Star)
  • World War II Victory Medal
  • Combat Infantryman Badge
  • Croix de Guerru with Silver Gilt Star (Individual)
  • Fourragers
  • New York State Conspicuous Cross (four Silver and one Gold Cluster)

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The Legendary Francis "Gabby" Gabreski
America Great Fighter Ace

Francis S. Gabreski, the leading American air ace in Europe in World War II, died January 31, 2002 at Huntington Hospital on Long Island. Gabreski, who lived in Dix Hills, N.Y., was 83.

Flying single-engine P-47 Thunderbolt fighters, “Gabby” Gabreski downed 28 Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs over France and Germany between Aug. 24, 1943, and July 5, 1944, and destroyed three more German aircraft on the ground.

He is the third-ranked all-time fighter ace. Gabreski was captured in late July 1944 after crash-landing near Koblenz, Germany, on what was to have been his last mission, and he spent 10 months as a prisoner of war.

He became an ace (a pilot shooting down at least five enemy planes) in the Korean War as well, flying an F- 86 Sabre jet. He shot down six Soviet-built MIG-15 fighters and shared credit for the downing of another.

By the end of World War II, only three American pilots— Maj. Richard Bong with 40 “kills,” Maj. Thomas McGuire with 38 and Cmdr. David McCampbell of the Navy with 34, all in the Pacific theater—had eclipsed Gabreski’s total.

“Wait till you get ‘em right in the sights,” he once said, explaining his technique. “Then short bursts . There’s no use melting your guns.”

SON OF IMMIGRANTS. Francis Stanley Gabreski was born in Oil City, Pa., on Jan. 28, 1919, one of five children of Polish immigrants. When he was 13, his father, a grocer, took him to Cleveland to see an air race, and he found a lifelong hero: the race’s winner, Jimmy Doolittle, who would command the Eighth Air Force in World War II.

Following the path of an older brother, Gabreski attended Notre Dame, but he was captivated by flying lessons and left college in the summer of 1940, after his sophomore year, to join an Army Air Corps’ cadet program.

He completed the program, graduated from basic training in March 1941 as a second lieutenant, and joined a fighter unit at Wheeler Field in Hawaii. On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, he was shaving when he heard the roar of low-flying aircraft and the rumble of explosions. He scrambled to a P-36 fighter and flew over Pearl Harbor at 4,000 feet. American ships lay on their sides, burning, but the Japanese aircraft were nowhere in sight.

A PATRIOT OF THREE NATIONS. Then, as the tempo of war increased, he learned that the air war in Europe would take priority over the air war in the Pacific. Anxious to get into combat as quickly as possible, he came up with a plan. Since he spoke Polish fluently, he would try to get himself assigned to one of the Polish fighter squadrons attached to the RAF. These Polish fighter pilots had been responsible for shooting down one out of every four German planes shot down by fighter aircraft during the Battle of Britain.

Gabreski proposed to learn their tactics, then teach those same tactics to American fighter pilots who would be coming later to fight in the skies over Europe. It was one of those plans given little chance of success, but in the end, it was approved all the way to Washington.

Attached to the Three-One-Five Polish Squadron in November of 1942, Gabreski began flying the famed British Spitfire. Combat mission followed combat mission, all without a single victory. Even so, his valiant efforts brought him to the attention of General Wladislaw Sikorski, who awarded him the Polish Cross of Valor.

ASSIGNMENT WITH HISTORY. In February of 1943, Gabreski was reassigned to the United States Army Air Force. He got his first victory, a Focke-Wulf 190 near Dreus, France, on August 24, 1943.

Other victories quickly followed until his last mission on July 20, 1944. On that fateful day, Gabreski walked over to the Operations Room of the famed Fifty-Sixth Fighter Group, commanded by the renowned Colonel Hubert Zemke. The Fifty-Sixth Fighter Group would end the war with forty-four fighter aces and a record of downing more than one thousand German planes.

As he took his seat Gabreski caught the eye of Lt. Colonel David Schilling, another great fighter ace. Their eyes twinkled as they silently communicated that deep bond of affection that brave and courageous men share with one another. Schilling was briefing a group of pilots on the day’s mission. After listening for a few minutes, Gabreski asked a question.

“Who is going to lead the Sixty-First Squadron today?” The affable Schilling smiled and shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. Do you want to lead it? Do you want to make this your very last mission before you go on leave?” It was a challenge Gabreski could not resist.

“Ohhh, why not,” replied Gabreski; only days before he had received a telegram from Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. America’s leading fighter ace in World War I had heartily congratulated him as he had another Fifty-Sixth Fighter Ace, Bob Johnson, for breaking Rickenbacker’s long -standing record.

But Gabreski had a secret objective that was more important to him than downing German fighter planes: he knew that whenever a bomber fell victim to a Luftwaffe fighter, ten Americans went down with it. Saving American lives was more important to him than downing German fighters, but he could not do one without doing the other.

AS HE CLIMBED into the cockpit of his Republic P-47, the most heavily armored plane in the world, Gabreski said his prayers. He waved to his ground crew and slowly pulled out. Moments later, his squadron of P-47s, weighted down with external long range fuel tanks, headed for Frankfurt, Germany, more than five hundred miles away. Gabreski snapped out a series of terse orders, then shoved his stick forward and went down in a screaming dive with his wingman tucked in close beside.They pulled out at the last moment, flashed over the airdrome at 425 miles per hour only ten feet off the runway, and lined up the sitting German bombers in their gunsights.

As he skimmed over the airfield, Gabreski fired his eight .50 caliber machine guns in momentary bursts. White flashes appeared here and there on the sitting German bombers as his armor-piercing incendiaries found their marks.

Then Gabreski did what he had instructed others never to do: he came around for a second pass. The grueling pace of war was wearing him down. For weeks even before D-Day, he had been dive-bombing German bridges, strafing German trains, hitting coastal gun emplacements, attacking armored convoys, and in each attack he was met by a withering hail of anti-aircraft fire. He was tired, and worse, he was beginning to make little mistakes. Little mistakes, he knew all too well, had ways of becoming big mistakes.

But now, as he leveled off for his second pass, Gabreski realized that his firing trajectory was too flat. His bullets were going straight over his targets. So he increased his angle of attack. But at ten feet off the runway, there is little room for angle adjustments.

It happened in a split second. His propeller tips inadvertently touched the runway.Instantly Gabreski pulled back on his stick, but it was too late. His propeller tips were hopelessly bent. And now a terrible vibration began to shake the plane. To compound the crisis, oil was splattering all over his windscreen making forward visibility most difficult. Realizing he could not possibly regain enough altitude to bail out, Gabreski looked around for a spot to make a crash-landing. Below him was a wheat field. He clipped the tops of the wheat going in to slow the plane down. Then, fast running out of wheat field, he jammed his stick forward and forced the plane’s nose into the ground.

The plane’s tail reared up in a cloud of dirt and dust and his fighter almost flipped over. Then it settled back and caught fire. Smoke quickly began to fill his cockpit. But when Gabreski tried to push his canopy back so he could get out, it would not budge. It had jammed in the crash. Coughing from the smoke now filling his lungs, he tried again, but no luck.

Putting his feet on the dashboard he pushed back with a terrible desperation. So hard did he push that his fingers began to bleed. But this time the canopy moved back several inches. Again, it slid back a few more inches. Finally, he was able to stick his head out and gulp some fresh air. Moments later he wiggled up and out, then fell backwards to the ground, hurting his right ankle.

“WE HAVE BEEN EXPECTING YOU.” Now a new problem confronted him. German troops from the airfield he had just strafed were closing in fast. Gabreski saw them pouring from their trucks not far away. If he could just make it to the forest on the other side, well, he might be able to make good his escape. But as he hobbled across the wheat field he heard a sharp snap by his right ear. Looking back, he saw a German soldier firing at him from beside his downed plane. Then other soldiers began running after him, firing as they chased him.

At that moment, a diving P-47 opened fire and strafed the wheat field from one end to the other. In all the racket, dust, fire and smoke, Gabreski was able to make it into the forest. For the next five days he managed to elude the Germans, until exhausted, dehydrated, and bearded, he was finally spotted by a farmer and turned over to German authorities.

An interrogator told him, “We have been expecting you for a long time,” and showed him a file that held a copy of the military newspaper Stars and Stripes describing his milestone 28th kill.

Until his release at the war’s end, Gabreski was a Prisoner of War at Stalag Luft I, Barth, Germany . Then he and his fellow Americans were returned to the States where they picked up their lives as free men once again.

When he returned home, he went ahead with interrupted wedding plans and married Catherine Cochran, known as Kay, on June 11, 1945. She died in a car accident in 1993.

Gabreski worked briefly for Douglas Aircraft after the war. Shortly after the Korean War broke out, Gabreski found himself once again in the cockpit, but this time he was flying F-86 jet fighters. He shot down his first MIG on July 8, 1951 and went on to become history’s eighth jet ace.

He served as commander of the 51st Fighter Wing and returned to the United States in June 1952 . He received a ticker-tape parade in San Francisco and was greeted by President Truman at the White House.

He retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1967 after having served for three years as commander of the 52d Fighter Interceptor Wing at Suffolk County Air Force Base in Westhampton Beach. The field, now a general-aviation airport owned by the county and used as well by the New York Air National Guard 106th Rescue Group, was subsequently renamed Francis S. Gabreski Airport.

Gabreski held executive positions with Grumman Aerospace until August 1978, when he was named president of the Long Island Rail Road at New York State Gov. Hugh L. Carey’s behest. He sought out commuters, seeking to win good will for the line, which had long been plagued by malfunctioning equipment. But years of disrepair, cold snaps and heat waves proved to be too much for the line to handle, and Gabreski resigned in 1981.

Gabreski is survived by three sons, six daughters, two sisters, 18 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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The Ripkowski Brothers

Beginning with World War II, Mattie and Stash Ripkowski watched their 12 sons leave home to join the Armed Forces. This patriotic exodus spanned two wars and more than a decade. One by one, the brothers—Bernie, Felix, Alex, August, Leon, Bill, Herman, Franklin, John, Mike, Stanley and Raymond—raised their hands and promised to defend this nation against all enemies.

"To my knowledge, there has never been another family with that many sons from the same parents join the service," said Lt. Cmdr. Ken Satterfield, a Pentagon spokesman.

Unlike the Sullivans, who tragically died when their ship was torpedoed in the Pacific during World War II, the Ripkowskis somehow managed to survive the wars. Today, 11 brothers live near the 200-acre farm their parents worked as sharecroppers during the Great Depression in Dayton, Texas.

"The Ripkowski boys make up almost half the Post," said Dr. S.M. "Doc" Elliott, Commander of Post 512, Dayton, Texas.

Of the 12 brothers, only Raymond is dead and another brother’s peacetime service does not qualify him to be a member of the Legion. The remaining 10 brothers are active Legionnaires and most, at one time or another, have held Post-level offices.

Their service records read something like a history of the military. Felix fought in Africa, Italy, Sicily and France. August served aboard the USS Reno in the Pacific. Raymond’s plane crashed in New Guinea after a bombing run, but he somehow managed to survive. Bernie was in the Aleutians and Alaska with the Army. Alex served in the Army in Europe and Leon’s Army tour took him from Africa to England. Bill island-hopped across the Pacific with the Army and Herman was in the Army in Germany. Franklin started out with the Merchant Marine, then joined the Army. James was part of the Army’s German occupation and Mike was on Okinawa with the Air Force. Stanley served in the Army, then in the Guard.

The Ripkowskis time of service includes World War II through the Korean War.

Altogether, there were 16 Ripkowski kids—12 brothers and four sisters. According to Bernie, Stash Ripkowski was a tough, hard-working Polish immigrant who instilled the same sense of responsibility and duty in his children that he and his wife, Mattie, possessed, enabling them to earn a living from the soil and support their family. According to one of the Ripkowski sisters, Mattie Ripkowski took time each day to write to at least one of her sons.

The Ripkowski brothers were honored by the Dayton community for their sacrifice and service to their country. One of the speakers was Rep. Charles Wilson of Texas. He spoke of values, like the ones possessed by the Ripkowski family. "From the time we were little children," he said, "we were told the truth. Not only have we’ve taught the right values, but through 45 years of peace, we have been willing and able to pay the price. None of this would have been possible without the Ripkowskis and others like them. They were always willing to answer the call. When the trumpet sounded, they were the first to answer." Wilson has entered the Ripkowski brothers’ story into the Congressional Record.

"To this day," said Frank Ripkowski, speaking for his brothers, "it makes us feel proud to be Americans when we see the beautiful Stars and Stripes fluttering in the breeze."

Each brother, and Raymond’s widow, Freda, received a copy of the Congressional Record and a flag that had flown over the Capitol from Congressman Wilson as a tribute to the Ripkowski family’s service to the country.

Said Wilson, "We in east Texas did not go to Canada. And we don’t burn the flag in Dayton, Texas ." People like the Ripkowskis wouldn’t stand for it.

—The Ripkowski Brothers story first appeared in American Legion Magazine.

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Janusz Zurakowski
World’s Greatest Test Pilot Honored in Barry’s Bay Ontario
Polish American Journal, October 2003

(Mr. Zurakowski died Feb. 9, 2004 at his home in Renfrew County's Madawaska Valley after a two-year battle with leukemia, He was 89).

BARRY’S BAY, Ontario, Canada—Almost a thousand people turned out in July (2003) to honor the man Winston Churchill praised for his role in the Battle of Britain in World War II. Janusz Zurakowski, famed test pilot of the Avro Arrow, had a park and museum dedicated in his name in Barry’s Bay, Ontario, where he has lived for over 40 years.

Known to his peers and superior officers as Zura, he was born in Russia in 1914 and emigrated to Poland in 1921. His first flight experience was with gliders, and in 1934 he began training at the air force training school, from which he graduated as a Second Lieutenant. Zura took part in the defense of Poland in 1939 flying an obsolete trainer. When the Polish air force was ordered to seek refuge outside the country, Zura fled to Romania, was smuggled to France, and was chosen to go to England as part of an advance party. From the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve flying Spitfires, Zura became part of a front line squadron on the eve of the Battle of Britain, joined by other Polish pilots. Zura himself was shot down two separate times during the engagement, yet managed to score several victories. When the squadron was reduced to seven pilots from the original 22, they were grounded, and Zura transferred to another unit where he became a training instructor. He later obtained the rank of Squadron Leader and commanded the 316 Squadron.

Decorated by both Poland and England for his distinguished career, Zura became a test pilot at the Gloster Aircraft Company in Britain. He tested the RAF’s first operational jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor, and set a speed record of 520.5 miles per hour in a flight from London to Copenhagen. He left the firm after testing the Javelin when he found that the company ignored the dangerous design flaws in the craft. The Zurakowski family emigrated to Canada where Zura became a test pilot at Avro. It was Zura that flew the first test flight of the Avro Arrow, and then three subsequent fighters. He broke the sound barrier in December 1952 in a CF-10 Mk4. He retired from active test flying in 1958 and, with his family, developed the popular resort Kartuzy Lodge.

His biographer, Bill Zuk, says that Zura was the greatest pilot who never had a pilot’s license. His typical flight maneuvers were unorthodox—upside down and in formation. While testing the GAF Meteor he developed an aerobatic maneuver that became known as the Zurabatic Cartwheel. Janusz Zurakowski is an honorary fellow of the International Society of Experimental Test Pilots; other recipients include Charles Lindbergh and Neil Armstrong.

Zurakowski is now 88 years old, and has lived in the Barry’s Bay area since 1960. Several years ago a movement began to honor this distinguished gentleman, and this past July the dream became reality with the dedication of Zurakowski Park. Zura and his wife Anna looked on as their sons unveiled a replica of the Avro Arrow and a granite statue of Zura himself. Polish Ambassador Pawel Dobrowolski paid special tribute to Zura, stating, “This man is called the Father of Canadian aviation. He has made Canada a nation of flyers. I am proud to say his skills and his love of flying are a product of Poland.”

John Hildebrandt, chair of the Zurakowski Park Committee and a councillor in Madawaska Valley, announced, “It is only fitting that we honor our hero. This park represents our recognition of Janusz’s contributions to the field of aviation and aerospace development throughout the world.” Zura’s biographer led off the events with a presentation of the highlights of his brilliant career and a fly-over from a rare remaining Spitfire plane thrilled the crowd. But it was Zura himself who commanded the attention of the gathered throngs.

“I don’t think I deserve this,” he said quietly. “I am very old. I hope this place will be a reminder of the thousands of people who wanted to develop a Canadian aviation industry and who worked so hard.” As Janusz Zurakowski and his family drove away from the park, the crowd spontaneously burst into a rendition of “Sto Lat,” the best way to honor this humble yet illustrious man.

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