Gabreski's parents had emigrated from Poland to Oil City, Pennsylvania, in the early 1900s. His father Stanley Gabryszewski owned and operated a market putting in 12 hours days. Like many immigrant owned businesses back then, the whole family worked at the market, but Gabreski's parents had dreams for him including attending Notre Dame University. He did so in 1938, but unprepared for real academic work almost failed during his freshman year. During his second year at Notre Dame, Army Air Corps recruiters visited the campus. Gabreski went to hear them. Primarily because his friends were going. The Army's offer impressed him and he enrolled reporting in July 1940.
Assigned as a fighter pilot with the 45th Pursuit Squadron, at Wheeler Field, Hawaii 2nd Lt. Gabreski trained on both the Curtiss P-36 Hawk and the newer Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. He met his future wife, Catherine Kay Cochran in Hawaii and became engaged shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. During that action Gabreski joined several members of his squadron in flying P-36 fighters in an attempt to intercept the attackers. During the spring and summer of 1942, Gabreski remained with the 45th Fighter Squadron training in newer model P-40s, and in Bell P-39 Airacobras that the unit began to receive.
On February 27, 1943, Gabreski became part of the 56th Fighter Group flying the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt assigned to the 61st Fighter Squadron, and quickly became a flight leader. He was immediately resented by many of his fellow pilots. On June 9, he took command of the 61st Fighter Squadron when its CO was moved up to group deputy commander. This also stirred ill feelings toward him since he had jumped over two more senior pilots. June 26, and did not subside until he recorded his first credited kill of an Fw 190 near Dreux, France on August 24, 1943.On November 26, 1943, the 56th FG was assigned to cover the withdrawal of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers that had bombed Bremen, Germany. The P-47s arrived to find the bombers under heavy attack near Oldenburg and dove into the battle. Gabreski recorded his fourth and fifth kills to become an ace, but had a close call with death on December 11, when a 20 mm .79 in. cannon shell lodged in his engine without exploding destroying its turbocharger. Low on fuel, and ammunition, Gabreski outmaneuvered a Bf 109 until it succeeded in placing a burst of fire into the P-47, disabling its engine. Gabreski stayed in the airplane however until it restarted at a lower altitude where the turbocharger was not needed.
On May 22, Gabreski shot down three Fw 190s over a Luftwaffe airfield in northwest Germany. He tied Johnson as the leading ace in the European Theater of Operations on June 27 passing Eddie Rickenbacker's record from World War I in the process, and on July 5, 1944 became America's leading ace in the ETO, with Gabby's score of 28 destroyed matching the total at the time of confirmed victories of the Pacific Theatre's top American ace, Richard Bong. Returning from the mission, Gabreski observed Heinkel He 111s parked on the airfield at Bassenheim, Germany, and took his flight down to attack.Gabreski's first