What do a train to the East End, a heat wave and a flying ace have in common? More than you could ever imagine.
Let’s start with the heat wave, which hit New York in 1980. As heat waves go, this one was one of the worst ever. During this time, the Hamptons was becoming known as a playground for the rich and famous. In addition to its regular commuter passengers, the Long Island Rail Road was already bringing droves of whining and drunk people to the East End.
While all this was happening, in another part of New York, a man was sitting behind a desk in a smartly decorated office. The title on his nameplate indicated that he was the President of the Long Island Rail Road. For him, the office must have seemed particularly nice, especially considering some of his previous digs. Little known to most people, the President of the LIRR was also a war hero.
Using the cockpit as his office, he flew 166 combat sorties. In total he had 28 kills in Europe and 6.5 in Korea. He was the first American to have kills in two separate wars. On one occasion during WWII, after he had surpassed Eddie Rickenbacker’s WWI kill record, he earned a leave back to the States. While he was waiting to board the transport plane that would take him home, he discovered that a last-minute mission was scheduled for the next day. He off-loaded his bags and stayed to participate. The following day, after a strafing run, he encountered mechanical problems that forced him to crash land his plane. After evading German soldiers for five days, he was eventually captured. From July 20, 1944 until April 1945, he resided as a prisoner of war.
The walls at the railroad offices were not big enough to hold his many accolades, including the Distinguished Flying Cross he was awarded by another president, whose office is oval-shaped. The citation rightfully states that he demonstrated “extraordinary heroism.”
It would seem that a man of this caliber and experience could easily handle the oversight of one railroad that runs out of track at the Atlantic Ocean.
How did a flying ace come into this position? After leaving the Air Force, he worked for Grumman Aerospace, retiring in 1978. He was then asked by embattled New York Governor Hugh Carey to assume the LIRR presidency to improve the financially strapped, state-owned system. It’s believed that the governor was also hoping to ride on the coattails of the hero’s Polish heritage and Long Island affiliations.
But, after what he described as an 18-month struggle with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the President resigned on February 26, 1981, claiming the bureaucratic structure of the LIRR prevented him from improving service and making positive changes to the system.
However, there was likely another reason for his departure. That 1980 heat wave had overwhelmed the LIRR’s air conditioning systems. Complaints rolled in. But there was very little that could be done. The existing air conditioning systems were not designed to accommodate such drastic temperatures. And so, the heat escalated in the trains and at the office of the President. If the MTA would have upgraded the equipment, as suggested by the President, the trains would have most likely been able to better keep up with the heat. But that was not to be. Sending the President into a battle against the heat without the proper equipment would have been like sending him into air combat in a hang-glider.
So it’s widely believed that the President’s ultimate decision to resign was because he was under pressure, partly as a result of the many complaints by LIRR passengers who truly didn’t understand the situation.
In case you are wondering, the fallen President was none other than Francis Stanley “Gabby” Gabreski. He served as Commander of the 52nd Fighter Wing at Suffolk County Air Force Base in Westhampton Beach from August 1964 to October 1967. The base was renamed the Francis S. Gabreski Airport in 1991.
So there you have it. The Hamptons has come into its own, the LIRR keeps on rolling and a flying ace was shot down by a very hot train and a bunch of drunk and whiney passengers.