Gumm and other fighter pilots of his era carried out their stateside training in the aircraft designed before the war, the P-39 Airacobra and P-40 Warhawk. The P-38 Lightning and P-47 Thunderbolt were already in inventory and in the war, but despite plenty of wishful thinking they lacked the range to escort bombers deep into Germany, as well as the maneuverability at high altitude to match German fighters like the Messerschmitt Bf 109.
The P-51 was never written into any AAF specifications. North American Aviation designed it for the British, and the British came up with the idea of replacing its Allison engine with the Rolls-Royce Merlin, which was built in the United States by Packard and was superior to the Allison, which never overcame all of its flaws. With its half-British heritage, there were strong institutional biases in the AAF against the P-51, and the top brass showed little interest in the early Mustangs and even tried to kill off the plane.
More or less by accident, the P-51 did reach the USAF inventory. When the pilots of the 354th FG arrived in England in late 1943, none had ever logged an hour in the Mustang. They went through what amounted to rushed, on-the-job training to become the first American Mustang pilots in combat.
Until the advent of the P-51, twin-engined, two-crew fighters like the Messerschmitt Bf 110 Zerstörer (Destroyer), which used air-to-air projectiles as well as guns, posed a great danger to American bomber formations. But the Bf 110 could not maneuver effectively against a single-engine, single-seat fighter. Mustangs began to appear in numbers and their first big achievement was to virtually wipe the skies clean of Bf 110s. Chuck Gumm began this process near Brunswick on Feb. 21, 1944 when he shot down a Bf 110 simply by closing in on it and shooting.
Gumm became the first Mustang ace.
A fortnight later, on March 1, 1944, Gumm took off from Boxted on a routine shakedown flight. He wasn’t going into harm’s way. He was merely checking out some maintenance work on a P-51B. It was aircraft 43-12165 and not the plane he usually flew, 43-6320, named My Toni after his wife. Could he have been a little too relaxed that morning? After all, he was the top American Mustang pilot in the war, credited with seven and one-half aerial victories, and today was going to be an easy day. “We all wore seat belts and shoulder harness,” said squadron mate Gross, reflecting on Gumm’s fate that day. “In the beginning they were fastened separately, then we got a ring that locked both seat and shoulder belts.” It was exactly the same cockpit arrangement as on German fighters like the Messerschmitt Bf 109. Could Gumm have forgotten to strap in?
He had barely lifted off the runway when he encountered engine trouble. He may have had an exchange of words with the tower at Boxted. No one seems to know. Heading out from the airfield, the problem got worse and Gumm was suddenly struggling to control his Mustang.
Gumm realized he was over the town of Nayland. If he bailed out to save himself his Mustang would crash in the English town and claim innocent lives. He decided to stay with the P-51B.
Gumm struggled to find his way down, searching for a spot for an emergency landing. He neared an open field but was too low and the wing caught a tree. The Mustang cartwheeled, throwing Gumm from the cockpit to his death. Chuck Gumm died as the leading ace for the 354th group, with 7 1/2 victories to his credit. He was 23 years old, with a wife and 10-month-old daughter.
A Nayland resident was later quoted in Nostalgia magazine: “We were astonished that he didn¹t jump out. Instead, he wove the plane above our streets to avoid the chimneys. Clearly, Mr. Gumm was concerned for our lives.”
In St. James Church in Nayland, where the community has congregated since the 1400s, a plaque honors Chuck Gumm. Today, Gumm is interred at Greenwood Memorial Terrace in his hometown, Spokane, Wash.
Gumm symbolizes all the men who flew P-51s in Europe. Before they arrived, American bomber formations were in grave jeopardy. After they settled into action, they defeated the Luftwaffe. Sadly, although Gumm scored victories of his own, he never saw the larger victory that he helped to achieve.