A Hero

A Hero's Choice: Lt. Charles Gumm
By Rebecca Anne Harmon


Five thousand miles away from his hometown of Spokane, Washington, the engine on Lieutenant Charles Gumm's plane stalled. As the plane began to hurl itself towards the small English village of Nayland, he faced the most important decision of his life. He had two options and only a minute to decide. He could parachute out of the plane and save his own life, or steer the plane away from the village and its citizenry to his own peril. He was 23 years old, with a wife and 10-month-old daughter waiting for him at home. He had his whole life ahead of him, but only one choice.

He held fast to the controls as his plane plummeted to the earth. Keeping steady, he steered his crippled plane through the streets, avoiding the rooftops of Nayland. The villagers looked up, at first in fear for their town and their lives. As the plane fell closer to the earth, they realized that the young American pilot was risking his own safety to save them, and they watched in awe. A Nayland resident recalls, “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.”

Gumm had only a few minutes to glimpse the village for which he sacrificed his life. As soon as his plane cleared the village, his wing clipped a tree. Gumm was thrown from the wreck and died instantly. His plane crashed and burst into flame.

Although Gumm's life was short, the 23 years he spent on this earth prepared him for his heroic finale. He was born and raised in Spokane. He graduated from Rogers High School and later attended Gonzaga University for two years. He married his high school sweetheart, and they had a daughter named Toni together. Gumm decided on a career of service. Following in his father's footsteps, Gumm joined the Spokane Fire Department. In 1942, he enlisted in the United States Air Force, eager to serve his country.

His older sister, Lucille McLaughlin of Spokane, remembers him fondly. “I can still picture him the day he left, a tall, good-looking boy with dark hair and pretty blue eyes. I wish things had turned out differently because I miss him terribly. But I¹m proud of the way my brother lived his life.”

While serving in the Air Force, Gumm impressed his superiors and peers with both his performance as a pilot and his kind spirit. His squadron leader, Lieutenant Colonel George Bickell of Nutley, New Jersey, was quoted in a fighter base dispatch as saying, “Charley was one of the most popular kids in the squadron. He was quiet and unassuming, but in action he was a killer if I ever saw one.”

Indeed, Lieutenant Charles Gumm had a brief but remarkable military career. He was the leading ace in his fighter group and is credited with gunning down seven and a half German planes. He was the first mustang to shoot down a German plane in the European theater. He was honored to wear the Air Force medal and three oak leaf clusters.

Fierce in combat, Gumm had a reputation with his fellow officers as a kind-hearted man. He stayed clear-headed in battle and wasn't afraid to risk himself to come to the aid of another soldier in distress. Gumm made a name for himself in a raid over Frankfort in January of 1944. He noticed a single plane out of formation, under serious fire by the Nazis, and took a 13,000-foot power dive to come to its rescue. Gumm¹s own words tell what happened next:  “At first I saw only four, but after I came on them I saw about eight. Things were moving fast.”

An ME 109 came in for an attack. “He tried to turn out and away as I approached. I gave him a burst which struck him broadside. His ship blew up and I pulled away to avoid hitting him. I found myself right on the tail of another; not more than two seconds later. I gave him all I had and he peeled off flaming and started to the ground in a tight spiral.” Gumm fought one more plane in this battle but didn¹t stay to watch it go down.

In February of 1944, after having just crossed the English Channel, Gumm and his mustang group were surprised by the Germans. The mustang group rose to the occasion, destroying 14 German planes and damaging eight. Gumm retold his part in the battle:  “I saw a number of ME 410s below me. I peeled off and took after them. I tacked onto one closely and gave him several bursts. He blew up and the fuselage fell off in pieces.”

“I pulled up and found two JU 88s. When they saw me they both went into a barrel roll downward, one following the other. I took after the last one and stayed with him, following his maneuvers. His rear gunner was firing at me with all he had, and I was exchanging fire with him. He went into a dive and never came out; his rear gunner kept firing at me even while he was headed for the deck. I was in a dive right after him but I managed to pull out at about 3,000 feet. I saw him hit the ground and blow up.”

A few weeks later, on March 1, 1944, Lieutenant Gumm took his last flight. It wasn't into battle, just a routine check over the village of Nayland. Although the engine on his plane failed, Gumm¹s courage did not. He made the choice of a hero.

World War II left its mark all over the structures and landscape of Europe. Astonishing feats of architecture and design were crushed into ruins. On the buildings left standing, there are holes and scorches from fire and bombs. In the countryside, grass grows over hills littered with the tombstones of thousands who lost their lives. However, the quaint English village of Nayland proudly displays its mark of war. In St. James Church, a place where the community has congregated since the 1400's, hangs a plaque bearing the name of Lieutenant Charles Gumm. Outside the church, near a cemetery, sits a bench that is dedicated to the Spokane native who became a hero far from home.

Published in Nostalgia Magazine, November, 2001.



Article reproduced by courtesy of:

Mark Carter, Editor
Nostalgia Magazine
1703 N. Normandie St.
Spokane, WA 99205, USA.