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
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
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.
Nostalgia Magazine, November, 2001.