First Lieutenant Charles F. Gumm Jr. fidgeted in the cockpit of his factory-fresh fighter plane, peered into the distance, and watched for trouble.
Chuck was twenty-two years old and a distant relative of film star Judy Garland, whose real name was Frances Gumm. He was a gentle man, his wife, Toni, liked to say, unassuming and earnest. His handsome face often had a sheepish look accompanied by a faint smile, as if he couldn’t quite believe he was here, doing this. He was so thin his buddies wondered, despite his constant good cheer, if he was healthy. And now Gumm was a P-51B Mustang fighter pilot escorting American bombers to Bremen on December 16, 1943.
With the Merlin engine of his sleek, pointy fighter turning over smoothly in front of him, Gumm peered upward toward a mercilessly bright sun in a region where the weather was usually gray and wet. He squinted. They were only small blemishes at first, but they were getting larger. He was looking at four Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters jockeying into position to attack a box of bombers.
“Looks like we’ll have to climb into them,” said the voice in Gumm’s earphones. That was 1st Lt. Gilbert F. “Deacon” Talbot. His olive-drab P-51B was glinting in the sun off Gumm’s wing. The two men could look at each other, but not see the other’s facial expressions because of their helmets and oxygen masks. Gumm flicked a switch to arm his plane’s four .50-caliber M2 machine guns and knew Talbot was doing the same.
The Messerschmitts were lining up to attack the B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers from behind, a hint that the Luftwaffe pilots might not be skilled enough for a frontal attack from a few degrees above the centerline—the position the Americans called twelve o’clock high. A frontal attack was difficult to pull off, but it gave German fighter pilots their best chance to kill the Americans in the B-17 cockpits.
“Talbot and I climbed after them, and when within four hundred yards range, two of the enemy aircraft saw us and broke left and straight down,” Gumm later said in a report. “We closed on the other two and I dropped back a little to cover Lieutenant Talbot’s tail, but the enemy saw him and broke left and down.
“By then I was almost in a position to fire on my 109, which was still flying straight for the bombers. Lieutenant Talbot pulled up and to the right to cover my tail while I closed to about one hundred yards and fired a two-second burst, noticing no effects. I then closed to about fifty yards and fired a three-second burst, noticing a thin trail of smoke coming from the right side of the engine. I fired again at very close range and was showered with smoke and oil and pieces, which I pulled up through and glanced back to see the fighter going down to the left with a large plume of smoke coming from the right side of the engine. Then I looked for Lieutenant Talbot again, and saw him chasing an Fw 190 [Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter], with another 109 closing on him. I went down after the latter fighter and they both broke down and away, so we went back to the bombers.”
They were new, young, eager, aggressive, and overconfident, trickling in to an airfield called Boxted, construction of which had just been completed. They were new men who had unexpectedly been given new airplanes—P-51 Mustangs that no one else in the U.S. military had.
Their leader was Col. Kenneth R. Martin, a “hardass” one of the pilots called him, a twenty-seven-year-old colonel who often seemed uncompromising and inflexible. Another pilot called Martin “a straitlaced, ‘go by the book’ kind of guy.” He was commander of the 354th Fighter Group, the outfit that was, for now, the first and only but would soon become the first of many Mustang combat groups arrayed against the German air force, the Luftwaffe.
Martin showed mixed reactions when seasoned combat veteran Donald Blakeslee was “seconded” to the 354th to lend a hand on early missions, prompting some to wonder who was in charge. Martin may have disliked Blakeslee for being too much like himself, only more so—forceful, non-nonsense, more interested in results than being well liked.
Tension between Martin and Blakeslee was at a high pitch when Martin’s 354th group shuffled into the briefing room on the morning of December 1, 1943, and settled into stiff metal chairs, staring up at a map, about to hear about the first American Mustang mission to the European continent. Martin was off to one side but standing in front of them; unknown to most in the room was Blakeslee.
Although just twenty-seven years old, the forceful, no-nonsense Blakeslee had maturity no one else in the room possessed. His eyes were cold. His face was hard. He was on his way to flying more fighter missions than any other American in the war but was no candidate for a popularity contest. He’d flown a civilian Piper Cub before the war and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force to become part of the Eagle Squadrons serving with the British. He’d transferred to the U.S. forces and commanded a squadron in the 4th Fighter Group. An air ace, Blakeslee was not a good shot (He “couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn,” historian Thomas McKelvey Cleaver wrote), but was a master of the principles involved in air fighting tactics. He was a gifted leader without being particularly well liked—a stern disciplinarian and harsh taskmaster. In December 1943, Blakeslee was a lieutenant colonel.
One of the shavetail lieutenants in the 354th group, 2nd Lt. Clayton Kelly Gross, wrote: “I remember in Don Blakeslee’s first briefing before he led our first combat mission he said, ‘Whoever breaks first in a head-on pass situation is at a disadvantage. We don’t break first. Make the other guy do that.’ We wondered at the time what happens when the ‘other guy’ gets the same lecture? Martin agreed—‘That’s the way we’ll do it!’ ” It may or may not have been the right advice for young, eager pilots heading into a dogfight, but it was to become a harbinger for Martin.
Gross belonged to the group’s 355th squadron, the Bulldogs, alias the “Pugnacious Pups,” commanded by Maj. George R. Bickell, a veteran who had flown at Midway in the Pacific after the great battle there. Gross reveled in the camaraderie of the young lieutenants around him, but felt constant tension with Bickell, with whom he’d had a run-in while the group was training in the states. Gross and his wife, Gwen, had been in the front seat of their car, Bickell in the back, when Gross narrowly averted killing all of them when accelerating across a railroad track with a speeding train rushing straight at them. Bickell, a small and stern man who would later command the entire group, “rarely spoke a civil word to me in the next two years” following the railroad incident, Gross wrote.
Gross, hardly impartial, later said Bickell was “small of stature and made up for it with a kind of ‘Little Caesar’ attitude in my estimation.”
Bickell would eventually replace Martin as commander of the 354th Fighter Group. Blakeslee, never a fan of the P-47 Thunderbolt with which his own 4th Fighter Group was equipped, realized that Martin’s Mustang men had a better airplane than his Thunderbolt pilots did—at least a better plane for the crucial job of escorting bombers. “I made up my mind this was the airplane we needed and we had to get them, too,” Blakeslee said later.
The Mustang men of Martin’s 354th Fighter Group were going into battle against a tough and determined enemy. Plenty was at stake. Unless losses of heavy bombers could be reduced, the aerial campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich would not be able to continue. Unless the formidable pilots and aircraft of the German air arm, the Luftwaffe, could be countered, the Allies might have to delay their longstanding plans to invade Europe a few months ahead in the summer of 1944. Whether the P-51 Mustang and its pilots could make a difference would be determined by Gumm, Talbot, Martin, Gross, Bickell, and many more like them. For the diminutive, ever-intent Bickell, taking on Adolf Hitler was not what he originally had in mind. As 1st Lt. Donald F. Snow wrote:
When he was given the assignment of organizing and training fighter-pilots and men for combat, the nucleus of the 355th Fighter Squadron, at Hamilton Field, California, Capt. George R. Bickell was looking toward the Land of the Rising Sun. He hoped that through his leadership, his pilots would make a name for themselves in smashing back at the Jap. This month of November 1942 was less than a year after the Pearl Harbor disaster [and] Bickell had seen that holocaust and had flown P-40 aircraft off Navy carriers during the Battle of Midway. But there was another Big League shaping up in the skies of Europe in which he was to play a major role.
By December 1943, Bickell was at the other end of the world in Boxted, England. “He was a small man, confident, not very talkative, not always the most likeable, and for some reason that eludes me they called him Uncle George,” said Sgt. Nathan Serenko, a crew chief with the pioneer P-51 Mustang fighter group. With Martin as group commander and Bickell in command of one squadron, the men in the group looked across the English Channel (figuratively speaking), saw the German air force waiting for them, and were ready to go. The Ninth Air Force took ownership of Boxted airfield, but the 354th group and its 353rd, 355th, and 356th Fighter Squadrons were placed under the operational control of the VIII Fighter Command, a component of the Eighth Air Force—the growing military formation that would eventually inhabit no fewer than 122 airfields along the eastern rim of the British Isles known as East Anglia.
Until now, American fighter pilots in Europe had followed the air tactical school edict to closely escort bombers. The eager young pilots of VIII Fighter Command, especially those gifted with the new P-51, were clamoring to attack German warplanes when they were forming up, long before they reached the bombers.
Technically, the 354th Fighter Group and its commander Ken Martin didn’t exactly belong to Doolittle or Kepner. As part of the Ninth Air Force even while assigned to Doolittle’s Eighth, they belonged for administrative purposes to the rather lackluster Maj. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton and Brereton’s dynamic IX Fighter Command boss, Brig. Gen. Elwood R. “Pete” Quesada. Martin may have seemed stiff to some—others regarded him as amiable—but he had brought these men together stateside, had brought them across the Atlantic on a scow of a troopship, and was going to take them into battle.
While they were still looking at their new Mustangs for the first time, Quesada asked Martin, “Exactly how much time do you need to make the group combat ready?” Quesada was thinking in terms of months, so he added a caution: “Before you answer, be sure. When I say ‘ready,’ I mean precisely that. Now, how long?”
Martin had already put a lot of thought into the answer he had ready.
“Two weeks, general.”
Quesada later said that placing his confidence in Martin was a gamble. Quesada could be ruthless in overseeing fighter group commanders and, if necessary, in firing them. But Martin performed exactly as promised. That was the way they’d taught him during flight training in Flying Class 38-A (the two digits in a class number referred to a year, e.g. 1938), and it was reinforced in the minds of the men by Martin’s constant presence, looking into a spare-parts problem here, checking out an intelligence report there, questioning but not meddling, always at hand to help if asked—“looking over the shoulders of others without appearing to be looking over their shoulders,” as Gross put it.
Chuck Gumm’s first aerial victory at the controls of a P-51 Mustang, and the first for any by an American pilot—over a respected adversary flying a formidable warplane—might never have happened if the top brass in Washington had decided how the war in Europe was going to go. Air staff officers in the newly opened Pentagon building disliked the P-51 and allowed it to reach squadrons in England only with reluctance. Not for many more months—until spring 1944—would the P-51 appear in sufficient numbers to test whether it could fill that role. At the beginning, even the need for such a warplane received no recognition. It was understood only that there was a need for “pursuit” planes, as they were then called. It was not until U.S. bomber losses in Europe became overwhelming that top air generals saw that the Luftwaffe had to be defeated.
December 13, 1943
The twin-engine, prop-driven German fighters that had been a menace to bomber formations were a menace no longer by December 1943. The Bf 110 had been one of these planes.
Before the arrival of the 354th Fighter Group had a chance to make its mark with the new and unproven P-51 Mustang, bomber crews dreaded the twin-engine Messerschmitt Bf 110 Zerstörer (Destroyer). It seemed invulnerable as it traveled freely to within its own firing range of American formations—while staying well beyond the range of the bombers’ defensive .50-caliber machine guns.
Each Bf 110 typically carried four spin-stabilized 248-pound Wurfgranate 210mm rocket projectiles. Although not very accurate, the rocket’s 80-pound warhead made it extremely effective, even without proximity fuses. The warheads were time fused to detonate at 600 to 1,200 yards from the launch aircraft. To tear a bomber apart, the rocket needed only to explode within fifty feet. Often an exploding B-17 in a tight formation caused enough damage to adjacent planes to damage or bring down more B-17s. And even when the rocket missed, one large explosion inside a formation tended to make the formation spread out, making it vulnerable to attack by the Germans’ more nimble single-engine fighters. The Bf 110 was a mighty weapon of war, and it was to be the first against which the Mustang and the Mustang men would be tested.
On December 13, 1943, the target was Kiel. Later that spring and summer, the Mustang men would change everything about the way the war was going. One of the young men in Mustangs in the 354th Fighter Group was shavetail Felix M. “Mike” Rogers. This was his first mission. He was itching to get into the fight. He had been told that German fighter pilots were the best.
“I had two and one-half hours in the Mustang,” said Rogers. “None of us understood why they’d given this new fighter to our group, which had no combat experience in another aircraft. Our mechanics and ground crew had been issued tools for the P-47 Thunderbolt, which we had expected to fly. We had never flown above fifteen thousand and now we were going to Kiel at thirty-two thousand, on oxygen.” To Rogers, the new P-51B/C Mustangs were far from perfect. “We had a lot of problems with armament, oxygen, spark plugs, and coolant,” he said. The temperature over Kiel was minus twenty-eight degrees Fahrenheit.
Forty-one Mustangs were escorting 710 bombers. Rogers was “tail end Charlie,” as he put it, or number four in the flight led by 1st Lt. Donald M. Beerbower. “I was spooked by the size of the sun and by the old adage ‘Beware the Hun in the sun!’ ”
In one of the B-17 Flying Fortress bombers being escorted by Mustangs, tail gunner Staff Sgt. John Gabay watched forty Junkers Ju 88 twin-engine German fighters appear out of nowhere. “They came in close, one at a time,” Gabay remembered. “The flame from the cannons, tracers from their machine guns, and rockets from under their wings made the situation a bit hairy. All I could do, besides being scared, was to spray each one as they came in and call for evasive action. I hit the second one and he rolled over and burned. I saw my tracers slam into the cockpit of the third. I may have hit the pilot, as the ship started to go out of control. I poured more into it, knocking off the canopy under the nose. It looked like a leg hung out of the ship for an instant, then fell out.”
Altogether, about 1,500 American aircraft were in the region of Kiel that day. It appears the number of German fighters confronting them was fairly small. Everybody on both sides saw the Mustangs. Everybody on both sides looked at them and decided they were Messerschmitt Bf 109s. That included many of the gunners aboard the Fortresses who, unlike Gabay, reported engaging single-engine fighters.
Rogers flew into battle in proper wing position on his element leader John Mattie. Rogers was chafing at the bit to engage the vaunted German fighter pilots. “They were the first team. We knew they were the first team and we wanted to test ourselves against them,” Rogers said. There were reports the Germans were developing even newer and better fighters using new technology—all the more reason to want to confront them.
In the cold, high blue sky over Kiel, Rogers saw two or three Ju 88s in the distance. In another direction were other twin-engine German fighters, including a few examples of the Messerschmitt Bf 110, the twin-engine fighter that was so lethal against the bombers. Rogers doubts there were forty twin-engine fighters as Gabay wrote. He was measuring the threat, calculating a way to engage, when he looked down and saw a top turret of a B-17 rotating its guns toward him. There were muzzle flashes and the streaked gray of bullets flying through the air.
It sounded like rain when the bullets pattered against right wing of his Mustang. Looking out, Rogers noticed the metal was pointed up around a number of bullet hole punctures in his right wing tank. He had also taken hits in the right wing root. He called a break and followed his flight leader.
Beerbower, a future American ace who had been born in Canada, later wrote in his diary that a twin-engine German fighter “put a hole in Rogers’ wing.” Thinking he was fighting for his life, Rogers was very certain where the bullets had come from.
He was neither the first nor the last American fighter pilot to be hit by gunfire from an American bomber. It was a case of mistaken identity, a case of someone deciding his P-51 was a Bf 109. Frank Birtciel, who began the war in the P-38 Lightning, a plane with a distinctive twin-boom design that could not be mistaken for any other, said that American pilots and crewmembers simply didn’t know about the P-51. “We had very thorough intelligence briefings,” said Birtciel. “They showed us charts. They showed us airplane recognition models. They taught us about our planes and the Germans.
“But,” he added, “they didn’t teach us about the P-51.
“The people who made the charts, the people who made the recognition models, they had never heard of it. Most of us never knew anything about the P-51 until the first time we saw one,” he added.
After breaking and accelerating out of harm’s way, Rogers discovered that he wasn’t fighting for his life after all. His Mustang was responding normally to his touch—or, at least, as far as he could tell with only about twenty-five hours in the cockpit.
His Mustang was the first aircraft Rogers had ever piloted that had self-sealing fuel tanks. “That’s what got me home that day. We were very skeptical that they would work. But the self-sealing fuel tanks did work and they got me to safety,” he said.
Only when the P-38 and P-47 had both failed as escorts in Europe did the Army Air Forces, the AAF, turn to the P-51, the plane that even American aircraft recognition experts hadn’t heard of and that the Pentagon didn’t want.
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. The Merlin 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, the AAF had strong institutional biases against the P-51, and the top brass showed little interest in the early Mustangs and even tried to kill off the plane.
The P-51 finally emerged as the dominant fighter because North American engineers rapidly made the field modifications needed to make it work as a long-range escort fighter—well before any of its competitors could be perfected. The replacement of its Allison engine with the Merlin was the first and most important idea adopted from the field, and ironically it happened only because the P-51 was not originally an AAF airplane. The final key modification was the addition of a large internal fuselage fuel tank to extend the range of the P-51B, a change proposed by the chief of the AAF’s fighter branch, Col. Mark Bradley. The P-51 was thus successfully flying and fighting well before the AAF was able to get one of its other more favored planes to function as a long-range escort fighter.
Why did the first Mustangs go to Ken Martin’s inexperienced 354th Fighter Group rather than the battle-hardened 4th or 56th groups? Documents from the era suggest that no one in the AAF, from boss Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold on down, had much confidence in—or even interest in—the North American fighter. At the end of 1943, only a few dozen were in service in East Anglia as part of a battle force that still relied too heavily on P-38s and P-47s.
January 1, 1944
The Luftwaffe had eight hundred to one thousand fighters arrayed along the western front to confront the Eighth Air Force’s heavy bombers. The Germans were beginning to experience some attrition of their best pilots, but they still had a full force of very experienced veterans who’d fought in the Battle of Britain and on the eastern front. The Americans were being told that German air defenses were expanding and would soon have even better warplanes. It’s unclear whether U.S. intelligence knew about a November 26, 1943, display of the Wunderwaffen, or “wonder weapons” held at Insterburg for Adolf Hitler. However, the U.S. side did know that the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter was coming.
On January 1, 1944, Col. Donald Blakeslee took command of the 4th Fighter Group at Debden. In his first speech to his outfit—now, the third American combat group equipped with the P-51 Mustang—Blakeslee uttered a now widely quoted speech: “The Fourth Fighter Group is going to be the top fighter group in the Eighth Air Force. We are here to fight. To those who don’t believe me I would suggest transferring to another group. I’m going to fly the ass off each one of you. Those who keep up with me, good; those who don’t, I don’t want them anyway.”
Wrote historian Thomas McKelvey Cleaver: “Most fighter pilots played to the crowd, crushing their hats in the ‘50 mission look,’ putting their girl’s name on the nose of their plane beneath their scores. Blakeslee did none of this. His hat was ‘G.I.,’ and so were his airplanes, none of which ever wore a personal name or carried a ‘victory’ cross under the cockpit.” Blakeslee may have been the only fighter pilot who hated publicity and shunned would-be biographers.
Many miles from Blakeslee, New Year’s Day 1944 marked a buildup of a formidable fighter force in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations, where the Fifteenth Air Force was carrying the torch. Three new squadrons bolstered a single squadron of black Americans, the Tuskegee Airmen. In time, all were amalgamated into the 332nd Fighter Group under Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. After wasting months on dubious dive-bombing and strafing missions, the Italy-based 332nd fliers were given the crucial job of escorting Fifteenth Air Force heavy bombers on missions into the Reich. Theirs was one of seven fighter escort groups in the Mediterranean Theater, and they wanted to stand out: when they received Mustangs, they applied a distinctive coat of red paint on the rear of each aircraft, and the pilots of the 332nd became known as the Red Tails. Among them were pilots Roscoe Brown and Earl Lane, who would find themselves fighting Hitler’s jets on March 24, 1945.
In July 1944, the 332nd escorted bombers on a mission against railyards and Capt. Joseph Elsberry shot down three Fw-190s, becoming the first black pilot to achieve this feat. On July 13, they flew thier first mission on the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania. Three days later, they met Italian Macchi fighters (Italy had surrendered on June 11, but followers of strongman Benito Mussolini maintained a rump state in the north, the Italian Social Republic) and they downed two of them. Two days later, July 18, Lt. Clarence “Lucky” Lester destroyed three German airplanes, and the 332nd group claimed eleven kills.
January 6, 1944
From July to October 1944, the Red Tails flew countless missions, usually bomber escorts. Sometimes they shot down German aircraft, and they began to build a respectable group tally. Less often, they lost one of their own.
On January 6, 1944, Lt. Gen. James H. Doolittle, the new Eighth Air Force commander, ordered his fighter boss, Maj. Gen. William Kepner, to turn these young men loose. “Your priority is to take the offensive,” Doolittle told Kepner.
Historian Dik A. Daso described a change that many regarded as dramatic: “Prominently hung on Kepner’s office wall was a sign that read, ‘The first duty of the Eighth Fighter Command is to bring the bombers back alive.’ Kepner had argued against being strictly tied to the bombers for many months, but Eaker and even Spaatz had insisted upon such a philosophy. Doolittle ordered Kepner to remove ‘that damned sign’ and replace it with one that said, ‘The first duty of the Eighth Air Force fighters is to destroy German fighters.’ ” Kepner was thankful.
Under Doolittle’s liberating order, American fighters were to converge in mass groups all along the bomber path into Germany, to engage the intercepting German fighters wherever they found them. Now, American fighters would be able to catch the foe on the ground, inflicting mortal damage. No German aircraft, no German airfield, was safe now. Every German pilot was now at risk, everywhere, and they could not be replaced.
While the Mustang men were getting their first taste of war, Detroit-born 2nd Lt. Urban L. Drew was getting a foul taste from being an instructor in Bartow, Florida. Drew had an outgoing, aggressive personality and being part of a schoolhouse wasn’t what he wanted. It was in Bartow that he acquired the nickname Ben, by which most people would know him thereafter. It was in Bartow that Drew and a wingman named Kemp, flying P-51s, buzzed an air show at very low level, upsetting a lot of important people. Drew would claim afterward that it happened more or less by accident, but the buzzing incident resulted in being placed in the military equivalent of house arrest.
“I was certain they would give me the ultimate punishment and make me a stateside instructor for the rest of my life,” said Drew. Their commander spoke vaguely to Drew and wingman Kemp, of judge, jury, and execution. As R. R. Powell later wrote, the boss promised: “You two screw-ups will be the longest serving lieutenants in the history of this man’s Air Force.” The boss also told Drew that he was “sorely tempted to let you go to court-martial.”
This was the lowest moment of Ben Drew’s life—until the commander continued: “However, you two are probably the best instructors we have ever had in this unit, and that includes some of the combat veterans. Both of you could be superb fighter pilots. Drew, three of your students are already aces and, Kemp, one of yours also.”
Still, not happy at all and seething with rage, the commander ordered Drew and his wingman reassigned: “Send them over to the Eighth Air Force.” And then: “I want them off this base within twenty-four hours.”
“He called me a screw-up,” said Drew. “He had no idea he was giving me exactly what I wanted.”
TASTE OF DEFEAT
“They are kicking our asses,” a pilot said to Clayton Kelly Gross after one of the very first Mustang missions against the Luftwaffe. Gross looked around at Boxted and saw fatigue and frustration on the faces of fellow Mustang pilots, who were starting to say, more openly now, that they were being defeated by the supremely experienced and very able men in Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs.
In those early days, was there ever a time when Gross thought, “We aren’t winning this”? When he wondered if the learning curve was too steep, the odds too great, the foe too formidable? Did Gross himself ever sense that the odds were too great, that the Mustang Men would not be able to prevail?
“The answer is no,” Gross said. “Our government was very good to me in giving me one full year in fighters before leaving for the combat zone.
“I was good. I developed confidence in my abilities that lasted throughout my career. Before arriving in England and being introduced to the Mustang, we were stationed in the San Francisco Bay area and had daily fights with navy fighters. I stated, ‘I can whip anything the navy has with my P-39 Airacobra.’ Admittedly, I started slowly in combat, but I think the weather and getting shot at by antiaircraft fire, plus learning the capabilities of the new aircraft, had a lot to do with that.
“The 354th was a great group. We had a great esprit de corps from the start. New pilots joined, and very quickly the winning attitude caught on with them. I never heard a pilot say he was scared or show evidence of that. We felt as if we had an advantage even if their numbers were greater than ours. I actually heard Glen Eagleston radio on one mission, ‘Hey guys. I’m alone at the back of this bomber formation and I have twenty of the bastards cornered.’ He may have exaggerated a little.”
Early successes by the Mustang men were tarnished by tragedy: eight Mustangs lost, most due to technical problems. On the day of Chuck Gumm’s first aerial victory, the group lost Maj. Owen M. Seaman, commander of the 353rd squadron, who vanished over the North Sea.
The group’s pilots were adjusting to what amounted to a new kind of warfare. Now, the Mustang pilots were facing four- to five-hour missions. This kind of flying imposed new demands on the pilot, creating all kinds of discomfort, but it was even worse on the airplane. The Mustang was prone to coolant loss at high altitude, where engines overheated and eventually seized. Coolant, oil, and oxygen problems needed to be resolved.
The P-38, P-47, and P-51 were key players, but the Americans high over the Reich were also flying Hitler’s least favorite flying machine, the De Havilland Mosquito. Pilot 1st Lt. Richard Geary and navigator 1st Lt. Floyd Mann of the 25th Bombardment Group (Recon) were high over a snow-covered Reich on a weather reconnaissance flight, supporting a mission to the Politz Oil Refinery at Stettin in German-occupied Poland, when they came under attack. Four Mustangs from the 20th Fighter Group escorted them, which gave Geary plenty of confidence, although communication with the P-51s was not always good. The date was January 21, 1945. That month, Eighth Air Force pilots, all flying Mustangs, claimed six Me 262s—but not on this mission.
An Me 262 appeared head-on, maneuvered into position to chase Geary, and followed him in a high-speed dive. Author and researcher Norman Malayney quoted Geary on what happened next:
I was doing close to 400 mph in a left breaking dive, a customary maneuver. What else was there to do? I had no chance to look back. In a flurry of desperation, I slammed on opposite rudder and aileron. The Mosquito cartwheeled 180 degrees across the sky in the opposite direction. I don’t know what kind of maneuver this was, and it is a miracle the aircraft did not disintegrate. God must have been on my side. I didn’t even have my lap belt on. Dust flew up from the floor, emergency maps came off the wall, and loose material floated in the cockpit. The Me 262 hurtled directly over me, seemingly a few feet from my cockpit canopy. There was just one big flash of silver chrome as the uncamouflaged jet shot by. He had me in his sights, but my unexpected action put us on a collision course. Instead of shooting at me, the jet pilot had to use all his talents to avoid a midair collision. That both the German pilot and I lived through the encounter, I credit to his reflexes.
The German pilot was seemingly too preoccupied with survival to open fire. Geary maneuvered out of the situation and lost contact with both the jet and the escorting Mustangs. The Mosquito recovered at twenty-seven thousand feet, east of Berlin, when fourMe 262s rushed past him within fifty yards. Soon, four more appeared. This time, there was no close-quarters engagement: Geary and Mann fought their way out of an intended trap and made it safely home.
Between February 20 and 25, 1944, the Allied bomber force launched Operation Argument, a series of missions against the Third Reich that became known as Big Week. The object was to lure the Luftwaffe into a decisive battle by sustaining persistent attacks on the German aircraft industry. By defeating the Luftwaffe, the Allies would achieve air superiority and the invasion of Europe could proceed.
The Americans flew heavily escorted missions against airframe manufacturing and assembly plants and other targets in numerous German cities. As the week-long air campaign unfolded on February 21, 1944, Chuck Gumm became the first air ace of the 354th Fighter Group by downing a Bf 110 over Brunswick.
In six days, the Eighth Air Force flew three thousand sorties and the Fifteenth Air Force based in Italy flew more than five hundred. Together they dropped roughly ten thousand tons of bombs.
During Big Week, the Eighth Air Force lost ninety-seven B-17s, forty B-24s, and another twenty were scrapped due to damage. The Fifteenth Air Force in Italy lost ninety aircraft, and American fighter losses stood at twenty-eight. Although these numbers are high in absolute terms, the numbers of bombers involved in the missions were much higher than in previous missions, and the losses represented a much smaller percentage of the attacking force. U.S. air crews claimed more than five hundred German fighters destroyed, though the numbers were massively exaggerated.
Luftwaffe losses were high amongst their twin-engine Zerstörer units, and the Bf 110 and Me 410 groups were decimated. More worrying for the Germans was the loss of 17 percent of their pilots: nearly one hundred were killed. In contrast to the raids of the previous year, the U.S. losses were entirely replaceable and being made good as their industrial might ramped up, while the Germans were already hard pressed due to the war in the East. Although not fatal, the Big Week was an extremely worrying development for the Germans.
Big Week demonstrated that the Luftwaffe’s best antibomber weapons, twin-engine Zerstörer designs such as the Me 410 Hornisse, were appallingly vulnerable against Allied fighters. The planes were removed from service in the West, passing the role of defense primarily to the higher performance single-engine designs. Due to the effective protection offered by Allied fighters, a change of tactics was introduced: German fighters formed up well in front of the bombers, took a single head-on pass through the stream, and then left. This gave the defending fighters little time to react, and a few shells into the cockpit area could destroy a bomber in one pass.
LOSS OF A PILOT
Not long after Big Week, the first pilot to score an aerial victory in an American P-51, air ace Chuck Gumm, took off from Boxted on March 1, 1944. He wasn’t going into harm’s way. He was merely checking out some maintenance work on a P-51B. His aircraft wasn’t the plane he usually flew, named 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 a half aerial victories, and today was going to be an easy day. “We all wore seat belts and shoulder harnesses,” said another P-51B pilot, 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, from the Messerschmitt Bf 109 to the Me 262.
Could Gumm have forgotten to strap in?
He’d 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 plane would crash in the English town and claim innocent lives. He decided to stay with his plane. 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. He was twenty-three years old.
A Nayland resident was later quoted in Nostalgia magazine about the incident: “We were astonished that he didn’t 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. He was briefly interred at an American cemetery in Cambridge, England, where a poster reminds visitors of him and men like him. It reads: “Time will not dim the glory of their deeds.” Gumm’s remains were later repatriated, and today he is buried at Greenwood Memorial Terrace in his hometown, Spokane, Washington. Gumm’s father escorted Toni Gumm down the aisle when she remarried, to Duke Shearin, another pilot in the 354th Fighter Group.
William Marshall, a historian of the 354th, said in a telephone interview that by the time of Gumm’s death, Mustang pilots had begun a process “that would virtually eliminate German twin-engine day fighter units and chewed up most of the single-engine units as well.” Marshall said this made it possible for U.S. bombers to “go deep with acceptable losses and destroy Germany’s oil and chemical industry” and “effectively destroyed Luftwaffe fighter capability to oppose the invasion before D-Day.”
According to Marshall, the losses inflicted on the Luftwaffe from February through April 1944 killed about one thousand skilled pilots and destroyed more than 2,500 aircraft.
Chuck Gumm was there at the beginning.