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Pilot left a legacy here, abroad

Charles Gumm was the first P-51 Mustang pilot to down a German plane in World War II. He is buried at Greenwood Memorial Terrace. (Dan Pelle)
Charles Gumm was the first P-51 Mustang pilot to down a German plane in World War II. He is buried at Greenwood Memorial Terrace. (Dan Pelle)

In 1942, shortly after America entered World War II, Spokane’s Charles F. “Chuck” Gumm stepped away from his studies at Gonzaga University – and into history.

Enlisting in the U.S. Army Air Force, he joined the 355th Fighter Squadron’s 354th Fighter Group, the famed Pioneer Mustang Group. Already married to his high school sweetheart Muriel “Toni” Wiley, he was stationed in England, where he became a pilot of the P-51 Mustang, the new long-range, single-engine fighter aircraft which would wreak havoc in the skies over Europe.

On Dec. 16, 1943, Lt. Gumm became the first P-51 pilot to down an enemy plane. Two months later he became the first ace of the 354th Fighter Group – an ace being a pilot who has downed five or more enemy aircraft. On his plane he had written “My Toni,” the name of both the wife and baby daughter waiting for him back home in Spokane.

He became famous for what he achieved in war, but it was not just for those victories that he was remembered. He also became famous for how he died.

On March 1, 1944, Gumm, the group’s leading ace (with 7.5 kills to his credit), took a P-51 Mustang up for a test flight. The plane lost power just after takeoff, right over the town of Nayland, England. Newspaper accounts at the time quoted Nayland residents who observed what happened next. Clearly Gumm had time to eject but he remained with the aircraft, successfully steering it away from the populated town. As he struggled to keep the plane aloft until he cleared the town, a wing clipped a tree in an open field just beyond the houses, the plane flipped over and Gumm was thrown from the cockpit and killed.

He was 23 years old.

In his brief career, Lt. Gumm received the air medal with three oak leaf clusters and posthumous awards of the silver star, the soldiers medal and the distinguished flying cross for gallantry in action. He lies buried in Spokane’s Greenwood Memorial Terrace under a government-issue military headstone.

So moved were the residents of Nayland for how this American flyer sacrificed himself to save many of them that a memorial plaque was commissioned and installed at a bench at St. James churchyard in the town, and the town began sending a memorial red poppy to Gumm’s widow each Christmas. The townspeople lobbied for years to have his name added to the Village War Memorial there, finally succeeding in 2001, when a new memorial bench was erected in the center of the village to replace the original one in the church courtyard.

After her husband’s death, Gumm’s wife Toni and daughter remained in Spokane, living with his parents for some years. Toni Gumm worked driving staff cars at Geiger Field, where she later met and married Duke Shearin, who had been in her husband’s squadron.

“When Duke and I married, it was Chuck’s father who walked me down the aisle,” said Toni Shearin, 88, who currently lives in Albuquerque, N.M. Now widowed, she and her second husband, who adopted her daughter, went on to have two children and experienced a long and satisfying career in the military.

By phone recently she recalled her early years with her first love, who she pointed out was a distant cousin of the entertainer Judy Garland (whose real name was Frances Gumm).

The two of them met as high schoolers in the Hillyard area where they lived and attended the same church and sang together in the choir. He graduated from Rogers High School and she attended North Central. She recalled that he would often go to Felts Field, where he first learned to fly.

She said he was actually a very gentle man who never looked for battles or trouble. “Still, his friends told me, that when he got into combat, he became a real tiger.”

After her husband died, she, too, took flying lessons at Felts. “I wanted to know why he was so in love with flying. And I did understand. You can release completely. You are just free, the quiet, the peace and the control. It’s just wonderful up there.”

When she and her second husband were stationed in Europe, she was able to visit Nayland and met many wonderful people there.

“I still receive a red poppy from them every Christmas,” she said, “and I still have all the ones that have been sent to me over all these years.”