Ernie and Members of Team “B”, 326th Air Service Group, 9th Airforce. Photo from his personal collection.

The Pioneer Mustang Group

Team “B” 326th Air Service Group – 9th Airforce

Gumpus was my Grandfather, and I was fortunate to spend a lot of time with him when I was young. His house was my playground–with giant lilac bushes in the front yard, a marble slabbed patio off the back, the “new” room with the coloured lights in the ceiling, the “Castle” in the backyard, and the breezeway with the magical player piano. All of these things are etched in my memory, overlaid with the scent of cigars, memories of day-after-Thanksgiving Turkey sandwiches with heaps of mayo, and, everywhere, the P51.

Pictures, models in glass cases, models hanging from the ceiling in the dining room, “P51” was even the novelty license plate on Gumpus’ Caddy. My grandfather oozed pride in the P51. He was obsessed with it. For good reason.

You see, before he was my Gumpus, he was the son of factory workers Joseph Gratton and Mamie Ladebush–descendants of immigrants from Québec. Just one of six children in this blue-collar family north of Boston, he was born Ernest Leo Gratton in 1916 in Haverhill, Massachusetts. He was an avid roller-skater, a charmer, and he attended Amesbury High School. He went into the shoe factories, like his father, and grandfather…for a time…but eventually he got himself a job working with Reed & Prince, a tool and die manufacturing company that had branches in Providence, Rhode Island and Worcester, Massachusetts.

Ernest, called Ernie by most, had originally registered for the Draft in 1940 when he was working for a Shoe Company in New Hampshire, but records indicate that he did not actually enlist until September 1942. By the time he enlisted, he had left the factories and had a year or two at Reed&Prince. News reports were that the Allies were having a rough go, and our boys were taking heavy casualties–our unescorted bombers were easy pickings for the Nazi fighters, and the news was breaking about Pearl Harbour. Initially, Ernie was bound and determined to become a tail-gunner on a B-17 bomber, but an ill-fated flirtation on the floor of Reed&Prince resulted in damage to his vision and he couldn’t pass the test. Not to be daunted, Ernie translated his short history working in the manufacturing industry into acceptance in a training program for engine mechanics with the Army. From there he went into specialist training with in-line engines, specifically, for the Merlin engine, which was on it’s way to a marriage with the P51 Mustang that would change everything.

The original Mustang Allison engine was not faulty, but it just wasn’t as powerful as it needed to be to give the Mustang strong performance at high altitudes. The Merlin engine changed all of that, and was directly responsible for the success of the Mustang in World War II.

“We, the Officers and Men of Team “B”, 326th Service Group, are of the opinion that the outstanding characteristics of the North American Mustang were directly and indirectly responsible for hastening the conclusion of the war in the European Theater of Operations. Signed, Officers and Men, Team “B”, 326th Air Service Group.”

– Ames, Arthur c., Editor, “Team “B”, 326th air service Group – They kept ’em flying”, Wetzel Publishing Co., Inc.1946

But back to Gumpus. After enlisting he was sent off to Lincoln Nebraska Air Base and graduated as an aviation mechanic. Then he was sent to Chanute Field in Illinois to train as a power plant engineer specialist. Fully trained, he was off to the UK, as a Tech Sergeant in Mobile Engineering Unit No. 2 of the 461st Air Service Squadron, part of the Pioneer Mustang Group. (For a full listing of all members of Team B, see here: “they kept ’em flying” team B, 326th Air Service Group, 9th Air Force). An important note that my Gumpus would require me to underline here: The 8th Air Force tends to get all the credit for the Mustang, much to my Gumpus’ chagrin, but the Pioneer Mustang Group was part of the 9th Air Force, and that fact should never be forgotten.

Gumpus, fresh faced and posing with a picture of my Grandmother, Phyllis (née Sandford). Photo from his personal collection.

The 326th Service Group was “the first service group to be assigned to the 9th Air Force in England…the first service group to land in France…the unit that remained first in service and accomplishment throughout the European campaign.”

Ernie at Camp Kilmer, where troops were quartered before being deployed to the European Theatre. 1942. Photo from his personal collection.

Gumpus, along with the rest of Team “B”, arrived at Station 150, Boxted, England on the 19th of November, 1943. Everyone was new to the evolved Mustang–they didn’t even have the right equipment to start with, having been primarily outfitted with equipment geared for the P47. The Team had to re-design, engineer and build everything from scratch to work on the Mustang – from dollies to wing stands. The fruits of their labours were later adopted as standard modifications and used by depots and repair squadrons across the European theatre.

Members of Team “B”, with the Merlin in all it’s glory. Photo from Ernie’s personal collection.

Within a month they were also handling salvage operations, as each and every part was needed to keep the fleet in the air. By December they had completely rebuilt a plane out of salvaged parts.

Shattered P-51 on the strip, ready for salvage operations. Photo from Ernie’s personal collection.

By the 1st of December the first Mustang pilots flew a reconnaissance mission over Belgium and Pas de Calais. By the 13th of December they were escorting 8th Air Force heavy bombers on a bombing raid to Kiel, and this marked the first time that bombers had an escort all the way. These were long-range escort missions, and the pilots would return, exhausted, with only a few minutes of fuel left in the tanks. This is where the Team “B” mechanics would jump into action, clearing crashed planes from the runways in minutes, and then focusing on taking these planes apart to completely re-build them. All while the base was getting nightly visits from German bombers–forcing the crews to hunker down in blast shelters, inundated by the sound of droning air craft and bombs exploding. But amidst all this chaos, there were indications of “normal” life too – movie nights, visits into town, and even basketball championships.

For several months the team lived in relative luxury, given the conditions at the Boxted Airforce Base allowed for running water and semi-permanent accommodation in Nissen huts. By mid April, however, they were transferred to Lashenden, and all operations were geared for invasion readiness. In the days leading up to D-Day, operations were ramped up with increased missions. Working days extended to 14 hours in order to keep the planes in the air. On the 30th of May, 6 days before the invasion, Team “B” was ordered to prepare for relocation to the continent. They waited for their orders while fighters, transports and glider tows passed overhead in a seemingly never-ending aerial parade to out of England. On the 24th of June the convoy carrying Team “B” came in sight of Omaha Beach. It was their first in-person sighting of the German defences, and their approach for landing was littered with the remnants of ships that had not made it to shore during the invasion.

Omaha Beach Landing, 24 June. National Archives.

After a sleepless night spent in collection areas (fields that were reportedly cleared of live shells and mines), the Team headed toward Cricqueville, and Strip A-2, a strip only recently relinquished by the Germans. Upon arrival they Quartermaster section had the grim task of clearing the Nazi dead that were scattered about the fields. They were less than 10 miles from the front lines, and the sound of gunfire was their endless soundtrack. They continued their salvage operations, scouring the area between Caen and Carentan for crashed planes, the repaired ships being turned over for immediate use. This work happened under consistent gun-fire and strafing. They weren’t in England anymore! They were constantly dogged by breakdowns in comms and supply, so these salvage operations were more crucial than ever. Gone were the days of passes into town, and they spent more time in foxholes thanks to consistent night-time German raids than they did in barracks.

By August 1944 they were on the move again, this time to Strip A-31 in Brittany. Upon arrival the bomb squads had the first job, as the area was replete with unexploded ordinance left behind by the Germans, but Team “B” quickly had the base in operation. Strip A-31 was isolated from the main roads, but the Bretons were quick to welcome the Team, indeed thousands of the locals, dressed in their Sunday best, were on the Base the first Sunday it was in operation. This was their first chance to thank any of the American troops for their salvation, and they were quite fascinated by everything about the Americans. They over-ran the base, wanting to meet and thank everyone, and curious about everything.

A month later they were off to Orconte, France, to Strip A-66. Their lovely time in Brittany was soon eclipsed by constant deluges and floods – they were just as busy moving their tents out of flooded areas as they were repairing aircraft. From all reports I’ve seen this was a time and a location everyone was quite happy to leave behind when they were next shift – this time to Strip A-98 at Jaillon, France.

Strip A-98 was in Lorraine, between Toul and Nancy (my mother was named after this town). They spent their longest stint their, from the end of November, 1944 until 8 April,1945. They held a Christmas Party for the local children that year, and received a heartfelt thanks from Mayor M. Maurice Veull Aume – the villagers were grateful for the liberation of their village, but also the kindnesses shown to them by the American forces.

Up to this point, the Team was reclaiming airstrips that had been occupied by the Germans. Now it was time to move into Germany itself, and they got their first chance to see the results of the Allied air attacks. While the French countryside had been devastated, the destruction in Germany was on a much greater scale, and it really brought home to the troops the superiority of the Allied forces. As they moved through what was left of the German towns on their route to Ober-Olm, they saw white flags of peace and surrender, made out of anything that could be found, hung by the surviving villagers from buildings and shelters. They stayed at Ober-Olm for just over two weeks and then moved onto Ansbach.

Strip R-45, a Luftwaffe Base that escaped Allied Bombing Raids. Home to Team “B” through the end of the war. Photo from his personal collection.

V-E Day was declared on the afternoon of 7 May, and quite the party was had. Stores of carefully hoarded liquor was passed out and the night was filled with the sound of every firearm being fired as often as possible. The following day saw the beginning of German planes landing at the strip, with pilots who preferred to surrender to the American Air Force. The teams rushed onto the runway to witness the pilots being taken into custody.

A German “Junker” flown to the Arnsbach strip, Pilot taken into custody following V-E day. Photo from Ernie’s personal collection.
Text on the back of the Junker photo above, written by Ernie.

Following V-E Day, the Team remained at Arnsbach as they waited to be sent home. They were not allowed to leave the base except on official business at first, and fraternization with the local German girls was strictly forbidden. Eventually, however, excursions were made to Munich and to Dachau. Here they got their first glimpse of the reality of the concentration camps and the horrors that the Nazi regime had inflicted. They passed cart after cart piled high with naked victims of the camps, abandoned without burial when the Allied forces took control.

Their final official formation was an awards ceremony. Several members were pinned with Bronze stars. Colonel Sullivan was awarded the Croix de Guerre, with Palm, by the French Government in recognition of the part played by the Group in the liberation of France. Each member of the Team was also awarded the Meritorious Service Plaque, entitling all members of the Team to wear the Golden Wreath insignia on their left sleeve.

Assigned to service the ‘Pioneer Mustang Group’ in the European Theatre of Operations, the 461st Air Squadron was faced with unestablished channels of supply, an entire Air Force in the process of reorganization, and the imperative need of keeping the planes of the Fighter Group in the air. the 461st Air Service Squadron has consistently met the numerous and difficult problems encountered with an esprit de corps, a devotion to duty, and a pride in accomplishment, which has won the admiration and commendation of the tactical group serviced. Displaying an unprecedented ingenuity and facility for improvisation, the 461st Air Service Squadron has not hesitated to undertake unusual projects in the interests of efficiency and uninterrupted performance. Fool-proof and streamlined methods were introduced into all phases of supply and maintenance, thus increasing the efficiency and output of the Squadron. Numerous ingenious devices, tools and modifications of aircraft have been designed and manufactured, an unusually large percentage of which have been incorporated as standard modifications for aircraft in the United States and in the European Theatre of Operations. By it’s superb performance and the overall efficiency and willing spirit displayed by each individual, the 461st Air Service Squadron has contributed materially to the successful support of the fighter offensive of the Ninth Air Force and reflects the highest traditions of the Armed Forces of the United States.”

–Myron R. Wood, Brigadier General, Commanding , IX Air Force Service Command.

I find it interesting that while I grew up surrounded with Gumpus’ love for the P-51, and his stories of comradeship during his service, I don’t ever recall him talking about what he saw once they advanced into Germany. I am sure that one reason for that is it was likely inappropriate conversation for a child, but I cannot even begin to imagine how he processed the visuals left behind in the aftermath of the horrors of the Nazi regime. I like to think that he was able to remember instead the accomplishments of the Team, and the mateship that he experienced with his fellows. That is certainly the impression I had. He was so immensely proud of this part of his life, and well he should be.

For the full lists of personnel please see “they kept ’em flying” team B, 326th Air Service Group, 9th Air Force.

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