Gig's Up!
Edward Gignac: The 352nd's All American Flyer
By Marc L. Hamel

"Leading Purple Flight shortly after rendezvous with bombers, I saw a straggling B-17 at about 5,000 or 6,000 feet. At approximately 1530 I saw an E/A** approaching the B-17 from 6 o'clock. I immediately called in the bounce and started down. The E/A scored several hits on the B-17 before I could get to it. As I closed in on the E/A he broke off his attack on the bomber with what appeared to be a violent aileron roll. The E/A then pulled up in a vertical climb. I reefed back violently and took a short burst. My closing speed was very high so I could not follow him up. Even though my burst was very short and at a great deflection, I claim destruction of this Me 109 as Lt. Heller, flying Green 2 saw the pilot bail out just after I fired at him, and he also saw the E/A explode as it hit the ground."
** Enemy Aircraft

These are the words of Captain Edward Joseph Gignac, USAAF describing one of the high points of his outstanding flying career on March 8, 1944. An excellent Flight Leader and pilot, Gignac never attained the exalted title of 'ace' with the Army Air Forces. However, his awards, accomplishments, and the respect garnered from his peers clearly marked him as an outstanding pilot.

This All-American flyer 's love of the air , competitiveness, and daring mainfested itself in another way early in life: on skis.

'Eddie' Gignac, was born on West Street in Lebanon, New Hampshire on September 7th, 1918. A quiet boy from prime skiing country, Eddie was on skis by the age of three wearing boots tailored to fit his diminutive feet. "Rather on the short side", as a friend later described, Gignac's stature grew slowly, as his skiing prowess advanced rapidly.

Around age nine 'Eddie' tried leaping from the ski jump in his home town, and found it to his liking. With encouragement from the local ski coach, jumping became his serious avocation by 7th grade. Soon, a high school aged Gignac was making his presence felt in Northeastern competitions, winning several prominent winter meets and perfecting a somersault leap off of ski jumps.

Gignac entered Kimball Union Academy on scholarship in 1936, and gave notice of arrival to the ski world. After major Class B skiing victories in 1936, 'Ed' qualified for Class A (top level) ski jumping competitions with a second place at Brattleboro VT during the '37 season (in February of 1938). This set up one of the biggest upsets in ski jumping to that date.

One week later, on February 27, 1938, Gignac ran away with all of the marbles at the U.S. Eastern Amateur Ski Jumping Championships at Gilford New Hampshire. His unprecedented debut in Class A was marked by outjumping the top Olympic, National and Eastern title holders of the day, giving him the Eastern U.S. jump title.

In the fall of '38, he entered Middlebury College in Vermont and continued his winning ways despite a college football related knee injury. During the '39 ski season, he joined a national invitational exhibition tour with other top U.S. ski jumping stars, and claimed Lake Placid's Ski Meister Trophy for all-around skiing prowess. Though his nagging knee injury cost Gignac a place on the '40 Winter Olympic team, he bounced back to take the College Class jump title at the Nationals held in Berlin N.H. An ace jumper and competitor in anyone's book, 'Ed' began looking for another challenge for his considerable talents.

With enough college credits under his belt and rumors of war about, Edward Gignac enlisted in the US Army Air Corps in the spring of 1941 after his mother's death from cancer. Technically too short to qualify, 5'-3" Gignac wrangled himself into flight training, starting at Darr Aerotech in Albany, Georgia. Surviving upperclassmen, washout checks, poor food, and scrubbing the wind tee for an improper takeoff at Augusta, Georgia, he was soon off to Pursuit School at Craig Field. "Learning how to effectively take lives and destroy property" was his joking description of this last stop before graduating Class 41-I as 2nd Lieutenant Edward J. Gignac. This was December 12, 1941, and America had been at war for five days.
Edward Gignac
Edward Gignac

With our country in dire straights in the Pacific Theater, Gignac arrived in Australia with the 7th Pursuit Squadron to defend freedom in early 1942. The month of May saw 'Gig' transferred to the 'Red Devils' of the 40th Pursuit Squadron who were then off to defend Port Moresby, the last Allied holdout in New Guinea. With little experience and inferior P-39 Airacobra aircraft (and rejected lend-lease export versions designated P-400), the 'Red Devil' squadron pilots went to battle against overwhelming odds daily.

The following Silver Star Medal writeup describes what June 18th, 1942 held in store for him:

"For gallantry in action over New Guinea, on June 18, 1942. This officer was flying a P-39 type aircraft as part of a flight of three, which intercepted nine enemy bombers and eight enemy fighter planes. The enemy fighters were at a considerable height above the bombers, and when our planes attacked the bombers, they were met by a diving head-on attack by the Zeros. Lt. Gignac selected one of the bombers and continued to press the attack in spite of the fact that a number of Zeros were firing bursts into his plane. After the first pass, he chandelled in front of the bombers and, though slightly wounded, he managed to damage another bomber. After the encounter, Lt. Gignac succeeded in flying his crippled plane back to the home base and landing it. His persistence and fearlessness are highly commendable and are in keeping with the best fighting traditions of the U.S. Army Air Corps."

July 11, 1942 brought a winning day for the embattled 40th Pursuit Squadron home team, with five hard fought victories over the Japanese. 'Gig' was not so fortunate however, as he experienced an engine failure just prior to the attack on the enemy formation. Fellow Airacobra handler Philip K. Shriver remembers, "From 15,000 feet with a glide angle of a flat rock, he managed to cover a considerable distance and crash land alive on a makeshift strip. From that day forward, he carried the mark of every pilot that crash landed a P-39...an imprint of the gunsight on his forehead."

Though carried on the 40th Squadron's roster, extended recuperation from his injuries prevented further combat flying before rotation home in the late Fall of '42.

Gignac, promoted to 1st Lieutenant, arrived home for a well- deserved leave in November. Posted stateside to the 320th Squadron of the 326th FG (an OTU or Operation Training Unit for P-47 Thunderbolts), Edward noted that, he "wanted a crack at the Germans next." This OTU Provided the original cadre of pilots that formed the 352nd. Fidgeting at the lack of combat activity, Gignac took a Thunderbolt home for a memorable 'buzz' of Lebanon and Kimball Union Academy before being assigned to the 21st Squadron of the 352nd Fighter Group.

Attaining Captain rank in March of 1943, Gignac's experience found him well suited to Flight Leader status in the 486th (as the 21st was renamed in May). The 352nd shipped for England on the Queen Elizabeth, and arrived at their Bodney airbase home in July. Operating from this base, the 352nd produced some of the top scoring ETO aces, and later boasted the nickname 'The Bluenosed Bastards of Bodney' for their blue painted cowlings.

Adapting to ETO missions pounding the Luftwaffe's fighters, 'Pappy' Gignac put his first mark in the victory column with a shared kill over an Me 110 January 30th, 1944 while flying his P-47D-2 Thunderbolt (aptly named 'GIG'S-UP'). While the nickname 'Pappy' was commonly applied to older experienced pilots, Assistant Crew Chief Art Nellen remembers that Gignac's sobriquet was from his chin's resemblance to the Lil' Abner character Pappy Yokum's chin. Only war could advance 'Little Eddie' to 'Pappy' in a few short years.

Undoubtedly this chin was carried high as Gignac was awarded the DFC in February, less than a month before the March 8th Me 109 victory described at the start of this article. This victory was the first using a P-51 Mustang for the Group, which was transitioning from the shorter-legged P-47s in early spring (see the chapter entitled "Raining Thunderbolts" for more on this eventful mission). Though people close to 'Pappy' noted that combat was taking its toll on him, he was advanced to Assistant Group Operations Officer in April. Promotion to the rank of Major in May prompted another new job, acting Group Operations Officer. Gignac proudly wrote in a letter home, "I'm no longer a mere cog, I'm a wheel."

June 6, 1944 is a date that Americans remember with pride. D-Day! The 352nd FG was busy shaking the earth bombing and strafing in France to prevent movement behind the beaches. The following day brought more of the same, as the Luftwaffe was not able to contest the skies.

The second mission of June 7th found Gignac leading a tactical assault flight of Mustangs over France. 'Pappy's' Mustang, 'GIG'S-UP II', wasn't available for this mission, so he was flying his CO Willie O. Jackson's P-51B 'Hot Stuff'. After bombing a marshalling yard at Trappe, a group of prime movers, fueling trucks, and personnel carriers, were spotted near Voisin-le-Bretonneux at 1400 hours. Quickly setting up a 'race-track' strafing pattern to prevent mid-air collisions, gunnery passes began. After the second set of passes, a large amount of light flak began reaching for the 486th pilots. Asked if he was going to make another pass, Gignac radioed, "I can't, I'm on fire." The Mustang, hit in the right wing ammo bay and streaming smoke, pulled up to 2000 feet as Pappy tried to gain altitude for bailing out. The plane was then seen to nose down sharply, and explode in mid-air as the right wing fuel tank exploded. "Pappy" was killed instantly.

The Germans in the area removed his dog tags and ordered the French Mayor of Voisin-le-Bretonneux to bury his body, and assist in salvaging pieces of the aircraft. While at first blush the removal of the tags sounds barbaric, in fact this was common practice as the Germans forwarded dog tags to the Red Cross for notification. Sadly, "Pappy's" tags never made it to the Red Cross, causing him to be listed as Missing In Action (MIA) until much later. It is presumed the Germans with the tags were later killed in the hedgerow fighting in France.

At great risk to himself, the Mayor secretly recorded the remnants of the aircraft's serial number on the fin as well as the "Hot Stuff" nose art during the salvage operation. As the graves registration personnel moved into the Voisin area later in the war, the Mayor came forth with this crucial information he had recorded, allowing "Pappy's" identification to be established later when lost-aircraft records were researched in 1945.

An interesting fact to note is that the French citizens of Voisin-le-Bretonneux never knew the identity of the heroic American aviator that was briefly interred in their cemetery in 1944. In 1999 Gignac's sister Marilyn, using the author's research records, walked into the Mayor's office in Voisin-le-Bretonneux to inquire about her brother. Now a French-speaking Catholic nun, she was greeted with welcoming arms once the official realized that "Pappy" was their "unknown hero". On June 7th, 2000, the Town of Voisin-le-Bretonneux dedicated a permanent memorial to Gignac, recognizing the sacrifice he made to the liberation of their country from Nazi oppression.

The author Brewster, writing for the Kimball Union Academy Alumni Bulletin in 1947 eloquently remembered Gignac:

"He was a great little guy; his heart as large as his body was small, and his physical courage was boundless. He flew, wearing the colors of Uncle Sam in his last great event with the same fullness of endeavor that so marked his life. After a desperate losing battle in which his body was riddled and scarred by the bullets of the Japanese, he returned as indomitable as ever to go forth to the European front and there in his last great contest, ride his last plane with its symbolic name, 'GIG'S-UP'."

Fellow flyers and friends contributing to this article remember Edward as, "rather quiet, unassuming, a rock of stability, well liked, respected, a fine man, excellent pilot, peerless leader, fair, trustworthy, decent, a great gentleman, and one Hell of a man." While a man could have much worse words said of him, they also miss the slightly wild edge that led this All American to fly from ski jumps and airfields around the world. A great remembrance from his home town sums this up well: "He was a hellion, in the nicest possible way."

Edward Joseph Gignac is buried in the American Military Cemetery located in Epinal, France overlooking the Moselle River. His awards include the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross with one Oak Leaf Cluster, the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, and the Purple Heart.

Acknowledgments:

The author would like to thank Helen Gignac McCaffrey (sister), Maria Downey (cousin), Al Heigh, Joan Bishop (KUA), Kim Ehritt Smith (Middlebury), Carlos "Dan" Dannacher and the members of the 40th Pursuit/Fighter Squadron, Bob Powell and the members of the 352nd Fighter Group, Sam Sox Jr., Tom Ivie, the U.S. Air Force Museum, the Town of Voisin-leBretonneux, and especially Robert L. Hamel, for keeping 'Eddie's' memory alive for the last 50 years.