CLARK GABLE FLEW COMBAT MISSIONS
Source: Air Force Times, 10/30/2000, Vol. 61 Issue 14, p42, 2p, 1bw
Author(s): Dorr, Robert F.
In 1943, Nazi Germany's Herman Goering offered a reward for the capture of an American known to be flying as part of the bombing campaign against the Third Reich.
The American was not a professional warrior but a citizen-soldier named Clark Gable.
William Clark Gable was better known to the public as an accomplished film actor, noted for his role as Rhett Butler in "Gone With the Wind." Gable appeared in numerous other films before the war, married the glamorous Carol Lombard and seemed on his way to superstardom.
When Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 and drove the United States into the war, Gable sent a telegram to President Franklin D. Roosevelt offering to join the Army. The president replied, "Stay where you are."
Gable and Lombard immediately joined the Hollywood Victory Committee and began organizing bond rallies and camp shows. When Lombard was killed in the crash of a DC-3 airliner in January 1942, Gable finished the movie "Somewhere I'll Find You," then asked his friend, aviation pioneer Paul Mantz to fly him to Phoenix for a meeting with Col. Luke Smith of the Army Air Forces -- the predecessor to today's Air Force. Gable asked Smith what the toughest job in the Air Forces was, and Smith told him it was recruiting aerial gunners.
Some sources claim that upon his return to Los Angeles, Gable immediately enlisted as a private and trained to become a gunner. This appears to be a myth, along with the notion that Gable wanted to die in battle because of his grief over the loss of his wife.
Prior to his enlistment, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer press agent had begged Army Air Forces boss Gen. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold to make Gable a captain. Arnold advised Gable that since he had no prior military experience, he could not begin as a captain. That was when the actor joined up as a 41-year-old private.
Soon afterward, Arnold created the military-operated First Motion Picture Unit, or
FMPU, at what troops called "Fort Roach" -- the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, Calif. FMPU was commanded by producer Jack Warner, who was recruited as a lieutenant colonel. Flight operations were commanded by
Mantz, a major.
Once FMPU was in operation, officer commissions were offered to Gable, as well as Alan Ladd, Ronald Reagan, George Montgomery, Van Heflin, Arthur Kennedy and other Hollywood luminaries. The men did not become officers automatically, however. Gable was sent to Officer Candidate School at Miami Beach, Fla., and qualified as a second lieutenant after completing the 13-week course. Gable and his sidekick and cameraman, An drew McIntyre, were then sent to gunnery training at Tyndall Army Air Field, Fla. (today, Tyndall Air Force Base).
According to one veteran, Gable had difficulty with some of the subjects he needed to pass to qualify for a commission and managed to pass only by memorizing the information in the same way he memorized lines for his movies.
While many FMPU members remained in Hollywood, Gable went to Peterborough Air Base outside London to shoot "Combat America," a propaganda film about air gunners. Also involved were McIntyre; 1st Lt. Howard Voss, a sound engineer; Master Sgt. Robert Boles, a cameraman; Master Sgt. Marlin
Toti, an other cameraman; and 1st Lt. John Mahlin, a scriptwriter.
Gable was assigned to the 351st Bomb Group at Polebrook, England. Although neither ordered nor expected to do so, he volunteered to fly combat missions. By the fall of 1943, Gable's crew had exposed 50,000 feet of film.
Gable and his cameramen and sound engineer followed the crew of a B17, named
"Ain't It Gruesome," through 24 missions. On one mission, the aircraft was shot by a German Focke Wulf Fw 190 fighter and lost an engine. The crew bailed out over a field in England when fog closed in.
Gable flew five combat missions, including one over Gelsenkirchen, where he was nearly hit when antiaircraft fire damaged the airplane. At least one of his missions was aboard another B-17, named "Delta Rebel 2," part of the 91st Bomb Group Ball turret gunner Sgt. Steve Perri remembered Gable as "a great friend of the enlisted men, as well as a great all-around guy."
Promoted to first lieutenant before reaching England and to captain soon after, Gable followed up his filming of "Combat America" by returning to Fort Roach in October 1943 to edit the movie.
Unfortunately, the 63-minute "Combat America" was completely overshadowed by William Wyler's "Memphis Belle," the saga of a B-17 Flying Fortress crew in combat, also released in 1944. (A 1985 commercial film bears the same name).
The FMPU eventually completed 300 training and propaganda films and was responsible for 3 million feet of combat footage. Reagan, who went on to become president, called the film office "an important contribution to the war effort."
Gable was relieved from active duty as a major on June 12, 1944, at his request, since he was overage for combat. Because his motion picture production schedule made it impossible for him to fulfill Reserve officer duties, he resigned his commission on Sept. 26, 1947, just a week afar the Air Force became a separate service branch.
By Robert F. Dorr, Special Times