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
The American was not a professional warrior but a citizen-soldier named Clark
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
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
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
By Robert F. Dorr, Special Times