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Clark Gable in the eighth Air Force

Credit: Air Power History; Washington; Spring 1999; Steven Agoratus

One day Gable "by chance" met an Army Air Force officer, Col. Luke Smith, who-in line with Arnold's "specific" task-told him, "Everyone wants to be a pilot, but you'd be doing a real service as a gunner. It would help to glorify the plane crews and the grease monkeys." Although aerial gunners were enlisted, and Gable had spoken of OCS, Smith's proposal appealed to his occasional desire to lose himself, and perhaps his grief, in enlisted anonymity.

MGM tempted Gable with an aviation actionadventure movie script, but, after some thought, he turned it down, crisply telling MGM, "That's it. No more films," and prepared to enlist. MGM blithely turned from retaining Gable to supporting him. Its deft hand eased Gable's life in the months ahead, and helped the AAF leverage his ability to inspire people. Taking customary charge, MGM, with the military's assent, cloaked his pre-induction intelligence test and physical in secrecy, although he easily passed both. The studio then arranged for Gable's friend, tall, well-built cinematographer Andrew McIntyre, to accompany him through OCS, possibly to help fend off fans. Demonstrating how to build an image, MGM disingenously told the press that Gable was giving up his Hollywood salary for enlisted pay of $66 a month. This was true, except for the secret $150,000 MGM contract that replaced the one he gave up. Learning quickly, the AAF revealed that McIntyre and Gable "hoped" to stay together. Skilled himself at "smoke and mirrors," Gable told reporters that he had asked about enlistment. Melancholy still gripped him, and he exclaimed to a friend, "I'm going in and I don't expect to come back, and I don't really give a hoot whether I do or not.''

For its own part, the Eighth Air Force flew its first mission on July 4, with 15th Bomb Squadron crews flying with the Royal Air Force (RAF) against airfields in German-occupied Holland. Three aircraft, two with Eighth crews, were lost.

On August 12, the army roped off half a floor in the Los Angeles Federal Building, and swore in Gable and McIntyre. Finally realizing Lombard's wish, Gable told the press, "I have made application to be a gunner and I'm going to do my very best. There's nothing else to say." MGM's well-oiled publicity machine had plenty to say, detailing even Gable's serial number, 19125741, for fans to memorize. Hoping perhaps that readers would follow his example, or just to stem an inevitable tide of fans, press releases noted that Gable had made "his last public appearance for some time," and "put aside Hollywood activities" to go in as a "buck private."

Despite Gable's remark, clearly he could not follow up on Smith's vision, or his own quoted desire "to be a machine gunner on an airplane and be sent where the going is tough." Nor would he agree to appearances, despite a hopeful AAF June 19 press release. Only Arnold knew the nature of his assignment.

August 17, 1942, was an auspicious day, both for the AAF and for Clark Gable. The daylight strategic bombardment offensive opened with the first Eighth Bomber Command heavy bomber raid on the Rouen marshaling yards, flown by 97th Bomb Group B-17s. Gable arrived at the Miami Air Officers' Training School, after an eventful train trip from Hollywood, delayed by a "circus-like" mob of screaming fans in New Orleans.

Gable agreeably allowed reporters to follow him, as the military hoped to use his ability to influence people. He did not disappoint, asserting a no-nonsense creed the army wanted recruits to hear: "I suppose after the war I will go back to Hollywood and pictures. But right now I have plenty to do and think about. And you can't do two things at once."After a crew cut, a supply sergeant handed Gable a pair of oversized pants. As the normally carefully tailored Gable puzzled over them, the sergeant noted, "They'll shrink a little bit-and so will you." Told he must remove his famous mustache, Gable quipped, "Suits me, I'll probably be a lot cooler anyway."

Assigned quarters in the Collins Park Hotel, now taken over, along with much of Miami Beach, by the AAF, Gable and McIntyre changed into the ill-fitting clothes. Shortly they were set to washing the lobby floor. Photos appeared nationwide of the King of Hollywood scrubbing away happily just like any other soldier.

Before the war, the AAF, spurred on by Arnold, had created an organization of a size and quality sufficient to train civilian-soldiers quickly and efficiently for the complexities and stresses of modern war. Taking advantage of the good weather of the Gulf of Mexico area, bases rose from the wilderness in Florida and nearby states. After some debate, it was decided that most recruits would go through OCS and its West Point method of physical, emotional, and mental testing to train them for the stress of combat.

Routinely promoted to corporal upon entry into OCS, Gable and McIntyre were assigned to Class 42-E, of 2,600 men, and Squadron I, spiritedly dubbed "The Iron Men of I." Gable gladly faded into anonymity, making hospital corners on his bed, running obstacle courses, marching, and enduring inspections. Despite his desire to get away from Hollywood, Gable's craft benefited him in training camp. He memorized difficult class work just as he did movie scripts, ranking 700 out of 2,600; and toughed his way through eighteenhour day, seven day weeks in the hot Miami sun, just as he had MGM's fourteen-hour day, six-day weeks. Even so, the forty-one-year old Gable soon lagged on marches, an agony he deftly fine-tuned to the press as "enjoying Army life, had lost ten pounds, and was feeling fine." Much later, he told friends he thought they were trying to wash him out, due to his age. The Eighth learned toughness as well, losing two bombers to fighters on September 6.

Although Gable strove to be "just a regular guy," few people at first took him seriously; either they thought he "was involved as an actor only," or made him the object of fun. Gable countered the jibes with gags of his own. One morning, shaving with fifty other men, he waved around his dentures, joking, "Look at the King, the King of Hollywood. Sure looks like the Jack now, doesn't he?" He genuinely wanted to relate to his peers, and soon most men regarded him as a "regular fellow." A friend said, "I think those of us who knew Clark Gable as a soldier saw the real man more than anyone else perhaps in his whole lifetime. He was not a movie star to us." The fans disagreed.

Miami Beach was unenclosed, permitting delighted fans to try to get into his quarters; watch him march; and follow, giggling, behind a fence on the beach, while he stoically walked guard duty on the other side, dodging wads of paper with telephone numbers. The AAF soon was forced to move his training from public view.

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