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Clark Gable in the eighth Air Force

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

As September wore on into October, the Eighth Air Force continued to grow and learn, as did Gable. A record 108 B-17s and B-24s bombed the steel works at Lille, Belgium, on October 9, with a loss of four. The two most seasoned units, the 97th and 301st Bomb Groups (H), then departed for Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa.

They left behind four B-17 groups, the 91st, 303d, 305th, and 306th; and two B-24 groups, the 44th and 93d to carry on the daylight bombardment offensive during the winter of 1942, while men like Gable trained to reinforce them in 1943.

Despite the welcome distractions of training, Gable continued to mourn Lombard. Around his neck, under his uniform, he wore a small gold box, which held part of Lombard's jewelry. He confided in friends his feelings about his wife's tragic death. Combined with his insistence on facing the challenges of an ordinary soldier, this despondency misled some observers unfamiliar with Gable. One stormy night after lightning hit a lifeguard station, Gable refused to leave his post. His supervisor took this as "a death wish," so "he could join his wife." The "death wish" rumor thrived when Gable flew combat. There is no evidence, however, that he exhibited any behavior beyond normal mourning.

The AAF commissioned Class 42-E on October 28, 1942; Arnold handed the new officers their diplomas and gave a speech. The class selected Gable to give the commencement address. Although likely the product of many hands, it revealed his motivations, reminding listeners of the "individual discipline" needed to win the war, and then set them a credo:

I've worked with you, scrubbed with you, marched with you, worried with you over whether this day would ever come. The important thing, the proud thing, I've learned about us is that we are men.... Soon we will wear the uniforms of officers. How we look in them is not very important. How we "wear" them is a lot more important.... Our job is to stay on the beam until-in victory-we are given the command "Fall Out."

After the ceremony, Arnold asked Gable to recruit a film crew and fly combat with an Eighth Air Force heavy bomb group. He would make a movie on the life of an aerial gunner, to be used to recruit inductees as aerial gunners. Arnold may have hoped it would be ready in time to show the flood of men expected to be mobilized in 1943. Gable and McIntyre were assigned first to "rush" courses at Flexible Gunnery School at Tyndall Field, Panama City, Florida, and then a photography course at Camp Seven Mile, Fort George Wright, Spokane, Washington. They then would start filming as soon as possible.

Promoted to first lieutenants, Gable and McIntyre trooped off to Tyndall. Started from the Florida wilderness less than a year before to meet rapid mobilization needs, Tyndall and other training bases replaced the old Army Air Corps aircrew cross-training method. There was no question that Gable, an accomplished hunter, would easily handle aerial gunnery school, which in 1943 consisted of classroom and such field work as skeet shooting and air-to-air gunnery.

The AAF resourcefully drew the many instructors needed for vastly expanded training from the ranks of newly trained enlisted men. Asked to get Gable through quickly, Tyndall's commanding officer selected such a set of instructors for Gable and McIntyre. Among them was SSgt. Bill Cramer. When they were introduced, Gable skillfully made them comfortable, smiling and asking about the training, and if they would skeet-shoot, his hobby.

Gable and McIntyre each were assigned quarters that shared a bathroom with the room next door. After unpacking, Gable decided he needed some company and knocked on the door. The neighbor, Dan Hagarty, opened it, gaped, and invited him in. Recently transferred from the Canadian Air Force, Hagarty, it turned, out was to be the "pilot to Gable." He would fly a T-6 or 0-47, while Gable fired a machine gun at towed targets from the back seat. They became fast friends, with Gable's knock on the wall the signal to come over for a drink. Hagarty even took the blame when Gable, at the controls after practice one day, hit a marsh bird.

Training camp rigors in the past, Gable, like other officers, grew back his mustache. The oversized uniform in mind, he sent his tailoring to MGM's costumers. Finally, he added a metal cover, with a photo of Lombard, to his dogtags. Astounded at missing a skeet target, Gable, pride at stake, had the ranch deliver his favorite skeet gun. He shot a perfect score the next time. Tyndall happily lacked Miami's fans, although this said nothing for his finding them. His sudden appearance at the post exchange one day with Cramer startled a young female clerk. Gable avoided embarrassing her, telling Cramer, "I felt so sorry for that young lady." Spotting him in Panama City, bolder fans leaped up-quite a feat, given his stature-snatched his cap, and dashed off. Gable patiently drew fresh caps as needed from a supply in his closet.

Gable continued to fulfill the military's desire that he inspire civilian draftees. Although awed young airmen sometimes lined up and saluted when they saw him coming, Gable fit in so well that McIntyre observed that he "was a good ad for one of the roughest.. jobs" of aerial gunnery. A photo reveals him jauntily draped in two belts of .50 caliber ammunition, looking properly rough and ready.

Aerial gunnery grew in importance for the Eighth Air Force as the Luftwaffe developed skill and strength at bomber interception. Realizing that B-17F and B-24D models had weak frontal firepower, German airmen learned to attack headon, downing four of 24 B-17s on November 23. On December 20, the Eighth fought its fiercest air battle ever, losing six bombers of 101 on a mission to a Luftwaffe repair base at Romilly-sur-Seine.

Urgent need for combat crews for global war, as well as the Eighth Air Force's expanding offensive, prompted the AAF, in December 1942, to make some specialists eligible for aerial gunnery training. This eroded the need for Gable's film. Clearly, time would not await it.

Midway through gunnery school, Gable returned to the ranch, but, immersed in memories of Lombard, he fled the gloom for Tyndall before Christmas. Glad to find refuge in work and friends, Gable completed aerial gunnery school by January 6, 1943. His instructors held their own graduation, with Sergeant Cramer pinning on Gable's aerial gunner's wings.

After the official ceremony, Gable cinematically growled to reporters of his classmates, "A fine group of chaps. They have blood in their eyes. They want to see action, and of course I would like to see action, too." Gable and McIntyre then attended an aerial photography course at Spokane. The usual mobs were absent; they could even chat with an elderly fan whom they found searching a train station for "Mr. Rhett Butler."

While they learned photography, Lt. Gen. Eaker won Prime Minister Winston Churchill's assent at Casablanca to continue precision daylight bombing. It would be coordinated with the RAF's night missions as the famous "round the clock" bombing. On January 3, the Eighth Air Force had taken its heaviest losses to date over St. Nazaire, although the 305th Bomb Group's pioneering Col. Curtis LeMay introduced his "lead crew" concept, which yielded better bombing, and "combat box" formation, for defense against fighters.

After Spokane, Gable and McIntyre reported to Biggs Field, Texas, where early in 1943 Lt. Col. (later Col.) William A. Hatcher, Jr. was preparing the 351st Bomb Group (H), equipped with B-17 Flying Fortresses, to join the Eighth's veteran units. Shortly before Gable's arrival, Hatcher told his men that Clark Gable would make an aerial gunnery training film with the 351st, and that he wanted no special treatment. Amid studied casualness, Gable, officially the assistant group operations officer in charge of gunnery, and McIntyre arrived in Texas on January 27, the day of the Eighth's first mission to a target in Germany. Assigned to the 508th Bomb Squadron, Gable finally faced his task.

Accustomed for years to saying his lines and going home, Gable, looking "a little stunned," now realized what went into a movie. He assembled an experienced camera crew. McIntyre would handle cinematography. John Lee Mahin, a friend and veteran of many of his movies, would screenwrite. Camera operators Sgts. Mario Toti and Robert Boles and Lt. Howard Voss, sound man, completed the crew, which soon was termed 'The Little Hollywood Group."

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