Clark Gable in the eighth Air Force
Credit: Air Power History; Washington; Spring 1999; Steven Agoratus
As the number of trained combat crews increased, Arnold flooded the Eighth
with replacements. Stepping up the daylight bombing campaign, the Eighth flew
that fall to Ploesti, Weiner Neustadt, Regensburg, Schweinfurt, Stuttgart,
Marienburg, Mnster, and others. Bomber losses rose, as the Germans increased
their fighters' armament and based them in range of bomber flight paths.
Gable tried to cover all aspects of the air war that he thought affected
aerial gunners. Traveling about wartime England, McIntyre exposed footage of
captured enemy planes and 351st personnel on leave. Gable learned to allow time
for inevitable big greetings. At Bassingbourn, the 91st Bomb Group base, he
posed good-naturedly for cameras under the group's famed Delta Rebel 2. His
visit to the 352d Fighter Group at Bodney, training that summer to escort heavy
bombers, typified such trips. Gable's female fans, now in the Red Cross and
special services activities, greeted him. The 328th Fighter Squadron's Capt.
William T. Halton and a proud crew chief briefed him on the P-47. McIntyre
filmed some formation flying.
Inevitably, and not unreasonably, given Gable's fame, rumors emerged that
Gable's missions were carefully picked to avoid opposition-"milk
runs," in airmen's parlance. But those closely associated with Gable had no
trouble believing he flew them "as they came," and, in fact, the
Luftwaffe offered spirited opposition offered on more than one occasion to
Gable's missions. After a smooth July 24 flight to a chemical facility at Heroya,
Norway, the 351st led 183 First Bomb Division B-17s to the synthetic oil
refinery at Gelsenkirchen on August 12, losing 23 B-17s to flak and fighters.
Clouds and smoke prevented all but two groups from bombing the primary. The
351st hit a secondary target at Bochum, Germany.
Flying in Maj. Theodore Milton's Ain't It Gruesome, Gable somehow wedged
himself in behind the top turret gunner for a better view. He was amply
rewarded: fighters made five passes, killing one man, wounding seven others, and
damaging eleven 351st planes. At one point a 20-mm shell came through Gruesome's
floor, cut off the heel from Gable's boot, and exited a foot from his head, all
without exploding. Afterward, the crew noticed the holes, and Gable his boot;
they all realized he had almost been killed. Gruesome had fifteen shell holes.
Brushing it off with reporters, Gable claimed,
fl) didn't know it had happened. I didn't know anything about it until we had
dropped eleven thousand feet (and could get off oxygen and look around). Only
then did I see the hole in the turret.
Now Gable was "one of the guys": his hands shook after the mission.
Over tea and rolls a few weeks later, Gable told TSgt. Bill Cramer, who had
recently arrived, that he had decided to name the movie Combat America, a direct
title reflecting his view of the air war and also his distance from MGM's
practiced image makers.
By September, McIntyre had exposed almost 50,000 feet-ten miles-of film.
Gable's last mission was September 23, when 117 bombers, in a break from the
Combined Bomber Offensive, went to the Nantes port. Clouds forced all but 46
planes of the 351st and 91st Bomb Groups to abort. Fighters wounded two in each
As they approached the target, fighters attacked head-on, closing to within
yards. This was Gable's last chance for combat. Leaving his camera crew in the
waist, he pounded away with the nosemounted .50 caliber in Lt. Col. Robert W
Burns' The Duchess. Lingering on the hardstand with Burns' crew and reporters,
he intoned, "It wasn't quite as tough as the Ruhr. But it was tough
I could see the German pilot's features. That guy won't be around very long
if he keeps on doing that.
I don't know how we missed him, though. I didn't hit a damned thing myself.
Many such incidents prompted the Eighth to create in theater aerial gunnery
schools. At one such school, located at "the Wash" on England's east
coast, a veteran 306th Bomb Group gunner, Sgt. Harry Alleman, demonstrated a top
turret. He appreciated Gable's thanks afterward, and vividly remembered how tall
he was. The 303d Bomb Group's Lt. Robert J. Hullar flew them over the "The
Wash," where McIntyre filmed aerial gunners aiming at P-47s making fake
passes. Gable's missions heartened Hullar's radioman, Sgt. George F. Hoyt:
"It was a great inspiration knowing that "the King" of the movies
was in the air taking his chances like we were."
Knowing he had little chance of more combat, Gable felt let down, sighing to
reporters, "I just do whatever the Army tells me to." Embarrassed at
receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal, he evoked the
greater sacrifices of others. In late October, just after the Eighth's heroic
battles over Bremen and Munster, Gable and Mahin flew to the United States to
edit the film (which they sent by ship) into a movie.
Gable reported to Arnold upon arrival in the United States. Uneasily eyeing
appreciative female office staff jamming Pentagon hallways as he passed by, he
again told reporters that his fellow airmen, not he, were the heroes. Arnold,
engulfed in a global air war, no longer had him in mind: "Well, Clark, what
was it I sent you to Europe for? I've forgotten," he asked goodnaturedly.
Taken aback, Gable responded, "To make a film. There was a gunner problem,
sir." Reminded of October 1942 when, needing every resource he could get,
he assigned Gable to make the movie, the general offhandedly replied, with a
good deal of relief, "Oh, we've licked that." Gable was speechless,
but Arnold genially ordered, "Go on out and do anything you want, any way
you want to." Gable decided to finish the movie. Since the film unit was in
Hollywood, he went home.
Despite a big welcome, Lombard's absence once again saddened Gable. He got
back into the old routine, running the ranch and seeing friends. Soon missing,
as did millions of other veterans, the shared danger, the common purpose, the
camaraderie of the service, he tried to find a substitute. Along with Mahin, he
sampled, unsuccessfully, the controversial Motion Picture Alliance for the
Preservation of American Ideals; sold war bonds; and filmed Show Business at
War, on Hollywood's role in the war. Eighth Air Force veterans, like Dan Hagarty
and "Oui"-Leonard Lee Korf-cheered him up. He wanted, perhaps, simply
to return to his unit.
The old fixes did not work anymore; he played golf, but smashed the balls. He
dated often, but found with no one the feelings he had for Lombard. Like before,
he drank; like before, it solved nothing. He took long, moody motorcycle drives.
MGM did not help, inviting him to the christening of the Liberty ship Carole
Lombard. Yet, the war helped Gable resign himself to being without Lombard:
"I saw so much in the way of death and destruction. I realized that I
hadn't been singled out for griefthat others were suffering and losing their
loved ones just as I lost "Ma" [Lombard].
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