Clark Gable in the eighth Air Force
Credit: Air Power History; Washington; Spring 1999; Steven Agoratus
After a few months, the film arrived. Although officially posted at the First
Motion Picture Unit, Gable worked at familiar MGM, with Mahin, McIntyre and
famed editor Blanche Sewell, among others.
Gable faithfully portrayed the life of a bomber aerial gunner. The film
shows, above all, aerial gunners in air combat. It also includes in theater
aerial gunnery training, life on base, and Gable talking with aerial gunners as
they cleaned their weapons. He thoroughly covered the feelings the men would
encounter: youthful cockiness; pride; pre-mission jitters; fear at seeing
shot-up planes; sorrow for the wounded.
As Gable made progress on the film, the Eighth's long-range fighters seized
air superiority by the Combined Bomber Offensive's official end in April 1944.
In the United States aircrew training peaked.
While the Eighth's battles raged over Europe, Gable continued to hope for new
combat orders, perhaps not thinking that the military considered the First
Motion Picture Unit an ideal assignment for him, or at least was waiting for him
to finish Combat America. A promotion in May to major raised his hopes, but with
D-Day on June 6, 1944, Gable requested, and was given his discharge.
Clark Gable's enlistment and World War II combat service typified that of
such leading movie stars like Henry Fonda, Robert Young, James Stewart, and
others, whom the studios-and President Roosevelt-preferred to make movies.
Others, like Alan Ladd and Ronald Reagan, made substantial contributions with
the First, or, like Bob Hope, toured the front.
Gable completed Combat America in September 1944. The First pulled together
four more short, instructional films with leftover footage. Gable, less shy now
of working at the First's staff and facilities, appeared in one, Wings Up, a
recruiting film for officers.
Gable could have met the mid-1943 aerial gunnery recruitment peak, but only
with far less filming time. Mobilization needs aside, many reviewers over the
years have claimed Combat America to be "nothing significant," and
destined for "oblivion." Even Gable was said to suffer such fears.
Unrealistic hopes of its arrival on marquees seem to fuel these claims. Despite
his exposure to MGM's mass-audience appeal methods, Gable followed the First
Motion Picture Unit's standard practice in making Combat America for a military,
not a civilian audience. Thus, it was seen mostly at bond drives. However, the
movie is more significant than its distribution implies.
Produced by a man who aspired to be one with his peers, Combat America is one
of the few-perhaps the only-film in which Eighth personnel speak for themselves.
Due perhaps in part to Gable's distancing of himself from the First when he
assembled it, it lacks some of the studio scenes, special effects, and other
film industry standardizations seen in many First products. Instead, the film is
a vehicle for Gable to tell the world about the men with whom he served,
reflecting his regard for them. Gable let the men's personalities emerge,
producing an intimacy and freshness that draw in the viewer. They steal certain
scenes, chatting and engaging in horseplay with Gable, their innocence,
vitality, and pride preserved forever by McIntyre's lens. The 351st saw it in
the mess hall on February 15, 1945. Unit veterans consider it their film.
Reflective both of Gable's personality as well as the Eighth's work and
atmosphere, Combat America has an unpolished, rugged look. Gable wrote no
autobiography; it is his only testament.
By contrast, the highly acclaimed Memphis Belle, the story of a B-17 combat
crew's last mission, directed by the First's William Wyler, preserves a bit more
distance between the narrator and the participants. Despite plenty of combat
footage, "show-business"-type production values influenced it enough
that it was deemed suitable for public viewing.
Newfound confidence gained from his wartime experiences, benefited Gable,
like millions of other veterans. He carefully chose his roles, eventually
breaking with MGM to freelance. He married twice more, finally finding happiness
with Kay Williams Spreckels in 1954. He died of a heart attack in 1960 and was
buried with an Air Force funeral beside Carole Lombard. No one has offered a
better eulogy than Gable himself, who testified that
The things a man has to have are hope and confidence in himself against odds,
and sometimes he needs somebody, his pal or his mother or his wife or God, to
give him that confidence. He's got to have some inner standards worth fighting
for or there won't be any way to bring him into conflict. And he must be ready
to choose death before dishonor without making too much song and dance about it.
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