Defense Media Network

Actor Clark Gable Served in Uniform, Flew Combat Missions in World War II

Advertisement

Clark Gable was a Hollywood star and among the most famous figures in the world when two events altered his life. First, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, hurtling the United States into World War II. Then, the following month, Gable’s beloved wife Carole Lombard was killed in the crash of a DC-3 airliner returning from a war bonds tour.

Devastated, patriotic, and at age 40 a bit old for military service, Gable didn’t feel that the work he and Lombard had been doing to raise money through war bonds was enough of a contribution. He sent a telegram to President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for a role in the war effort. The president replied, “STAY WHERE YOU ARE.”

“Tell the boys hello and tell ‘em me and Clark Gable are putting this 351st outfit in shape.”

Gable didn’t. He volunteered for the Army Air Forces, went to the 13-week Officer Candidate School, and was trained as a photographer and aerial gunner. Because of his Hollywood connections, he was made a part of the First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU) located 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 “Hollywood Pilot” Paul Mantz, famous for his stunt flying in films, who became a major. Other FMPU stalwarts included Alan Ladd, Ronald Reagan and Van Heflin.

Few of them went overseas, but Gable was assigned to go to Britain to film Combat America, a propaganda movie about air gunners.

Clark Gable

Clark Gable posed with the left waist gun of a B-17 Flying Fortress on June 6, 1943. Photo courtesy of the Robert F. Dorr Collection

When the 351st Bombardment Group, equipped with B-17 Flying Fortresses, was formed at Biggs Army Air Field, Tex., in 1942, clerk Corp. Calvert P’Pool wrote to his parents: “Today, Clark Gable is supposed to arrive to be assigned to our group. They tell us he is the same as any other soldier-officer (1st Lt). But they had a carpenter build a special luggage rack in a bomber here and the bomber has gone to Los Angeles for him and is to return this afternoon. He will be a top gunner in a bomber.” P’Pool wrote that the 351st would become “a pretty nice outfit with me and Clark Gable. Tell the boys hello and tell ‘em me and Clark Gable are putting this 351st outfit in shape.”

Former Tech. Sgt. Ralph Cowley recalled events after the 351st arrived at Polebrook, England, and began flying bombing missions over the Third Reich:

Records indicate that Gable flew five combat missions but Cowley and other veterans remember that he flew many more.

“Gable was assigned to our squadron but not to a particular crew,” said Cowley. “The group controlled his assignments. They wanted him to have an outer-wing aircraft with a clear view of the skies for his air-to-air photography, He stayed with us right up from 1942 to 1945 and I can tell you, they didn’t put him on the milk runs. He took a lot of pictures of flak bursting beside his aircraft.” Records indicate that Gable flew five combat missions but Cowley and other veterans remember that he flew many more.

“They were very real missions in which he could have been wounded or killed,” said Chrystopher J. Spicer, an Australian scholar who has scrutinized Gable’s career. “His film Combat America makes a valuable contribution to our historical knowledge of the war from the flyer’s perspective these days.”

B-17 Flying Fortress

This portrait of a B-17G Flying Fortress of the 351st Bombardment Group was taken by Capt. Clark Gable. Photo courtesy of the Robert F. Dorr Collection

According to lore, Germany’s Hermann Göring offered a sizeable cash reward to anyone who could capture Clark Gable.

By the fall of 1943 Gable’s crew had exposed 50,000 feet of film.

“A great friend of the enlisted men as well as a great all-around guy.”

Gable and a cameramen and sound engineer followed the crew of a B-17, named “Ain’t It Gruesome,” through 24 missions, including one where the aircraft was shot up by German Focke Wulf Fw 190 fighters and lost an engine, with the crew eventually bailing over a field in England when fog closed in. Gable’s 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, “Delta Rebel 2″ of the 91st Bomb Group, where ball turret gunner Sgt. Steve Perri remembered him as “a great friend of the enlisted men as well as a great all-around guy.”

Interviews with veterans debunk the myth that Gable wanted to die because of his grief over losing Lombard. They describe him as a sturdy man with unnaturally large hands who took his duties seriously, maintained a military posture, but was willing to party when appropriate.

Clark Gable

Capt. Clark Gable (third from right) prepares for a combat mission with the crew of a bomber named “Jennie.” Photo courtesy of the Robert F. Dorr Collection

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 released at the same time as, and completely overshadowed by William Wyler’s Memphis Belle, another saga of a B-17 crew in combat.

Reagan, who went on to become president, called the film office “an important contribution to the war effort.”

The FMPU eventually completed 300 training and propaganda films and was responsible for 3,000,000 feet of combat footage. Reagan, who went on to become president, called the film office “an important contribution to the war effort.”

Gable was relieved from active duty as a major on June 12, 1944 at his request, since he was over-age 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, a week after the Air Force became an independent service branch.

Clark Gable

Clark Gable (far right) with the crew of the “Eight Ball.” Although records only show Gable flying five combat missions, veterans recall him flying many more. National Archives photo

Gable’s postwar motion picture career, including a film appearance with Marilyn Monroe, drew mixed reactions from critics. He died on Nov. 16, 1960.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

  • Dwight Jon Zimmerman
    Dwight Jon Zimmerman

    The bounty gets even better. Apparently it was the equivalent of a $5,000 reward, an instant promotion, and a furlough. Good article!

  • D.T. Radmilovich

    It now disappoints me to see the Clark Gable story about wanting to be a tail gunner – because of its dangerous place grieving over Carol Lombard and hoping to die – as told by Paul Harvery, is a myth.

    Harvey’s reputation was impeccable, until now. Assuming this site’s info is true, it would make one wonder how many other Hrvey stories may be distorted.

  • Steve Paul Moen

    I would be very careful about rendering judgment on any of the Americans who vounteered to serve in any capaicy in WWII. History suggestes that American’s were very reluctant to “get involved” in this European war; and only the Pearl Harbor attack produced a fervor of patriotism in response to the horrible behavior going on in Europe and Asia throughout the 1930s. While it’s significant that Gable may have been terribly grieved by the loss of his wife, he could have easily offered his services to some national project with no personal risk whatever. If one looks at the statistics regarding B-17 and B-24 crews flying over Europe, the thought that any single one of these brave souls was selfish or self-aggrandizing is proven to be something between “highly unlikely” and “total B.S.”

  • “While it’s significant that Gable may have been terribly grieved by the loss of his wife, he could have easily offered his services to some national project with no personal risk whatever.” This is absolutelt true. My grandfather was not eligible for the draft. He too volunteered with Civil Service Department and became a AP Mechanic in the FMPU. These were remarkable men. Obviously, there was once a time when America was important to the people. Nowadays, very few people in the private sector understands.

  • I watched Combat America and suggest those who are interested in WWII would enjoy it. Combat America gave you a good idea about the effort that all went through during that time. And thanks to Mr. Dorr for his fine article on Capt Gable, it’s nice to see that some people in the U.S.A. still interest in our history.

  • Ellen K. Compton

    My father, Howard H. M. Hillemann, served with Clark Gable at Key West, Florida. Unfortunately my father’s trunk with his military uniforms were stolen. He had left his trunk outside his room at an apartment.

  • IN REGARDS TO WORLD WAR ll, I believe the war in the Pacific is far worst than the one in Europe. I AM A WORLD WAR ll SURVIVOR IN THE PHILIPPINES, AND WAS ONLY 15 YEARS OLD WHEN THE JAPANESE INVADED OUR COUNTRY. I WITNESSED THE BATAAN DEATH MARCH AND MANILA MASSACRE. HAD IT NOT FOR ME LEARNING HOW TO SPEAK JAPANESE LANGUAGE, AS TAUGHT TO ME BY MY GRANDPARENTS CHAUFFEUR, WHO WORKED FOR THEM 10 YEARS BEFORE THE WAR, MY FAMILY AND I COULD HAVE BEEN SHOT OR TORTURED LIKE MOST FILIPINOS BECAUSE OF THE LANGUAGE BARRIER.

  • AT PRESENT, AM ALREADY 86 YEARS OLD. I AM ABOUT TO FINISHED THE SEQUEL OF MY FIRST BOOK. I SPOKE MY NATIVE DIALECT, THE PAMPANGO; TAGALOG, THE NATIONAL LANGUAGE; ENGLISH AND JAPANESE. AS A TEENAGER, I WAS PRESSED INTO SERVICE AS AN INTERPRETER FOR THE JAPANESE AND AMERICANS DURING LIBERATION. I WITNESSED THE DOGFIGHT BETWEEN THE JAPANESE AND AMERICAN PLANES, AND TOOK ME 42 YEARS TO FIND THE SURVIVING RELATIVE OF THE AMERICAN NAVY FLYER WHO WAS SHOT BY THE JAPANESE DURING LIBERATION !!!

  • wayne garcia

    Of all the soldiers who fought for the USA during WWII, 67% were drafted, the rest were volunteers. People Idolize John Wayne as a true American hero, but don’t know or care about the contributions of Clark Gable, and Jimmy Stewart. He, a qualified pilot flew 25 combat missions in a B24 liberator. The mortality rate for the people, not just these 2 actors but all combat crews was very high. I grew up believing that John Wayne was a true American hero, then one night my mother showed me an article about Jimmy Stewart and my whole attitude changed.

  • Ellen K. Compton

    My father, Howard H. M. Hillemann, served with Clark Gable in the officers training school, Key West, Florida. My father was in the Army AirCorps. Unfortunately when he had his trunk with his military uniforms stolen when he left it in a hallway at his friend’s home.