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.
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.”
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.
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. Fellow actor Capt. Ronald Reagan signed his discharge papers.
Gable’s postwar motion picture career, including a film appearance with Marilyn Monroe, drew mixed reactions from critics. He died on Nov. 16, 1960.