William Clark Gable (1901-1960) was born to a protestant father working as an oil well driller and a catholic mother who died when he was 10 months old. As a young man, he worked at oil fields and as a horse manager until he gradually broke into the world of theater and screen acting. By the time of America’s entry into World War II he was already a highly acclaimed actor and the star of such movies as It Happened One Night (which earned him an Academy Award), Mutiny on the Bounty and, of course, Gone With the Wind.
In 1939, he married actress Carole Lombard, his third wife. The following years were the happiest in Gable’s life, but the idyll was cut short by tragedy. On January 16, 1942, Lombard was flying home from a war bond promotion tour when her plane crashed, killing everyone on board. Gable was emotionally and physically shattered, losing 20 pounds in a month. He enlisted in the U.S. Army later that year, almost certainly as a way to cope with the personal loss. Before her death, Lombard encouraged him to do so. After a public announcement of his intention, Commanding General of the USAAF Henry “Hap” Arnold offered him a special assignment in aerial gunnery.
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Gable, already 41 years old, considered enrolling in officer candidate school, but eventually enlisted in August 1942 as a gunner on a bomber. His studio, MGM, arranged for Andrew McIntyre, a cinematographer and personal friend, to accompany him during training. Once enlisted, he was sent to officer training anyway. He was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant and was as the graduation speaker of his class. It was after his commission that General Arnold explained the nature of his special assignment. The USAAF was facing a shortage of aerial gunners and he wanted Gable to shoot a propaganda film to increase enlistment rates.
Gable was promoted to captain and sent to England with the 351st Bomb Group of the 8th USAAF as head of a six-man film crew. He took his duties seriously and shot a wealth of material interviewing air crew members. He was also willing to party when appropriate and became popular with the enlisted men. In order to acquire aerial footage, he also went on combat missions on several B-17 Flying Fortresses (he was attached to the group, but not to any specific crew). Official papers record five missions flown by him as an observer-gunner, though some veterans who served with him claimed he went on more.
Of the five recorded flights, one, an attack on a chemical plant in Norway, was the longest mission flown by the 8th Air Force up to that point. Another, a large raid on Germany’s industrial Ruhr Valley, was the 8th’s most dangerous flight to date, with 25 planes out of 330 shot down by the enemy. During an attack on his plane, Gable was wedged behind the gunner in the cramped top turret, shooting footage of German planes making five passes at the bomber formation. As he was handling his camera, a 20mm shell penetrated the bomber from below. Gable and the gunner dodged death: the shell cut off the heel of Gable’s boot, flew past him and exited the plane a foot from his head, all without exploding. When later pressed by reporters, Gable said he didn’t even notice the shell at the time and only saw the exit hole later.
Gable probably didn’t know that his actions over Europe earned him the attention of an unlikely fan: Adolf Hitler himself. He was Hitler’s favorite actor, probably in part due to his Rhinelander and Bavarian ancestry and the Führer offered a significant bounty to whoever captured the actor unscathed.
In November, Gable returned to America with 50,000 feet of film, ready to go into the editing room, only to find that the gunner shortage had already been rectified. Nevertheless, he was allowed to finish the 62-minute film and Combat America premiered in movie theaters in 1945.
In 1944 Gable was promoted to major. He wanted to fly more combat missions but was not assigned to any combat units during the invasion of Normandy. Realizing he wasn’t going to be allowed on missions any more due to his age, he requested his relief from active duty, which was granted. By coincidence, his discharge papers were signed by a later U.S. President: then-Captain Ronald Reagan. Shortly after his retirement from military service, he put his personal experience to good use in Command Decision, a 1948 film about the politics of and the emotional toll on commanders, in which he played a fictional brigadier general supervising raids on Germany.
Take a look at these other WWII Posts:
- Combat America: by Clark Gable
- Rosie the Riveter Photographs
- B-17 Survival Story
- Clark Gable Reproduction Dog Tags