February 4, 2012 3:26:00 PM
BY JAN SWOOPE
"I could tell right away when I saw the picture that it had a story to tell."
History detective Dave Trojan was talking of the photo of Clark Gable with Col. L.C. Mallory he came across while researching 1942 aircraft at the Columbus Army Flying School (now Columbus Air Force Base). "The picture was in with a lot of other photos in a file called '1940s Columbus AFB.'"
Trojan has lived in Columbus for only a year, but the avid aviation archaeologist and historian wasted no time before seeking out the Golden Triangle's stories.
"Only after I was able to find more info about Gable's military career did I go to the library to see if I could find more about his time in Columbus, and sure enough, there was a news story about it," said the Navy veteran.
The Billups-Garth Archives in the Local History Department of the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library yielded The Commercial Dispatch article of Nov. 7, 1942, that describes Gable entering the Gilmer Hotel wearing a cap and a "huge pair of colored glasses." According to the writer, Roger Bryant, the actor was "banished summarily from throngs of fans, mostly women, who wanted to get a closeup of the star."
As Trojan included in his account, the hotel's switchboard was bombarded with calls once word got out the screen idol was being entertained by hotel owner J.O. Slaughter that November Friday in '42. (A trivia note: Slaughter was the great uncle of current Columbus residents Jo Shumake and Cindy Wiygul.)
"One enterprising young woman tried a ruse, but it failed," Bryant wrote. "She called in to say, 'This is long distance. Los Angeles calling Lt. Gable.'"
Trojan shared, "I knew that many Hollywood stars served in the military, and that Clark Gable was one of the biggest. ... His commission was not 'contrived.' He went through OCS (Officer Candidate School) like any 21-year-old. He earned that commission."
Before the actor enlisted, Gable and his beloved wife, actress Carole Lombard, had made numerous appearances for the war bond campaign, but Gable wanted to do more. Only five weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lombard was tragically killed in the crash of a DC-3 airliner near Las Vegas. In what turned out to be one of her last communications with her husband, she urged him to join "this man's army."
"He sent a telegram to President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for a role in the war effort," Trojan stated. "The president replied, 'STAY WHERE YOU ARE.' Gable didn't."
Interviews with veterans debunk the myth that Gable wanted to die because of his grief, Trojan said.
"They describe him as a sturdy man who took his duties seriously, maintained a military posture, but was willing to party when appropriate," he remarked.
The library's archives were a valuable resource in uncovering information about the Columbus short visit.
"They have a new machine that really helped me; it converts microfilm straight to digital files," the researcher said. " ... I'm just glad to document some of the history of Columbus Air Force Base and be able to share that history with the community."
As for Roger Bryant, who penned The Commercial Dispatch article in 1942, he couldn't resist. In closing, he wrote, "And, ladies of Columbus, Lt. Gable is 'gone with the wind.' He was scheduled to leave Columbus on his return trip Saturday afternoon."
He left, no doubt, a sea of sighs behind him.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.