Star-struck: When Hollywood went to war and came to Columbus

February 4, 2012 3:13:00 PM

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BY DAVE TROJAN 

 

Special to The Dispatch 

 

You might remember Clark Gable for his portrayal of Rhett Butler in "Gone With the Wind," or as one of the great legends of the silver screen, but almost 70 years ago, he was a real American hero, both on screen and off, when he flew real combat missions during World War II.  

 

Gable, age 40, was almost twice the age of most of the other men when he volunteered for the Army Air Force in California on Aug. 12, 1942, with the statement to the news media: "There is a war to win, and I consider it my right to fight." 

 

Shortly after his enlistment he was sent to Miami Beach, Fla., where he entered USAAF (U.S. Army Air Forces) Officers Training School, Miami Beach, Class 42-E on Aug. 17, 1942. After completing Officer Candidate School training, he graduated on Oct. 28, 1942, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. Gen. Arnold then informed Gable of his special assignment, to make recruiting films in combat with the Eighth Air Force to recruit gunners. He was then transferred to Flexible Gunnery School at Tyndall Field in Florida for aerial gunnery training.  

 

 

 

"Champagne corks ... " 

 

While attending Flexible Gunnery School at Tyndall Field, Gable made a training flight to Columbus Army Flying School in Mississippi, paying his first visit to this part of the Deep South. On Nov. 6, 1942, he flew to Columbus with an undisclosed number of Army planes on a routine training flight from Florida.  

 

According to an article about the visit by Roger Bryant in The Commercial Dispatch, Gable did not attract too much attention in Columbus as a soldier, but as Clark Gable the film star, "He threw femininity into a dither and heart beats sounded like champagne corks popping."  

 

Officially, Gable would say nothing for publication, stating that the War Department frowned upon interviews. He met with the commanding officer of the Columbus base, Col. L.C. Mallory, before being whisked away into town.  

 

That evening he was entertained at the Gilmer Hotel by J.O. Slaughter, hotel owner and one of the "most civic-minded citizens." It was reported in the newspaper that while he was visiting the hotel, the telephone switchboard looked like a Christmas tree, so numerous were calls from women, many of them students at Mississippi State College for Women (now Mississippi University for Women).  

 

Shortly after midnight the film star sped back to the base. Hundreds of local women had to be content to wait to see Mr. Gable on the movie screen. Within the week, the Princess Theater in Columbus had special showings of "Gone With the Wind." 

 

 

 

From screen to school  

 

Back at Tyndall Field, Gable did well in all his classes, but had trouble with the "blinker code," used during message transmission when radios were unusable. Like most other students, he spent long hours learning the code. His class of 2,600 fellow students (of which he ranked 700th in class standing) selected Gable as their graduation speaker.  

 

He graduated from Flexible Gunnery School at Tyndall Field, Florida, on Jan. 6, 1943. After graduation, he went to a photography course at Fort George Wright, Washington, and was promoted to first lieutenant upon completion. Because of his Hollywood connection, he was made a part of the First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU). The unit was formed in 1942 as the 18th Air Force Base Unit of the U.S. Army Air Corps, to produce training films, morale films and propaganda films. 

 

 

 

Close call  

 

Gable reported to Biggs Air Force Base on Jan. 27, 1943, to train with and accompany the 351st Bomb Group to England as head of a six-man motion picture unit. He spent most of his military service time in the United Kingdom at RAF Polebrook with the 351st.  

 

Promoted to captain soon after arriving in England; Gable was assigned to film "Combat America," a documentary about air gunners. Gable flew at least five combat missions, including one to Germany, as an observer-gunner in B-17 Flying Fortresses between May 4 and September 23, 1943, earning the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his efforts.  

 

During one of the missions, Gable's aircraft was damaged by flak and attacked by interceptors, which knocked out one of the engines and damaged the stabilizer. In the raid on Germany, in which one crewman was killed and two others wounded, flak went through Gable's boot and narrowly missed his head. Germany offered a sizable cash reward to anyone who could capture Clark Gable.  

 

By the fall of 1943, Gable's crew had exposed 50,000 feet of film. His film "Combat America" made a valuable contribution to our historical knowledge of the war from the flyer's perspective of the time. Gable returned to the United States in October 1943 and was relieved from active duty as a major on June 12, 1944, at his own request, since he was over-age for combat.  

 

"I have enjoyed every minute of Army life. It's a good change from Hollywood," Gable said.