After his beautiful wife Carole Lombard, was killed in a plane crash while working for the USO, a grieving Clark Gable couldn’t face Hollywood anymore, so he joined up with the Army Air Corps. Gable famously requested that he be sent into actual combat. So naturally Hap Arnold decided he should make a movie about his combat group, the 351st Bombardment Group. Gable narrates this complete portrait of his outfit and appears in several short scenes where he interviews his comrades-in-arms. The focus of the film, though, is the group itself, especially the gunners. The film starts just after training is complete and the group flies to England to begin flying actual missions. The film covers all aspects of the lives of the gunners, from actual combat to leisure time, and from goofy hijinks to the gritty reality of seeing your buddies get killed or seriously wounded in combat. The film is quite similar to The Memphis Belle, though perhaps not as engrossing as that film. Still, the film has quite a bit of historical value as a portrait of combat and army life, and is one of the few long-length color documentaries to emerge from the war.
The film starts with a letter from Hap Arnold: “1st Lieutenant Clark Gable is hereby directed to proceed to England … for making a combat film dealing particularly with the combat phases of aerial gunnery … “. Initial footage depicts aircraft flying over American mountains, with Gable narrating that this is what they are fighting for. Bob Hope also appears in the film, and the film mostly depicts 351st Bombardment Group life at RAF Polebrook. Combat footage begins three-quarters of the way into the movie and includes take off and return of aircraft. The film depicts a wall poster with target names and, for confirmed kills, swastika stickers. Footage at the end of the film includes a B-17 in an uncontrolled dive with a portion of the horizontal stabilizer missing and shoot-down of Messerschmitt Bf 109s. Intercut with the combat footage is close-up footage of machine gun firing from a B-17 waist gun port. Gable flew five World War II combat missions from May 4-September 23, and during one of them, his shoe was struck by an anti-aircraft shell. Gable’s film crew included MGM cameraman Andrew J McIntyre; “1st Lt. Howard Voss, a sound engineer; Master Sgt. Robert Boles, a cameraman; Master Sgt. Merlin Toti, another cameraman; and 1st Lt. John Mahlin, a scriptwriter.”
The 351st Bombardment Group (Heavy), Eighth United States Army Air Force was based at Polebrook, Northamptonshire, England, during World War II. During the three years at Polebrook, the 351st B.G. had a total of 279 B17 Flying Fortresses on charge. These flew 9,075 sorties with 7,945 of them dropping 20,778 tons of bombs. The gunners in the Group fired off 2,776,028 rounds of ammunition and were credited with destroying 303 enemy aircraft.
The Group flew 311 credited missions and lost 124 B 17’s in combat.
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