Captain Hollywood

Mobbed by women and sought for capture by his fan the Fuhrer, Clark Gable never got his wish: to be an ordinary B-17 gunner.

by John E. Stanchak

Clark GableGable sits at a film-editing machine in Hollywood in November 1943. Returning home with 50,000 feet of film for his project, Gable learned the film was obsolete. So, he made several short, rarely seen documentaries. (National Archives)Miami Beach can be miserably hot during the off-season, and in the summer of 1942—long before air conditioning became commonplace—it was an inferno. It was definitely no seaside paradise for the men of the US Army Officer Candidate School who lived there. Barracked in waterfront hotels that the Federal government had stripped of niceties, they spent their days inside cordoned-off areas, running, marching, and exercising in temperatures of 100 degrees and up.

The locals seemed to have grown bored with this latest wartime distraction when, in late August, newspapermen noticed women gathering on sidewalks to watch the OCS cadets march to the mess hall for lunch. The ladies of Miami were craning their necks to catch a glimpse of GI 191-257-41—Corporal Clark Gable, former movie actor and, according to female fans, the most desirable man on the planet.

Gable joined the army during World War II for the same reason every other American volunteer gave: he wanted to serve his country in time of war. Almost everyone was signing up, including movie stars. But readers of Photoplay and other large-circulation movie magazines knew there was more to Gable’s story than he was letting on.

With his dark pomaded hair, neatly trimmed mustache, bedroom eyes, charming smile, and snappy baritone dialogue delivery, Gable had been America’s most popular male sex symbol throughout the 1930s. Female moviegoers gasped when, in the 1932 jungle romance Red Dust, he manhandled platinum-blonde love goddess Jean Harlow and made her like it. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in the 1934 comedy It Happened One Night, in which he tried to talk actress Claudette Colbert out of her pajamas and revealed, to the dismay of underwear manufacturers and the delight of women, that he wore no undershirt.

The 1939 epic Civil War–era romance Gone with the Wind clinched Gable’s image for all time. In that film, on a dirt road, in front of a blood-red sunrise, he took actress Vivien Leigh in his arms and gave her the kiss of a lifetime. In that one moment he proved his power. He could turn a four-hour melodrama into the most profitable picture of its day and still have enough charm left over to seduce any woman in America.

That was the public Gable, a red-blooded man’s man with charm, courage, and an overriding sense of humor in the face of adversity. He had been a stage actor, learning his craft in touring companies until he was discovered by theater veteran Josephine Dillon, an older woman who wanted to fund and direct his career, and who became his first wife. A second marriage to another older woman followed, this time to socialite Rhia Langham, who, coincidentally, wanted to fund and direct his career. By the time he made his Academy Award–winning turn in It Happened One Night, Gable’s second marriage was merely a formality, and he was discreetly playing the field.

In March 1939, during a break from filming Gone with the Wind, Gable ran off to Kingman, Arizona, with Paramount star Carole Lombard. After a long romance with that blond beauty, Gable caved in to pressure from the public and his studio, MGM, to grant Langham a quick divorce and make an honest woman of Lombard.

The public Carole Lombard was the attractive star of popular movie dramas and screwball comedies. In private, she was a foul-mouthed woman with a zany sense of humor. She was an active Democrat with a serious interest in world affairs, while Gable was a low-key Republican concerned with maintaining his automobile collection. In December 1940, the pair was in the Oval Office as part of a small audience watching President Franklin Roosevelt make one of his Fireside Chat radio broadcasts. In a half-hour conversation with the couple after the broadcast, Roosevelt won them over as public supporters of his “Arsenal of Democracy” project, which was sending ships and munitions to aid Britain in its fight against the Nazis. Both were actively involved in this promotional work when, less than a year later, the Japanese destroyed the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. Immediately following that disaster, Gable was installed as chairman of the Screen Actors Division of the Hollywood Victory Committee, to organize entertainers for hospital appearances and military camp shows. Lombard went to work for the US Treasury Department selling war bonds.

On the night of January 15, 1942, Lombard telephoned Gable from Indianapolis on a patriotic high. She had just sold a recordbreaking $2,017,513 in bonds during an eight-hour sales drive in the Indiana State House rotunda. “You better get yourself into this man’s army,” she said before hanging up. The next evening, she died in the crash of a DC-3 airliner outside Las Vegas.

It was widely understood that Lombard was Gable’s soul mate. So, at the news of Lombard’s death, the whole nation stepped back to let Gable grieve. And grieve he did. Production on a film he had been making stopped. He wandered the southern California ranch he’d shared with her, followed by her confused little dachshund. He talked with buddies and their wives about all he and Lombard had planned, and about the last thing she had said to him.

At loose ends, drinking heavily, Gable decided the only way to break his cycle of pain was to do as his wife had directed. To the ire of MGM and his agent, Gable renegotiated his movie contract. The new deal suspended his salary and took him out of all new projects so he could join the army.

Army recruiters directed Gable to Henry “Hap” Arnold, commanding general of the US Army Air Forces. Arnold said the service needed a film to recruit gunners for its new big bombers. He proposed that if Gable completed OCS, he could go to Britain and make such a film. That was the proposal, but could Gable get through the rugged physical training, pass the batteries of academic exams, and learn how to be a working US Army officer? The army was about to find out what few if any fans knew: that Gable was born in 1901, had not finished high school, did not have a tooth in his head, and suffered from hemorrhoids and a variety of minor skin disorders. By any standard, he was not a prime candidate for military success.

On August 12, 1942, Gable was sworn into the army in California. Then he boarded a train for the Miami OCS center. For most of the trip, he traveled quietly. But at the New Orleans rail station he was swarmed by adoring women, causing him to arrive in Florida a day late. When he finally showed up at the OCS, the press was waiting. There were shouted questions, and requests to photograph him getting his required military crew cut. On the spot, the man known as the King of Hollywood negotiated a deal. He would shave his famous moustache off for the cameras. Then the press would retire and let him get down to business.

Gable’s real concern with the haircut was his ears. Often taped back to the sides of his head when he went in front of movie cameras, his ears reminded friends of the Walt Disney character Dumbo. Without his hair and the cover of a small overseas cap, these appendages would appear outrageous in photographs.

Finessing his day-late arrival in Miami and the news riot at the army’s reception center were the last movie-star moves Gable made for months. Although the army wanted Gable as much as he wanted the army, he was now just a 41-year-old man with a bad haircut, sitting on a bunk in overheated Florida clutching three spare sets of full dentures, tired out just by the act of traveling there. There would be classes in the morning and for eight hours every day except Sunday, and Gable hadn’t been in a schoolroom since Woodrow Wilson was president.

To the delight of the free world and the surprise of many, Gable made it. He graduated 700th in a class or 2,600 men, most of whom were half his age. A mediocre student and a tired trooper on the drill field, he succeeded by using skills he learned in the movie business. He didn’t understand much of the classroom material, but each lecture came with mimeographed sheets covering the salient points. Treating the sheets like a script, he spent his nights perched on a toilet to study by the bathroom light, memorizing the information and repeating it verbatim the next day on written exams. On the field, he acted fresher than he really felt and tried to show enthusiasm. He walked the dreaded guard duty without complaint.

That autumn, Arnold personally oversaw the OCS commissioning ceremony. Gable, at the urging of army brass, was asked by the class to give the graduation speech. “The important thing, the proud thing I’ve learned about us is that we are men,” he concluded. “Soon we wear the uniforms of officers. How we look in them is not very important. How we wear them is a lot more important. Our job is to stay on the beam until—in victory—we are given the command to fall out.”

A mint-new lieutenant, Gable completed several more weeks of specialized training and a stint in air gunnery school. Then he flew back to California on Christmas leave, making a point of showing that how you looked in your uniform was important, at least to him. As an officer, he was allowed to have his uniforms tailormade, so he did, by his own army of needle men. His aching feet were wrapped in handmade shoes, his moustache was back, and he had grown his hair long enough to comb. Back home, after parties and social rounds, he made private visits to special friends before leaving for more training at Fort Wright, near Spokane, Washington. From there he was to ship out for England.

At Fort Wright, Gable did his best to stick with his assignments, but civilian women working on the base were a problem. They pestered him, begged for dates, and pressed slips of paper with their telephone numbers into his hand. The base commander issued an official notice: “Lieutenant Gable will appreciate it if the public will not interfere with his training. He wishes to be treated like every other member of the Service.”

The Fort Wright phase of Gable’s military career was brief. Gable earned an aerial gunner’s silver wings there and was transferred to Pueblo, Colorado, where he became part of the 351st Heavy Bombardment Group. Commanded by Colonel William Hatcher, the outfit was nicknamed Hatcher’s Chickens. Gable was given the go-ahead to assemble a creative group for his film project. The first two on board were Lieutenants Andy McIntyre and John Lee Mahin, movie-industry friends from California. Next, former studio sound technician Howard Voss and cameramen Robert Boles and Mario Toti, all now in the army, were rounded up. As an informal unit inside the 351st, Gable’s crew was dubbed the Little Hollywood Group, and together they pushed off with the 351st in April 1943 for the Polebrook air base near Peterborough, England, north of London.

In Britain, Gable, promoted to captain, demonstrated grim resolve. He wanted his war service to be as respectable as the next man’s. He took unnecessary chances, flying several combat missions in B-17s when superiors would have preferred he stay on the ground assembling film footage that others had shot. On one of these flights, a German 20mm shell tore through the plane’s floor, ripped the heel from one of Gable’s flight boots, and exited through the ceiling, just missing his head. Several times, he took over for gunners wounded in flight. After one of those occasions, he was rattled because, he claimed, he could see the face of the German fighter pilot shooting at him. War had suddenly become personal.

As much as anything during this period, Clark Gable, officer and gentleman, wanted to be considered just one of the guys. It was an elusive goal. His graduation from the Fort Wright gunnery school had been filmed by newsreel cameras. In theaters, viewers heard a narrator say, “Watch out, Mr. Hitler, Lieutenant Clark Gable is headed your way!” Then, not long after Gable arrived in Britain, the English-speaking Nazi radio propagandist known as Lord Haw Haw announced: “Welcome to England, Hatcher’s Chickens, among whom is the famous American cinema star, Clark Gable. We’ll be seeing you soon in Germany, Clark. You will be welcome there, too.”

Next, Adolph Hitler himself directed Nazi air force chief Hermann Goering to offer a reward to any pilot who shot Gable down. This news was depressing to Gable in more than one way. First, what kind of regular guy got a price put on his head by Hitler? “If Hitler catches me,” Gable told one of his men, “the sonofabitch will put me in a cage like a gorilla and send me on a tour of Germany.” He realized there was no hope of not being recognized by any Germans who might see him. “How could I hide this face?” he asked. “If the plane goes, I’ll just go with the son of a bitch.” Second, his notoriety with the Nazis meant any man flying with him was in extra jeopardy.

Trying to feel more like one of the guys, Gable frequently ate in the enlisted men’s mess and talked with the boys about mundane things like cars and sports. He found an English motorcycle and roared around the base on it in his free time and made sure he wasn’t a secluded figure. Still, fame intruded over and over again, as it did when Gable took the Little Hollywood Group on the road to film interviews with gunners and get footage of them on R&R. While filming the men strolling on the beach and boardwalk at an English seaside resort, Gable was mobbed by English women. British police tried to fend them off, but one sturdy lady in her fifties broke past the bobbies and leapt onto Gable’s back, screaming “I found ya! I found ya!” Gable screamed “Get this son of a bitch off me!”

Gable wasn’t always safe among fellow officers, either. While he was in London doing office chores one day, Sergeant Eugene Kelly of Carnegie, Pennsylvania, a member of General Dwight Eisenhower’s administrative staff, handed him a stack of papers to sign, explaining they were military boilerplate that simply needed a captain’s signature to move them through the system. It turned out the forms were bogus. Kelly, who had worked with a few other celebrity soldiers, cut Gable’s signature off the bottom of each paper and sold the autographs to English girls.

Try as he might, Captain Clark Gable never ceased to be movie star Clark Gable. While other American soldiers went off base with passes to look at historic sites and sample English beer, Gable sometimes spent evenings with British aristocrats, visited old acquaintances such as former film actress Elizabeth Allan, or spent a weekend at the home of David Niven, a popular Hollywood actor and native Briton who had returned home to serve in the British army. In London, a city with no hotel rooms available during the war, he could call the Savoy Hotel, drop his name, and find a vacancy. If he needed special consideration for his filming project, he could ensure it by getting himself invited to dinner with a general and having himself photographed with the general’s wife. Clearly, fame had its privileges.

As Gable’s stay overseas lengthened, his grief over Lombard and the cumulative stress that all men who have seen combat feel began to worry superiors. Gable went to the Polebrook base hospital one day to visit a turret gunner he had flown with who had been seriously wounded. At the gunner’s bedside, a doctor, a lieutenant colonel, told Gable the patient could not understand their conversation because he was under the influence of a large amount of morphine. Then he said that the man’s case was hopeless, that he was about to die. At that, the wounded gunner broke down in tears. Enraged, Gable shoved the doctor into the hall, telling him that if he ever did anything like that in front of a wounded man again he would kill him. Mahin watched the explosion. He recalled telling Gable, “Jesus, Clark, that guy was your superior officer. I know he was wrong, but you can’t let go like that; you’ll get yourself run right out of here.”

Around this time, veteran Hollywood director Frank Capra was in England pursuing a war-film project of his own. According to Capra, when he approached one of Gable’s generals and asked how he was doing, the general replied, “He’s scaring the hell out of us. The damn fool insists on going on bombing missions and he wants to be a gunner, yet. No officer mans a gun; the guy’s crazy. You know what it would do to us if he gets himself shot? I’m pulling every string there is to get him out of here. He gives me the willies. He’s trying to get himself killed, that’s how he’s doing.”

In October 1943, with 50,000 feet of film in the can, Gable and his Little Hollywood Group were recalled to the States. Before they left, Gable was awarded an Air Medal, an American Campaign Medal, and a Europe-Africa-Middle-Eastern Campaign Medal with a bronze service star.

On arrival in America, Gable went to a scheduled debriefing with Arnold at the Pentagon. There he was surprised by the press, cheering office workers, and assorted officers, all of whom asked for a speech. Gable felt ambushed, but spoke well. Then he left the podium for Arnold’s office.

To Gable’s amazement, Arnold said, “Well, Clark, what was it I sent you to Europe for? I’ve forgotten.” It turned out that the army air forces no longer needed the recruitment film Gable thought he was making. “We’ve got enough film, don’t worry,” Arnold said. “Go out and do anything you want [with the footage], anyway you want to.” And with that, the military career of actor Clark Gable concluded. But his conflict did not.

After weeks in government-leased film editing space in Hollywood, pasting together short documentaries that would rarely be shown, Gable was without an assignment. Then the war’s last large bond drive began. To commemorate it, the King of Hollywood was invited to Long Beach, California, on January 15, 1944, the second anniversary of his late wife’s outstanding Indiana bond sale, to witness the christening and launch of the US Liberty Ship Carole Lombard.

That event wrapped up Gable’s war. On June 12, 1944, citing his age, he requested discharge from the army after 670 days of service. The application was approved by B-movie-actor-turned-army-captain Ronald Reagan. A

John E. Stanchak of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, has written about WWII nurses, pinup girls, and the OSS for America in WWII. This article originally appeared in the February 2008 issue of the magazine. Order a copy of this issue now.