Meet Hollywood actor, aerial gunner
By Ted Roberts, 325th Fighter Wing historian
/ Published June 06, 2014
TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
December 7, 1941-- a date which will live in infamy, is also the date the first 2,000 troops arrived at what was then Tyndall Field.
Thousands of Airmen have passed through Tyndall's gates since that time to learn the art of aerial warfare. One of Tyndall's most famous trainees was Hollywood actor, Clark Gable, best known for his portrayal of Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind.
At the outbreak of World War II, Gable had been making movies for several years. Gable enlisted in the Army Air Corps on August 12, 1942, with a statement to the press, "There is a war to win, and I consider it my right to fight."
He chose aerial gunnery because it was "the quickest and most effective way to get into combat."
Gable attended officers' candidate school in Miami Beach, Fla. While in training, Gable shaved off his famous moustache. This made it difficult for the many fans who chased him everywhere to recognize him.
Gable was commissioned a second lieutenant and issued serial number 056-5390.
He then transferred to Tyndall Field for his follow-on training. Unlike Hank Greenber, the Detroit Tigers famous first baseman, who was at Tyndall during the same time, Gable's arrival was kept a secret for a few days to keep fans away. However, word quickly spread throughout Panama City, and Gable was besieged by followers whenever he left the base.
The Army Air Forces Gunnery School lasted five weeks. The school consisted of identifying enemy aircraft and knowing the mechanism of machine guns and turrets. Lieutenant Gable fired on many Tyndall ranges. He shot rifles, miniature machine guns, photo-electric weapons mounted in Martin and Sperry turrets and the .30 and .50-caliber machine guns. His final firing was in the air, blazing away from a plane at a cloth target simulating an enemy ship towed by another aircraft.
Although Gable did well in all his classes, he had trouble with blinker codes, which utilized message transmission when radios were unusable. Like most students, he spent long hours learning the code for both receiving and sending messages.
While there, Gable and the other students of class number 43-1 were constantly drilled on identification of enemy aircraft. All over base, miniatures of enemy aircraft were mounted in conspicuous places. Hanging in each squadron's day room were models of German Messerschmitt's, Meinkels and Junkers, and Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zeroes and other enemy aircraft. Similar planes also hung from the ceilings in the mess halls and washrooms. Whether eating or shaving, students were never allowed to forget that America was at war.
After weeks of intensive training, it was time for Gable and Class 43-1 to be awarded the prized silver wings. Col. Warren A. Maxwell, the base commander, pinned on Gable's wings.
Shortly after graduating from Tyndall Field, Gable was sent to Spokane, Wash. for training as a member of a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber crew.
Then in February 1943, on personal orders from Gen. Hap Arnold, Chief of Staff for Air Corps and Chief of the Army Air Forces, Gable was assigned to the 351st Bomb Group at Royal Air Force Station Polebrook, England, to make a motion picture about aerial gunners in action.
He obtained footage for the film while flying operation missions in the B-17s.
Gable returned to the U.S. in October 1943. At his own request, and since he was over-age for combat, he was relieved from active duty as a major on June 12, 1944.
Due to his Hollywood career, it was impossible for him to fulfill his AAF Reserve officer duties. Gable resigned his commission Sept. 26, 1947.
After leaving the military, Gable returned to acting and stardom. Gable passed away Nov. 16, 1960 due to coronary thrombosis, at age 59.
Editor's note: This article is a collaboration from Ted Roberts, 325th Fighter Wing Historian, and staff writers at www.military.com.