Once known as “The King of Hollywood”, William Clark Gable (1901 – 1960) was one of the silver screen’s greatest legends, starring in over 60 movies. Perhaps best known for his role as Rhett Butler in the blockbuster Gone With the Wind, he won an Oscar as Best Actor for his lead in It Happened One Night. Other notable films in which he starred and that met both critical and commercial success include Mutiny on the Bounty, The Hucksters, and The Misfits, his last film, as well as that of his co-star, Marilyn Monroe. When America entered WWII, notwithstanding that he was Hollywood’s biggest star at the time and its greatest box office draw, he took a break from acting to fight the Axis.
Gable had quit school at age 16 to work in a tire factory, and decided to become an actor after seeing a play. He took acting lessons and worked a variety of jobs, from oil field roustabout to selling neckties, until 1924, when he married his acting coach and the couple moved to Hollywood so he could focus on his dream. He started working as an extra, and after years of bit parts and stints in the theater, he got a contract from MGM in 1930, and garnered notice for a powerful performance in his first starring role in The Painted Desert. He built upon that success, and when MGM paired him with established female stars such as Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo, the combination steamed the screen and he became an insta-star.
By the time America entered WWII, he was MGM’s biggest earner. Following his wife’s death in an air crash while returning from a war bonds tour, a devastated Gable decided to enlist. Despite MGM’s reluctance to let its most lucrative star go, he enlisted in the Army Air Forces in 1942, with the hope of becoming an aerial gunner. He was sent instead to OCS, which he completed in October 1942 and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant. On personal orders from the Air Forces’ chief, general Hap Arnold, Gable was sent to the Eighth Air Force in England and tasked with making a combat recruitment film for aerial gunners titled Combat America.
During 1943, to obtain the combat footage needed for his recruitment film, he flew five combat missions as a B-17 gunner, including a bombing raid into Germany. His presence in the missions was for propaganda and PR purposes, but the dangers he ran were all too real: during one mission, his B-17 lost an engine and had its stabilizer damaged after it was hit by antiaircraft fire and was attacked by fighters. On another mission over Germany, his B-17 had two crewmen wounded and another killed after being struck by flak, and shrapnel went through Gable’s boot and almost took off his head.
When MGM heard of its most valuable actor’s brushes with death, it worked its connections to have Gable reassigned to noncombat duty. For his service in Europe, he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal, and in late 1943, he was ordered back to the US to edit the film. He hoped for another combat assignment, but none came. By the summer of 1944, after the Normandy invasion came and went without his receiving a combat assignment, he finally gave up and requested to be relieved from active duty on grounds that he was 43 years old by then, and overage for combat. He stayed in the Air Forces reserves until 1947, when he finally resigned his commission.