Hollywood Icon William Clark Gable (1901-1960) served in the United States Army Air Force during WW2. Known as the King of Hollywood, Gable joined the USAAF following the untimely death of his Actress wife Carole Lombard. Lombard had perished in an air crash on January 16th 1942 whilst on a War Bond Drive and was returning to Burbank when the aircraft crashed into mountains southwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. Lombard had asked Gable to join the armed forces after the United States entered World War 2 and following this tragic event Gable who was devastated by Lombard’s death enlisted and underwent gunnery training.
Even though his bosses at MGM were against him joining the Army Air Force Gable joined the 351st Bomb Group and went to England as head of a film group to make the action documentary “Combat America”. Clark Gable served with the 351st BG at RAF Polebrook and flew 5 missions from May 9th to Sept 23rd 1943.
351st BG consisted of the 508, 509,510 & 511th Bomb Squadrons flying the Boeing B17 Flying Fortress.
Mission 1: Antwerp, Belgium, 4th May 1943. Gable flew in “The 8 Ball MK II” and fired a few rounds from the radio room machine gun. He suffered frostbite from the extreme cold even though he was wearing leather gloves.
Mission 2: Airfield at Villacoublay France.10th July 1943. Argonaut 111, Mission was hampered by low cloud so no bombs were dropped.
Mission 3: Norsk Hydro Plant, Heroya, Norway 24th July 1943. Again in Argonaut 111, mission was unopposed by the enemy’
Mission 4: Synthetic Oil Plant at Gelsenkirchen, Ruhr, Germany, 12th August 1943. In B17 “Ain’t it Gruesome” due to bad weather the group attacked Bochum, Germany where Gable encountered his most dangerous operation to date. None of the 351st B17’s was lost but 25 of the 330 planes on the raid were shot down. The 351st did suffer some battle damage and one of their crew members was killed. Gable came close to injury himself when a 20mm cannon shell hit Gable’s shoe and missed his head by inches!
Mission 5: Port Area of Nantes, France, 23rd September 1943. On this mission in “The Duchess” Gable manned one of the front nose guns. Although enemy fighters inflicted heavy damage no bombers were lost.
On 5th November 1943 Captain Clark Gable left the 351st and returned to the US to complete the production of “Combat America” which was shown in theatres in 1944. The reason he only did 5 tours was because his bosses in Hollywood got very nervous of him being exposed to the dangers of air combat and pushed the Army Air force to return him to the US.
Captain Clark Gable and the crew of B17F “Duchess” after completing his 5th and final mission over Nantes, France September 23rd 1943 for which he was awarded the Air Medal. 351st Bomb Group RAF Polebrook. To the left of Clark Gable is Major J R Blaycock, of Council Bluff, Iowa, who was later KIA 31/12/43 Cognac, France. (Picture is original press release photograph (DS/CAS) from my own collection).
For his service to the United States Army Air Force, Capt Gable was awarded the following medals:
Distinguished Flying Cross, Air medal, WW2 Campaign, European African Middle East Campaign and Victory Medals. (As below left to right, not his originals).
Distinguished Flying Cross, for heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight.
Air medal, awarded for heroic action or meritorious service while participating in aerial flight.
WW2 Campaign, for service outside the U.S. in the American theatre for thirty days ( or within the U.S. for one year).
European African Middle East Campaign, for service in the European, African, Middle East theatre for thirty days or being awarded any combat decoration.
WW2 Victory Medal, awarded for service during World War 2.
Other Hollywood stars also served during WW2 including James Stewart (USAAF), David Niven (British Rifle Brigade, Army and Film Unit), Humphrey Bogart (US Navy), Ronald Reagan (USAAC) and Henry Fonda (US Navy).
Aircraft Captain Clark Gable flew in during his time in the 351st BG:
“The 8 Ball Mark 11” serial No 41-24635.
“Argonaut III” serial No 42-29851 508th BS.
“Ain’t It Gruesome” serial No 42-29863.
“The Dutchess” or “Duchess” serial No 42-29925 510th BS.