Frankly, My Dear, He Did Give a Damn

Major Gable

Major Gable

Today’s featured Greatest Generation member: Major Clark Gable. Frankly, my dear, he did give a damn. About his country.

Gable enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1942 after the death of his wife, Carole Lombard. He was 41 years old at the time and had already starred in “Gone with the Wind,” “Mutiny on the Bounty,” and “It Happened one Night.”

He wanted to become an aerial gunner on a bomber. He was sent to Florida and officer Candidate School, where he was an assistant potato peeler during training. He graduated 700th in his class of 2,600, and his fellow trainees chose him as their graduation speaker. He got a special assignment from General “Hap” Arnold: to make a recruiting film in combat with the Eighth Air Force. Arnold wanted to recruit more gunners for his bomber fleet.

Gable trained with and accompanied the 351st Bomb Group to England. He spent most of 1943 there as the head of a six-man motion picture unit. He’d been promoted to captain while in training so he would have a rank commensurate with his position as a unit commander.

He flew five combat missions, including one to Germany, as an observer-gunner in B-17 Flying Fortresses between May 4 and September 23, 1943. Gable earned the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross. During one of the missions, his plane was damaged by flak and attacked by fighters, which knocked out one of the engines and shot up the stabilizer. In the raid on Germany, one crewman was killed and two others were wounded, and flak went through Gable’s boot and narrowly missed his head.

The lobbying of MGM got its top star reassigned to noncombat duty, and he returned to the States to edit his film. As it turned out, the service was able to recruit enough gunners, but he completed the film and hoped for another combat assignment. In May 1944 he was promoted to major but was not brought to Normandy for D-Day. He was relieved from active duty as a major on June 12, 1944 since he was over-age for combat. His discharge papers were signed by Captain Ronald Reagan.

Gable completed editing of the film “Combat America” in September 1944. He gave the narration himself and interviewed several enlisted gunners, making them the focus of the film. He resigned his commission on September 26, 1947, a week after the Air Force became an independent service branch.

Gable was Adolf Hitler’s favorite actor. The Führer had offered a big reward to anyone who could capture Gable and bring him to Berlin.

The scene that inspired Bugs Bunny's most famous line.

The scene that inspired Bugs Bunny’s most famous line.

Bugs Bunny’s “Eh…what’s up, doc?” carrot-chewing pose was inspired by a scene in “It Happened One Night.” Gable, leaning on a fence, was eating carrots and talking with his mouth full to Claudette Colbert.

But as Doris Day put it, “He was as masculine as any man I’ve ever known, and as much a little boy as a grown man could be – it was this combination that had such a devastating effect on women.”

And LIFE magazine said of Gable: “All man… and then some.”

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