Clark Gable was an American hero. Not because of his superstar status where he earned the title “The King Of Hollywood”, but because he gave up that life and put himself in great peril to serve his country in World War II.
He and his wife Carole Lombard were active in the war bonds effort after the US entered the war. Carole was flying back from such a tour to be with Clark when tragedy struck. The plane went down, killing Clark’s wife. Devastated, Gable ultimately decided that he would channel his grief into fighting the enemy firsthand.
He was beyond the age of the draft, Gable sent a telegram directly to President Franklin D Roosevelt asking for a combat assignment. The president replied. “No. Stay where you are.” But Gable would not be deterred.
Although his bosses at MGM and President Roosevelt were against him joining the military, Gable enlisted in the Army Air Force on August 12, 1942 in Los Angeles as a private. He was offered a higher rank, but insisted on starting as a private because he preferred to work his way up like other enlisted soldiers. In so doing, he gave up a salary of $1,500.00 per week, which would be about $25,000 per week in today’s money.
He attended officer candidate school and graduated as a second lieutenant before moving on to aerial gunnery school where he learned to shoot down enemy planes during bombing runs. He was assigned to the 351st Bomb Group at Polebrook, England where he was assigned to create a film to educate up and coming gunners on what they were to expect in combat. Although neither ordered nor expected to do so, Gable flew perilous operational missions over Europe in B-17s to obtain combat film footage. He participated in several extremely dangerous bombing raids over Nazi Germany, each of which is fully documented. According to others in Polebrook, Gable spent many of his leisure days writing letters to the families of fallen soldiers.
It was during his fourth mission that Gable came closest to death. While behind the top turret gunner, the most dangerous place on the aircraft, Gable was almost hit with a 20mm shell that had come up through the flight deck. The shell took off the heel of his boot and passed by his head without exploding. A fellow soldier on the same plane was killed. On another mission, his plane returned riddled with bullet holes.
Although records only show Gable flying five combat missions, veterans of Polebrook recall him flying many more. According to his military brethren, Clark Gable went far beyond his assignment and eagerly participated in going after the Nazis. He sometimes took up the gunnery position himself to fire the .30 caliber machine guns at the enemy.
Gable’s very active support of the war effort must have been quite a threat to the Nazis. Hitler himself, who was a fan of Gable’s films, offered a reward for the capture of the movie star. According to his son John Gable, Clark was worried that Hitler was going to put him in a cage and display him around for propaganda purposes. When they couldn’t capture him, Hitler ordered Hermann Goering to put a death warrant on Gable’s head. Hitler didn’t succeed there either. Gable was never captured and eventually got promoted from second lieutenant to major. For his service, Clark Gable was awarded the American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Air Medal, and the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), our nation’s highest award for extraordinary aerial achievement. It is awarded to recipients for heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.
On June 12, 1944, he was discharged from his war duty and returned to Southern California where he continued his reign as the King of Hollywood. The experience changed his outlook on his own personal tragedy. “I saw so much of death and destruction”, he later recalled, “I realized that I hadn’t been singled out for grief – that others were suffering and losing their loved ones just as I lost Ma.”
Clark Gable is an icon that everyone can look up to. He left a legacy which can inspire and uplift veterans and civilians alike.