As World War II rages across Europe, countless American men cross the Atlantic to help defeat Adolf Hitler. Among them is actor Clark Gable – a Hollywood star with many hit movies under his belt. Recently bereaved, he is determined to fight for his country. But the actor’s high-profile career makes him a tempting target for the Axis powers.
It was the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 which spurred many Americans to join the war effort. However, Gable had another reason to trade his star-studded Hollywood lifestyle for a pair of combat boots. One month after the Axis attack on U.S. soil, his beloved third wife Carole Lombard was killed in a plane crash.
Keen to honor his late wife’s wishes, Gable signed up for the Air Force. But this drastic career change went against the wishes of his studio and even the president himself. For the past decade, the actor had appeared on the silver screen as a leading man, and Hollywood was reluctant to give up such a star.
For Gable, though, life hadn’t always been about the glitz and glamor of the movie business. Born in February 1901 in Cadiz, Ohio, he was the son of a farmer who also worked in the region’s oil fields. Tragically, Gable’s mother died when he was just ten months old, but his father’s new wife raised him to be a presentable and well-groomed young man.
At 16 years old, Gable left school to work at a tire factory in the nearby city of Akron, OH. And it was there after watching a play at a local theater that he fell in love with acting. Keen to pursue a career in the performing arts himself, he took an unpaid position with an acting company – hoping to work his way up through the ranks.
Gable’s dream was derailed, however, in 1919 when the death of his stepmother prompted him to move to Oklahoma and work alongside his father in the oilfields. But this proved little more than a temporary distraction, and after a few years he joined the ranks of a traveling theater company.
Unfortunately, the company soon went bankrupt, and it left Gable stuck in Montana. Taking his fate into his own hands, the aspiring star hitchhiked across the state border to Oregon, where he managed to secure more acting work. There, Gable then met the former actress, theater coach and manager Josephine Dillon.
Clearly, Dillon could see Gable’s potential and soon took him under her wing. However, there was work to be done before he could attempt to make it as a star. Under his mentor’s guidance, the young man learned how to carry himself better and how to lower the naturally high tone of his voice.
In the meantime, Dillon invested in Gable’s physical appearance as well – paying for him to undergo dental work and professional grooming. But her interest in his success was not completely altruistic. In 1924 the pair got married and moved to Hollywood, where they hoped to launch Gable’s career.
At first, casting agents were not too impressed by Gable, believing that his large ears would prevent him from becoming a star. But all it took was a speaking role in one movie – 1931’s The Painted Desert – for the studios to realize his potential. And that year, he was offered a contract with MGM.
After a successful first appearance alongside Joan Crawford in Dance, Fools, Dance, Gable secured himself a niche playing villains for MGM. And within a year, he had reached the status of a Hollywood A-lister. However, he soon grew tired of playing the same type of roles and sought to expand his repertoire.
According to rumors, it was Gable’s displeasure with his parts which prompted MGM to loan him to a low-budget studio out of spite. But if that was their plan, it backfired spectacularly. At Columbia Pictures, the actor was cast in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night – a part that won him an Academy Award.
Now cast in a wider range of roles, Gable’s fame continued to grow. And by the time that the actor appeared in the 1939 epic Gone with the Wind, he was one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. Today, Gable’s turn as the dashing and rakish Rhett Butler remains arguably his most memorable part.
Behind the scenes, Gable’s romantic life was just as dramatic as those of the characters he portrayed. By the time that Gone with the Wind was released, the actor had already divorced two wives and had just married again. But according to those who knew him, actress Carole Lombard was the true love of his life.
After their wedding in March 1939, Gable and Lombard purchased a ranch in California and settled into rural life. However, their wedded bliss was not to last. When the U.S. entered World War II two years later, many Hollywood stars began to think about how they could serve their country.
In California, Gable and his new wife decided to do their part in the war effort. According to reports, Lombard sent a telegram to then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt and offered their services. However, the reply was firm: the couple should stay in Hollywood and continue to make movies rather than put themselves in harm’s way.
Lombard was determined to play her part though, and in January 1942 she traveled to Indiana on a war bonds tour. But on her return journey, tragedy struck when the airplane she was flying in crashed near Las Vegas in Nevada. Everyone on board lost their lives in the accident, including Gable’s wife, who died at the age of just 33.
Devastated by Lombard’s death, Gable decided to throw himself into supporting the war effort. Going against the wishes of his studio and the president, the actor signed up with the Army Air Forces – attending Officer Candidate School for 13 weeks. There, he was trained as an aerial gunner as well as a photographer.
In fact, Gable’s superiors decided to make the most of the actor’s movie star background and assigned him to the First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU). Based out of a studio in Culver City, CA, this group consisted of talent recruited straight from Hollywood. Alongside producer Jack Warner and fellow actors Ronald Reagan and Van Heflin, Gable was tasked with making films to promote the war effort.
Typically, members of the FMPU were not sent overseas. But when Gable was assigned to make a movie about air gunners – Combat America – he was told to pack for Britain. For the mission, the actor was assigned to the 351st Bombardment Group and sent to the Royal Air Force base of Polebrook in England.
In England, Gable was assigned to whichever mission best suited his particular goal: to capture clear photographs of combat in the air. And throughout most of 1943 he saw plenty of action. According to official records, the actor flew on five active missions, although those who fought alongside him have suggested that this number was far higher.
On one occasion, an aircraft that Gable was following lost an engine after being hit by German fighters. Amid bad weather, the crew were forced to bail out over rural England. On another flight, the damage was to the actor’s own plane, as he was hit by a flurry of fire above the German city of Gelsenkirchen.
Luckily, Gable survived the anti-aircraft fire incident – although some of his fellow squadron members were not so lucky. By this point, word of the movie star’s daring escapades had reached MGM, and the studio began pressuring the Air Force to remove him from the line of fire. Eventually, in October 1943 the actor returned home to finish editing Combat America.
By late 1943 Gable had risen through the ranks from first lieutenant to captain and then, finally, to major. And throughout the course of his colorful military career, he earned many awards and accolades. As well as the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross, the actor also received the American Campaign Medal, the World War II Victory Medal and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal.
To begin with, the men of the 351st were amused to discover that a Hollywood star had been assigned to their ranks. But by the time that the war was over, they acknowledged that Gable had fought just as bravely as anyone else. However, the actor’s reputation spread far beyond the confines of this one regiment.
In fact, rumor has it that German dictator Adolf Hitler himself once placed a bounty on Gable’s head. According to reports, the Fuhrer was a big fan of Gone with the Wind and had watched the movie multiple times. Apparently, he was impressed by the scope of the picture – telling his advisors that Germany ought to be able to replicate the achievement.
But it wasn’t just the epic movie about the American Civil War that captured Hitler’s attention. Apparently, he was particularly impressed with Gable, who many claim was the Fuhrer’s favorite actor. And when word got out that the movie star was stationed in England, the story goes, a nefarious plot was formed.
According to Harren G. Warris’ 2002 book Clark Gable: A Biography, Hitler offered a reward to anyone who managed to capture the star. And given the audacity of the claim, the story has become part of Hollywood lore. But if it is true, what exactly did the Fuhrer plan on doing with his favorite actor once he had him in his grasp?
In 2018’s Hitler and Film: The Fuhrer’s Hidden Passion, author Bill Niven recounts an alleged interaction between Gable and the British actor David Niven. Apparently, the Gone with the Wind star had spoken of his fear that the Fuhrer would put him in a cage and display him across Germany.
However, there is another rumor which might explain why Hitler was so interested in an American movie star. According to Clark Gable III, the grandson of the famous actor, the Fuhrer wanted to give his ancestor a different kind of starring role. And had he succeeded, it would have been a truly bizarre twist in the ongoing war.
“He wanted my grandfather to make a propaganda film to crush the American fighting spirit,” the younger Gable told MailOnline in 2014. And years later, he would build on this intriguing story even more. In 2017 the grandson of the Hollywood great came forward claiming to be in possession of a letter from Hitler himself.
According to Gable’s grandson, this letter confirms that the Fuhrer really did issue a bounty on his grandfather’s head. However, this isn’t the only story connecting the movie star to the Nazis during World War II. Apparently, other sources claim that it was actually Hitler’s right-hand-man Hermann Göring who offered the reward.
Whatever the truth, it seems that the Nazis’ big plans for Gable never materialized. And in June 1944 the actor was removed from active service – having never returned to a combat role. Three months later, he was formally discharged and had his papers signed by future U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
Years later, those who had fought alongside Gable would remember the star as a sturdy and serious military man. However, they report that he knew how to party when the time was right. In a 2010 interview with Defense Media Network, a fellow gunner described the actor as “a great friend of the enlisted men as well as a great all-around guy.”
Moreover, those who knew Gable were quick to dispel rumors that he had enlisted because of a death wish brought on by Lombard’s passing. But whatever his motivation, the actor had played the role of the war hero to perfection. And in 1944 he made a triumphant return to the big screen.
Although the movies that he was cast in did not receive the same critical acclaim as his earlier work, Gable remained a big box office draw. When his contract with MGM ended in 1954, he then embarked on a career as a freelance actor. And before long, he was commanding the highest salary in the business.
Untethered to a studio, Gable continued to secure work – starring in a new picture every year. Then, in 1960 he delivered what many consider one of the best performances, as a cowboy in The Misfits opposite Marilyn Monroe. Tragically, it would be the last time that either of the beloved actors would appear on screen.
Soon after finishing filming on the Misfits, Gable had a heart attack. And just ten days later he passed away at the age of 59. Four months after that, the actor’s fifth wife Kay Gable gave birth to John Clark – his only son. Later, it would emerge that he had fathered another child – a girl named Judy – with the actress Loretta Young.
Today, Gable is remembered as one of the biggest stars of Hollywood’s golden age. In total, he appeared in over 60 movies throughout a career that spanned four decades. But while he will always be Rhett Butler to many fans, his work with the FMPU has also gone down in history – along with his heroism on the battlefield.
“They were very real missions in which he could have been wounded or killed,” scholar Chrystopher J. Spicer told Defense Media Network. “His film Combat America makes a valuable contribution to our historical knowledge of the war from the flyer’s perspective these days.” And even though the movie did not make a huge impact on its release, it remains a testament to the bravery of men like Gable and his crew.