Wednesday, December 9, 2020

"Hollywood Commandos" Film at Barksdale

During World War II, it was common for celebrities to make the ultimate sacrifice and join the United States military to support the war efforts, which brought Hollywood actors, writers, photographers, and models to Barksdale Field as soldiers during that time. Many of which worked for the First Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Forces.

First Motion Picture Unit insignia, public domain, Wikimedia Commons

The Army bought the Hal Roach Studio in Culver City, Ca, where the unit was headquartered. The men nicknamed the headquarters "Fort Roach," and this unit of the Army was nicknamed "The Culver City Commandos," "Celluloid Commandos," and "Hollywood Commandos." Their motto was, "We kill 'em with fil'm." It was the first military unit made up entirely of professionals from the film industry. They were tasked with making propaganda and training films, some of which were nominated for and won Academy Awards.

In December of 1942, some of these Hollywood celebrities, now soldiers, came to Barksdale, where they combined their talents to entertain the locals and train the enlisted. The entertainment came in the form of a radio program on KWKH called "Bomber Squadron." "The first in a new series of dramatized programs to be written, portrayed and produced by soldiers at Barksdale Field," aired on Christmas Eve.

Sgt. Richard R. Raleigh wrote the program. Before the war, he worked as a John Power's model, stage actor, short story and radio writer. The program featured Cpl. Oliver Wendell Holmes, an actor whose career included radio, television, Broadway, and film work. He was known for his roles in Zorro (1957), The Twilight Zone (1959), and Leave It to Beaver (1957), to name a few. Holmes and other Barksdale personnel portrayed the American soldier of that time "through the medium of a soldier's letter to his wife."

Martin B-26 Marauder. US Air Force picture,
public domain., Wikimedia Commons
The training came in the medium of a film produced by the First Motion Picture Unit. The working title was "Flying Characteristics of the B-26," and it was the unit's third training film. The production crew shot all but one scene at Barksdale Field. The B-26 had difficult flying characteristics and other issues which lead to many accidents, earning it nicknames, such as "widow-maker," "Martin murderer," and "Flying Coffin." This training film provided training on how to handle these problematic flying characteristics to prevent unnecessary accidents and deaths.

Capt. Robert Carson wrote and directed the film under the guidance of Col. Millard Lewis, who was closely connected with the modification of the B-26. Carson was a film and television screenwriter, novelist, and short-story writer. He won an Oscar for best writing, original story, at the 1938 Academy Awards for his 1937 screenplay "A Star is Born." which was also nominated that year for best writing, screenplay. Capt. Charles H. Seawell was the assistant technical advisor, as well as, set coordinator and advisor.

Sgt. Don Porter played the role of Capt. Dick Blake, the B-26 flight instructor. In Hollywood, he was a film and television actor. One of the parts he is known for is that of Russell Lawrence, the widowed father of 15-year-old Frances "Gidget" Lawrence, played by Sally Field in the 1963 film "Gidget Goes to Rome" and the 1965 sitcom "Gidget." While in the military, he also served as a combat photographer during the war.

Pvt. Gail Shackles, whose screen name was Craig Stevens, played the role of co-pilot Lt. Jim Anthony. Shackles was a film and television actor, best known for his starring role as private detective Peter Gunn from 1958 –1961. Some sci-fi fans also know him for his leading role as Col. Joe Parkman in the cult-classic "The Deadly Mantis" (1957). He also appeared in other propaganda and training films while serving in the Army Air Corps.

Capt. Ullman J. Carruth of the 335th Bomb Group played a minor role in the film, and he served as the coordinator of supplies for the Motion Picture unit during the making of this film. Staff Sgt. Richard R. Raliegh mentioned earlier, also had a short role in the film. During his time in the military, he served in the Public Relations Department of the 335th Bomb Group and the 1143rd Engineering Combat Group.

First Motion Picture Unit credit screen c.1943

The training film was completed in about six weeks and is titled "How to Fly the B-26 Airplane." If you enjoy watching old movies or if you want to check out the one made at Barksdale, a quick search online will provide options for watching this and other films by the First Motion Picture Unit.

By: Amy Robertson

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