But the unit still needed a proper studio. As Crump drove past Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, where the Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang films were made, he noticed the lot was out of use (Roach had been conscripted into the Signal Corps in Astoria, New York, forcing him to put his studio’s lineup on hold). The studio had everything the motion picture unit needed: six warehouse-size sound stages, prop rooms, editing bays, costume and makeup departments, even an outdoor set made to look like a city street. Crump called Arnold, and within 11 days the Air Forces had leased the studio and made production manager Sidney Van Keuren a major. Jack Warner, feeling he’d done his part getting the outfit off the ground, went back to running Warner Brothers.
Crump moved his unit from Vitagraph to Hal Roach Studios, which they dubbed Fort Roach. The lot comprised 14 acres and dozens of buildings, most of them windowless to provide the controlled-lighting environments necessary for filming. The exception was a long, narrow two-story building in the front of the lot that contained the post’s production department. Crump moved into Hal Roach’s old office, which was decorated with chandeliers, dark wood paneling, and ornate molding and which, in the studio’s early days, had contained a polar bear pelt.
Aside from the military motor pool in the back of the lot and the fact that everyone was in uniform, Fort Roach looked and functioned like a conventional movie studio. The only thing it didn’t have was a mess hall, so the Army built one. The barracks, which housed the men who didn’t have homes in Los Angeles, were located two miles away, at Page Military Academy.
In addition to their filmmaking work, the men shared KP duty in the mess hall and took turns guarding the studio’s front gate. Each morning they would march in groups down Washington Boulevard to perform calisthenics in the parking lot of the Casa Mañana nightclub. People began to call them the Hollywood Commandos, and the men adopted the motto “We kill ’em with fil’m.”
The unit’s first official project was a training film called Learn and Live. It is set in “Pilot’s Heaven,” where uniformed fliers wearing white angel wings mill around in the afterlife while their instructor tells St. Peter what flying errors they made to end up there.
Not all of the unit’s work was so fanciful. Many of its projects demanded the distillation of complicated details so they could be learned quickly, like the movies the unit made on how to identify enemy aircraft. This training was among the most vital that American airmen received.
In the Pacific, American pilots couldn’t tell the difference between a Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero and a U.S. Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, and were shooting down their wingmen. An intact Zero was finally captured in Alaska, and was immediately loaded into a cargo plane and flown to Los Angeles, where unit cameramen were waiting. Within hours the Zero was doing maneuvers over the Californian desert as camera planes filmed it from every angle. The animation department worked through the night to develop a simple way of illustrating the Zero’s distinguishing characteristics. A finished film on how to identify the enemy airplane—complete with a cartoon comparing the fuselage to a cigar—was shipped out to air bases all over the Pacific theater the next day.
Howard Landres and Eugene Marks, now in their late 80s, are among the few alumni of the unit still living. They were childhood friends in Los Angeles, and they were only 19 when they joined the Air Forces as filmmakers. Both were going to college and working part time, Marks as an engineer at a recording studio and Landres in the reading room at MGM. Having heard that the Air Forces had formed a film unit close to home, they jumped at the chance to join. Landres showed up to interview with Lieutenant Reagan on a Thursday (his day off at MGM), and Reagan asked if he would be ready to join the Air Forces the next day.
“I said, ‘Tomorrow’s Friday! I have a date,’ ” Landres remembers. Reagan suggested the following Tuesday, and they had a deal. Marks also asked that his induction be postponed a few days, as he had tickets to a football game.
“You got to remember, this was a Hollywood unit,” says Landres. “Nobody really saluted as an officer passed. I mean, it was so not the military.” Many members of the unit lived at home and commuted to Fort Roach. The men addressed one another by first names, and in their free time they played badminton or volleyball on empty sound stages. All unit recruits were required to go through basic training before reporting to the post, says Landres, “but it wasn’t the basic-basic.”