On a Sunday morning in march 1942, the commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces was sitting in his Washington, D.C. office with Jack Warner, vice president of Warner Bros. Studios. The United States had entered World War II the previous December, and Lieutenant General Henry “Hap” Arnold had spent the past four months shaping his air force into one of the most formidable in the world. Anticipating an air war on two fronts on opposite sides of the globe, the service was rolling out tens of thousands of new airplanes. Arnold needed men to fly them.
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Arnold wanted 100,000 pilots, and he told Warner he needed a powerful recruitment movie. After that, he’d need effective training films to get all those recruits flying and fighting as soon as possible. To make all these movies, he proposed building a USAAF motion picture unit, staffed entirely with recruits from Hollywood.
Also in the room during that meeting was Owen Crump, a scriptwriter with a reputation, developed during a career in radio, for speed and accuracy. Since before Pearl Harbor, he and Warner had been making propaganda films for the military, intended to promote the armed forces to an American public reluctant to enter the war in Europe. Crump, who died in 1998, recalled the meeting in an interview recorded during 1991 and 1992 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He remembered that after Warner agreed to throw his studio’s weight behind the idea, Arnold turned to Crump and said, “You’re in this too”; he promised both men officers’ commissions on the spot.
On the airplane back to Hollywood, Crump wrote the script for Winning Your Wings, the recruitment film Arnold had commissioned; within days, it was in production. John Huston, who had recently made The Maltese Falcon, was brought on to direct it. Actor Jimmy Stewart, an accomplished pilot who had enlisted the previous year, was given orders to star as the film’s on-camera narrator. Stewart took his service in the Air Forces seriously, and thinking the studio had pulled him away for a publicity stunt, he arrived on set irate. Crump took Stewart across the street to a café and explained what he and Warner were up to. Stewart apologized for the blow-up, knocked out his scenes in a few days, and flew back to his post.
Winning Your Wings opens with Stewart flying aerobatics in a BT-13 Valiant trainer, which he then lands and taxis up to the camera. He radiates cool in his leather jacket and aviator sunglasses, and he waxes poetic about the importance of winning the war. The scene cuts to a young actress ditching her ground-bound Army date for a boy with wings on his jacket, as Stewart’s voice-over claims that flyboys always get the girl.
The film played in theaters all over the country—and more than 150,000 men signed up to join the Air Forces.
Requests from Washington for more recruitment movies started to pile up, and Warner and Crump realized the studio wouldn’t be able to satisfy its military obligations on top of its normal production schedule. They decided Crump would put together a separate studio devoted to serving the Air Forces. Warner gave Crump the idle Vitagraph Studios lot, where silent films had been made in the 1910s, and Crump set out to turn it into a military post.
Crump began recruiting from the Hollywood studios. A few other notable filmmakers, like director Frank Capra, had already joined the service (Capra was in the Army Signal Corps, which also made training and propaganda films), and Crump didn’t want all the good talent to enlist before he got his unit off the ground. He put an ad in the trade papers, and by the next day his office was flooded with applications from writers, directors, editors, animators, and composers, many of whom were established professionals willing to take a sizable pay cut to join the war effort. Future best-selling novelist Irving Wallace wrote scripts. Artist Wayne Thiebaud painted sets. Larry Ornstein, a trumpet player for the big bands, recorded the reveille that played each morning on the post public address system.
Several movie stars joined the unit as well: Clark Gable, Lee J. Cobb, William Holden, Arthur Kennedy, Van Heflin, Joseph Cotten, DeForest Kelley, Alan Ladd, and others. Westerns star George Montgomery drove the bus from the barracks to the post. Actor and future president Ronald Reagan, who was already a second lieutenant in the Cavalry Reserve, transferred to the Air Forces to join Crump’s outfit. He was well liked in the movie industry, so Crump made him the unit’s personnel officer and put him in charge of processing incoming recruits.
On July 1, 1942, the outfit was officially named the Army Air Forces First Motion Picture Unit. But Vitagraph was underequipped for full production, and Crump struggled at first just to supply the post with the basics. Luckily, his men were used to improvising. “Motion picture fellows, a lot of them, are very, very good at that,” said Crump, remembering how the men brought whatever was needed from their own homes. “These are the things I’m so proud of, the way the thing got started.”