Premiered on Christmas Day 1949, Twelve O'Clock High is the classic American aviation film. In the subsequent fifty years it has earned a revered place in the cinematic pantheon, and is sure to appear in anyone's list of the best war movies ever made. In addition, as a study in command, it enjoys a lively second life as a training film for officers and in business-school management courses. (In fact, only about fifteen minutes of the film's two hours depict aerial combat. Most of the story takes place at the bombers' base in England). What are not so widely known are the real-life stories on which Twelve O'Clock High was based — the stories of the first B-17s to raid occupied Europe, and the men who commanded the missions.
The film charts the exemplary leadership and harrowing decline of US Army Air Force General Frank Savage, played by Gregory Peck, as battle fatigue overtakes a remarkable commander. Savage is a composite of several actual Eighth Air Force officers, as are other characters. All were observed at close hand by the co-writer of the screenplay and the novel on which it was based, LtCol Beirne Lay, Jr.
During the war Lay was in a unique position to see the conduct of USAAF officers under the strain of combat command. He had seen several real-life Frank Savages at close hand, taking command of 'hard-luck outfits'. He sculpted the character and the drama based on what he had actually witnessed.
Already an accomplished screenwriter (he had written I Wanted Wings, made by Paramount in 1941), Lay was a valued aide to Major General Ira C. Eaker, commander of the Eighth Bomber Command (later the Eighth Air Force). Lay accompanied Eaker on his first visit to England in February 1942, barely two months after Pearl Harbor. Another of Eaker's original staff officers on that visit, Col Frank A. Armstrong, became the most prominent true-life model for Frank Savage.
A tough, no-nonsense North Carolinian, Armstrong assumed command of the 97th Bombardment Group in July 1942. The Group had flown the first USAAF B-17E Flying Fortresses across the Atlantic to England. Armstrong's predecessor was sacked for running what James Parton, Ira C. Eaker's biographer called a 'lackadaisical, loose-jointed, fun-loving, badly trained outfit...in no sense ready for combat.' Armstrong's West Point training, erect bearing, and wind-tanned face commanded respect (he had spent fourteen of his 39 years in the cockpits of military aircraft). He turned the 97th around in short order. It conducted the very first USAAF bombing raid into Europe, attacking Rouen-Sotteville, France on 17 August 1942. Brigadier General Ira C. Eaker, commander of VIII Bomber Command, accompanied the unit on this mission, as did Armstrong. (The fictional Frank Savage led the first ten bombing missions over enemy-occupied territory).
In early January 1943 Armstrong took command of another troubled unit — this one savaged by horrendous losses in its first missions, during the fall of 1942. Based at Thurleigh in Bedfordshire, the 306th Bomber Group flew the improved B-17F (different from the E, most notably, in its clear plexiglass nose dome which greatly increased visibility). Their early months of combat, under Colonel Charles 'Chip' Overacker, had been brutal. In raids over industrial targets and submarine bases in France during October and November they had lost planes and men to ferocious German flak and fighters — including bold new head-on attacks from 'twelve o-clock high,' instead of from the rear where most defensive guns could be brought to bear. In these attacks, closing speeds were frightening, risking collisions and leaving little time to line up gunsights. On a single day, 23 November, four B-17's from the 306th were lost to these head-on attacks. As planes were lost, and others returned with dead and dying men aboard, morale plummeted. 'The entire group was always emotionally jarred by the return home of bodies of good friends', wrote the group surgeon, Major Thurman Schuller. When the 306th lost nine B-17's in three missions, Eaker visited Thurleigh on 4 January, with Armstrong and Lay in tow. 'Things are not going well up there,' he told them, 'I think we ought to take a look around.' His staff car was waved casually past a sentry who neither saluted nor checked the occupants' identity (just as the fictional Frank Savage's car was, in the film). 'As we visited hangars, shops, and offices,' Eaker recalled, 'I found similar attitudes as seen at the front gate. The men had a close attachment to the CO and he to them. But there was a lack of military propriety and I could not help feel that this might be part of the problem that was being revealed in combat.'
Eaker relieved Colonel Overacker of command and appointed Armstrong in his place. Several other officers were sacked, too. Armstrong set to work to rebuild morale and soon got the 306th tagged as 'First Over Germany,' leading the first raid on the Reich itself on 27 January. (In the film, Savage's group conducts the first mission over German soil). On 17 February Armstrong was promoted to Brigadier General and made deputy commander of the First Wing, but he continued to pay close attention to the 306th. On 5 April he flew in a 306th B-17 in an attack on an aircraft factory at Morsel, Belgium, near Antwerp. It was an especially costly raid for the Group; four of the B-17's were lost. Armstrong's Fortress, Dark Horse, flown by Captain John M. Regan, was attacked from twelve o'clock high by a single Focke-Wulf 190 and riddled with cannon fire. Captain Robert Saltirnik, lead navigator for the raid, was critically wounded when a can of .50-cal. ammunition was hit by a 20-mm. cannon shell. Armstrong himself administered first aid, but Saltirnik died of his infected wounds in hospital, two months later. (Armstrong was awarded a DSC; his citation said he did the flying, but it was Capt Regan who was at the controls).
Shipped out to the Pacific for the war against Japan, Armstrong commanded a heavy bomber wing from November 1944 through the war's end and on to January 1946. At that time his former comrade Beirne Lay was back in Hollywood, working for MGM on an aviation film, Above and Beyond. He was approached by ex-USAAF Major Sy Bartlett, a friend of Armstrong's, who was working as a screenwriter for Twentieth Century Fox. They co-authored a novel, Twelve O'Clock High, and the screenplay adaptation. The central character, Frank Savage, is clearly based on Armstrong; the story drew on the troubled early history of the 'hard-luck' 306th. The unit becomes the 918th Bombardment Group (3 x 306).
While Savage is modelled on the real-life Armstrong, rebuilding the pride and effectiveness of a group, his sudden, precipitous decline to near-catatonic battle fatigue, a day after leading his group on a particularly costly and harrowing mission, is not. That tragedy is not that of the real Gen Armstrong, but, as Lay confirmed, it is based on another real officer, Brigadier General Newton Longfellow.
The Le Trait Raid
Longfellow commanded the 1st Bomb Wing in 1942. In his first mission, on 24 August, he flew with Major Paul W. Tibbetts in one of a dozen Fortresses attacking Le Trait, a shipyard on the lower Seine. (Tibbets had been Armstrong's pilot on the Rouen-Sotteville raid, a week before, and would later pilot the A-bomb-bearing Enola Gay to Hiroshima). On the way home the formation was jumped by yellow-nosed Messerschmitt Bf109's. One made an overhead pass, firing into Tibbetts' cockpit wounding him, and seriously injuring the top gunner. Lockhart his co-pilot was wounded in the hands. Tibbetts recalled, 'Newt panicked. He started grabbing for the throttles and we had a critical situation. I told him to quit. He didn't even hear me. The only thing I could do was hit him with my right elbow. I was able to catch him under the chin while he was leaning over, and I knocked him right on his fanny...He calmed down then, and when he got back on his feet he spent the next half hour ministering to the injured. Having done what he could for Lockhart's hand, he bandaged the head of the turret gunner who was lying on the floor unconscious. After lifting Lockhart out of his seat and making him as comfortable as possible on the floor, with a parachute for his pillow, Longfellow took over the co-pilot's duties and helped me fly the plane.
'When you have wounded aboard, you fire a Verey pistol on final approach to the runway. Newt did that and as we rolled to a stop, ambulances moved in beside us to speed the injured men to the base hospital. All recovered in good time, although there were some uneasy moments in the case of Lockhart, who had lost a large quantity of blood.'
Longfellow drove himself to destruction thereafter and was sent back to the US in June 1943. Eaker recommended his old friend for a training command, saying 'he is a tireless worker, and despite the fact we almost killed him off here working or carrying the responsibility for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, I believe he will spring back after a few weeks' rest.' Twelve O'Clock High does not recount what happened to Frank Savage after his sudden breakdown. But given the high regard he enjoyed from his men and his superiors, it is likely he would have earned similarly compassionate treatment.
Much of the film's durable appeal is due to its attention to accuracy and detail. Twelve B-17's were used in the making of Twelve O'Clock High, from February to July 1949. The flatlands east of Pensacola, Florida, at Eglin Air Force Base, and nearby Ozark, Alabama substituted convincingly for the fields of wartime England. Chief technical advisor was Colonel John H. deRussy, USAF, formerly operations officer of the 305th Bombardment Group based at Chelveston, Northamptonshire. He personally led the formation flights and group landings and take-offs. He was forbidden by superiors to attempt the memorable wheels-up belly landing, early in the film; that was performed by veteran Hollywood stunt flier Paul Mantz.
Gregory Peck observed, on the film's twenty-fifth anniversary, 'I think the picture still has meaning for audiences because of its integrity. We managed to dramatize a true story without resorting to false theatrics and sentimentality.'
Few war films have achieved this.
by Martin W Bowman
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