California State Military Department
The California State Military Museum
Preserving California's Military Heritage

Unoffical Insignia, First Motion Picture Unit

Hollywood's Army
The First Motion Picture Unit, US Army Air Forces
Culver City, California
 
by
Master Sergeant George J. Siegel
 
How It Began

Approximately a year and a half before the War, Warner Bros. Studios were contacted by the Army Public Relations in Washington with an official request that a series of short subjects be made, released in theaters throughout the country, for the purpose of orienting the public with the various branches of the military.

It should be remembered that, at this time, the American public was totally unaware of the importance of such branches as the Armored Forces, the Engineers, Cadet Training of the Air Corps., Etc.

Jack L. Warner accepted the responsibility with enthusiasm and acute awareness for the necessity of the job to be done. He went into conference with Gordon Hollingshead, of his Short Subjects Department, who, in turn, called in Owen Crump, a writer at the studio. Thus the plan materialized and the work began.

The result, after Crump~had visited and done research at various military installations and Headquarters throughout the country, was a series of eight two~reel subjects in Technicolor, and were at that time, a completely new innovation in the short subject field.

Once the Army Service pictures were released in the theaters, similar requests were received from the Navy, Marine Corps arid the Coast Guard.

Up to the time when War was declared, the Shorts Subjects Department of Warner Bros. was devoted to this pre-Pearl Harbor orientation campaign.

It was natural then that General "Hap" Arnold, head of the Army Air Forces, realizing the tremendous necessity for training films, orientation films and inspirational subjects, to keep pace with the almost unbelievable growth of the Air Forces, should request Jack Warner to come to Washington. Warner took Owen Crump with him, since he had accumulated much knowledge of service picture problems.

It should be noted then that General Arnold was at that time anticipating the division of the Army Air Corps into a completely separate service branch, no longer a part of the Army. Previously, the Army Signal Corps Photographic Section had made all the train ing films for the air arm, but now General Arnold saw the immediate necessity of organizing and activating his own film unit to serve the particular needs of the new Army Air Force.

In that first meeting the General explained the situation.... "If we (the Army Air Force) set out to form a unit of highly professional film makers, where do we get them? We certainly couldn't train them. We wouldn't know how, and the time it would take to get some capable personnel into the set-up and get a film-making Air Force Table of Organization working, is just unthinkable.... unless you people in the film industry take on the job and do it for us. And that's what I am asking you to do. We haven't any time. Training of Cadets and of Technical crews are just examples of the monumental problems we are facing with this great expansion going on and training films could shorten the amount of time it would take to accomplish this.

The outcome of this meeting, and others in the War Department, resulted in Jack Warner being commissioned a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force. A short time later Owen Crump was commissioned a Captain.

Their primary assignment was quite simply to organize the First Motion Picture Unit of the US Army Air Force.

Of immediate necessity, however, was the demand for a two-reel short subject aimed at speeding up enlistments in the Army Air Force Cadet Training Program. General Arnold felt this to be the most urgent need since the Army Air Force, at that time, could not draft men for Cadet Training and was in a position where more than 100,000 young men must enlist voluntarily within a three month period.

Colonel Warner turned over all facilities of Warner Bros. studio to the project. Work was carried out on a twenty-four hour basis. Owen Crump wrote and directed the film. Within fourteen days it was written, photographed, edited, dubbed, scored. Jimmy Stewart, then Lt. Stewart (later to become a Brigadier General Stewart)played the leading role. The picture was promptly released in most of the theaters throughout the United States. Its effect was immediate, intense. More than 150,000 enlistments were directly traced to the effect of the picture, which was called "Winning Your Wings".


Organizing the Unit
 

How do you start? Well, obviously you need technicians in almost every category of film making, and you need enough of them to turn out the film quickly and with a high standard of quality. So you have to have the best and the best were working in the studios. then, too, you have to find someplace to make the films, like a studio. Start with that.

Jack Warner offered the Vitagraph Studio, in East Hollywood. It was empty with no equipment whatever and no filming or picture making activity of any kind had been done there for a long period of time. But it did have sound stages, storage space and some empty rooms for offices.

General Arnold sent out one Lieutenant and two Sergeants to help with the military paper work that would properly activate the Unit and give it the means to operate, acquire supples etc.

Crump put up a large chart representing an operating studio with all departments indicated. Then he began to fill in the categories of personnel and the number of each for every department, from studio grip to producers.

To spread the word, he gave the story to the trade papers, and the response was almost unbelievable. By then, fortunately, we had help from a few other experienced motion picture people who were in other units of the Service and were immediately transferred to the new "Unit".

Applications were received from every studio, representing almost every type of craftsman. It's true, of course, that many of them were eligible for the draft, but very many simply wanted to serve their country in a way they knew best, (Remember that in those early days after Pearl Harbor, patriotism was rampant) and many of the ap plicants were past middle age and these dedicated men were, as the film industry knows, the most skillful.

Now the very idea of direct enlistment into a particular unit was practically unheard of in the military. But General Arnold agreed to it, and saw that it was permitted, because it was the only way such a complicated organization could be put together in a hurry.

An appointed committee carefully surveyed the applications and the qualifications of every applicant and also, since the unit would be dealing with some highly top secret subjects,. each applicant's name was also given to the F.B.I. for processing.

Quickly the number of personnel grew. After four weeks of basic training in other parts of the country, they returned to sleep on cots on the sound stages and to eat in the commissary, which was not too bad, considering the initial problems of getting it started.


The Hal Roach Studio

It was soon evident that because of wartime priorities on equipment, it would be necessary to find a location where a studio, completely equipped for the making of motion pictures was available. There was a stroke of luck. It was learned that the Hal Roach Studios were not in production and had no plans in that direction.

Washington was immediately contacted and in a matter of days the Studio was leased by the Army Air Force.

At that time the number of men in the unit was about three hundred. One week, exactly, after the men marched on the Hal Roach property, and dispersed to their assigned departments, shooting the first picture began. A six reel picture titled "Live and Learn" that illustrated, with a lot of flying, the unnecessary, thoughtless mistakes, young cadets make (some fatal) in their flight training.

Within two months the number of pictures proposed by the Training Aids branch of the Army Air Force in Washington amounted to one hundred fifty, with priorities on those most urgently needed, Subsequently, three hundred pictures were in some process of planning, writing, research, shooting, cutting, dubbing or scoring.

The range of subject matter was so varied as to include "Operation of the Bomb Sight", "Land and Live in the Jungle", "How to Survive in the Arctic" (after crashing), "Lessons in Aerial Gunnery", Mental Attitude of a Soldier", "Recognition of the Japanese Zero". (The first Zero captured intact was immediately flown, in a cargo plane, to Burbank so the Unit could photograph it in the air doing a series of maneuvers with a technical narration and with the highest priority the film was flown to all Air Forces and other installations in the Pacific.

During the life of the First Motion Picture Unit more than 400 films were made. Because of the extent of the operation the Table of Organization was increased several times by Washington. In the end, there were 1110 men, not counting the Combat Camera Training and the units in the field. Also, not counting persons on special assignment, as Technical Advisors, or other personnel on temporary duty from coordinating Army Air Force units.

The list of players who were also members of the unit (With other assigned duties when not acting) represented stars and feature players from nearly every studio.... for example, Captain Ronald Reagan, who was in the Cavalry Reserves when the War started, but was transferred to the First Motion Picture Unit because of his combination of military and motion picture experience. (A separate note on "Captain" Reagan is attached).

To continue with "names", Sergeant Alan Ladd, Sergeant George Montgomery, Captain Robert Sterling, Captain William Holden, Sergeant Lee Cobb, Sergeant Arthur Kennedy, to name but a few.

Directors and producers from all studios were also represented as well as some of the finest writers in the Industry.

One of the most notable projects undertaken by the Unit, and one whose secret had been kept necessarily of top classification, was the building of a huge miniature of the main island of Japan, exactly to scale. This was done approximately six months before the first bomb was dropped by the B-29's. The miniature covered an entire sound stage and more than 100 men worked on it at all times. With the camera's eye moving over the island, to perfectly depicted targets, briefing films were made which were run later on Okinawa for pilots to bomb Japan. Thus the crews of the B-29's could sit in their chairs and see the trip they were to make, pick out check points and the target. Some of the men connected with this work in the Unit knew the exact dates, time and hour and locations for the actual bombing of the Japanese Islands weeks before the first bomb was dropped.


Combat Camera Units

Combat Camera crews were trained by the First Motion Picture Unit at the Page Military Academy, only a half mile from the studio. Each crew was composed of seven Officers and 20 to 30 Enlisted men, depending on the theater of War they were sent to.

The training consisted of very intensive instruction in photography with a variety of motion picture and still cameras. Thorough training in the maintenance of' the cameras, aerial camera work under true flight conditions, often across the country. Rigid physical training, simulating ground combat, as well as the use of combat weapons.

The Camera Units, after training was completed, were sent out to all Army Air Force fronts throughout the World. They were on bombing raids as a matter of routine. The raids took many casualties and percentage-wise were high but many members of the Units received the most commendable decorations.


And Finally...
 

This account is necessarily brief, but should give an idea of the Units participation in the war effort. We could include copies of many commendations the Unit received from top Officers in the Army Air Force, representing various organizations the First Motion Picture Unit served with a film that "cut the training time down by months". This became a very familiar statement. The commendations also included other films that were documentary, meant to be studied as lessons learned in this war. Valuable lessons to be retained additionally there were the morale building and purely patriotic films which were highly praised. The men in the Unit who worked on these films were told about their reception from the top brass, so they could be proud. They were.

To put the Unit in a more concise perspective - an excerpt is quoted from an investigative report from. the Inspector General's office, Department of Intelligence.

"This investigating officer cannot conclude his discussion without saying something for those sincere and patriotic officers and men who have contributed so much to the excellent work of the First Motion Picture Unit. The vast majority of its personnel have succeeded in producing training and orientation films, most of which are superior by every standard of motion picture art, training and effectiveness. Men of the First Motion Picture Unit probably represent a higher civilian income bracket than would be found in any other military organization. They are proud of their work and have a right to be so. This can also be said of the Combat Camera Units."


Jack L. Warner

After the First Motion Picture Unit was formed and settled in at the Hal Roach Studios, Warner felt he had completed his part of the mission. Therefore, he turned back to his primary responsibility which was to run Warner Bros. Studio.


Captain Ronald Reagan

His first assignment in the Unit was that of Personnel Officer, a very important job, since men were enlisting for the Unit every day. Their records had to be set up, and he was their personal contact for questions or any information in their behalf. He was also on the staff responsible for working out the Table of Organization which was most important, because the whole structure of the Unit depended on that. Later, he was appointed Adjutant and performed those military duties with a high degree of consistency and zeal.

Reagan was very well-liked by the men of the Unit who looked up to him, not only for what he represented to them and their present circumstances, but as a person.

Alongside his military service, he appeared in or narrated many of the films.


The Bottom Line

The First Motion Picture Unit represented an historical moment, since it marked the first time in history a military unit was formed entirely of motion picture personnel. It was a true service, enlisted directly from the Industry and from all of the studios.

Now, after all these years, the men of this great Unit and the Motion Picture Industry from which they came have a right to be proud.


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