Fighter Squadron: When Hollywood Came to Oscoda, Michigan

In the early summer of 1948, when I was seven years old, and my family was living on my grandfather’s 40-acre farm outside of Oscoda, Michigan, I looked up from my chores to see several single-engine World War II fighter planes buzzing low overhead on their way north to the local army air field, located across the Au Sable River from our farm. Born one year prior to America’s entry into World War II, I had little awareness of the world-changing conflict that had raged in remote parts of the globe. However, I could vividly recall the amazing celebrations that occurred as my mother and I rode in our family Ford driven by my father down the streets of Denver, Colorado, in August of 1945. My father, originally a school teacher from Michigan before the war, had joined the Army Air Force and was a personnel officer stationed at that time at Lowry Field, east of Denver. Young as I was, I knew that the sight of people yelling and screaming and waving their arms and small flags all along the full length of Colfax Avenue was something special, something unusual. My father explained that the war was over, and even though I was too young to be aware of its excesses of death, violence, and destruction, I knew that its ending was the occasion for significant celebrations.

When we moved back to Michigan after the war ended and my father found a teaching job in the local school, I thought that all war-related activity had ceased. My grandfather told us about the flying activity that had occurred at the local airfield during the war, as warplanes involved in combat training had flown over the farm on a regular basis; one had even had a forced landing in a field two hundred yards in front of our farm house. How I wished I could have been there to see that! The only evidence that I could see of the crash was a white-washed section on the large oak tree in the middle of our field that marked the final resting point of the aircraft as it had slid along the ground after its engine failed. The pilot was seriously hurt, my grandfather said. After the end of the war, all flying training activities ceased, and it was a rare aircraft that flew into the now mostly deserted field.

So I was surprised to see several formations of fighter planes flying overhead into the field nearly three years after the war had ended. These aircraft, my grandfather informed me, were P-47 Thunderbolts; he should know, for he had seen them in the skies over the farm during the war years, and it was a P-47 that had crashed into our big oak tree. Why were they here? I asked. “To make a movie,” he said. “A movie about fighter pilots flying over Europe in the war.”

That movie was Fighter Squadron, directed by veteran filmmaker Raoul Walsh. Walsh shot many of the scenes at what was then known as Oscoda Army Air Field (OAAF), which at that time was a mostly unused military airfield with a large runway, ideal for accommodating a large number of P-47s, vintage World War II fighter aircraft.

The airfield at Oscoda had first been established twenty-five years earlier, in 1923, when construction of an aerial gunnery range was begun on the west perimeter of the airfield, and in 1924 flying activities at Oscoda began. The name given to the field initially was the Loud-Reames Aviation Field in honor of two local fliers, Harold Loud and Walter Reames, who died in separate flying incidents during and after World War I. The field was later re-named Camp Skeel, to commemorate a Selfridge Field pilot, Burt Skeel, who was killed in a Dayton, Ohio, air race in the fall of 1924. The airfield at Camp Skeel was used regularly for gunnery practice in the 1920s and 1930s and was used even in the winter months, when Selfridge pilots practiced winter flying techniques, landing on ski-equipped aircraft on the frozen surface of Van Ettan Lake.

After September 1939, when the war in Europe started, the training program at Camp Skeel intensified. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, construction efforts at Camp Skeel increased significantly. In August of 1942 the field was officially renamed Oscoda Army Air Field (OAAF), a name it held throughout World War II. The mission of the field was to provide operational training, primarily tactical flight training and gunnery practice for units about to be sent to active theaters of war.

By the spring of 1943 the training capacity and appearance of the field had changed significantly, and it was fully operational and ready to receive its first training units. The first unit to be assigned at Oscoda for wartime training was the 332nd Fighter Group, which consisted of the men who came to be known as the Tuskegee Airmen, the first members of which arrived in the middle of April, 1943. The 332nd Fighter Group, and its associated flying squadrons, the 100th Fighter Squadron, the 301st Fighter Squadron, and the 302nd Fighter Squadron, conducted training from April through December of 1943, when they left to join the 99th Fighter Squadron in Europe. From July of 1944 through March of 1945, the field was used for advanced training by pilots of the Free French Air Forces.

By war’s end, the training activities at the field had effectively ceased, and the field was little used for the next two and a half years. Then, during the last two weeks of June of 1948, the field came alive again, as it was visited by the film-making crew of Raoul Walsh.

Raoul Walsh was a veteran Hollywood film director who had made 47 films prior to filming Fighter Squadron. His films were characterized by fast-paced action and dynamic characters. Some of his best known titles included What Price Glory (1926), Sadie Thompson (1928), Dark Command (1940), High Sierra (1941) and They Died with their Boots On (1941). In his earlier days he had been a successful actor as well as a director, so he knew something about the arts of acting as well as directing. He often wore an eye patch over his right eye, which had been injured in an accident in 1928.

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The primary plot of the film focuses on the relationship between two men in a P-47 squadron stationed in England; the roles are played by Edmund O’Brien and Robert Stack, both of whom were relatively new to Hollywood; both men traveled to Oscoda for the P-47 flying sequences. O’Brien plays the role of a P-47 squadron commander who is dissatisfied with what he sees as unnecessarily restrictive operational procedures passed down from higher levels, which limit the targets that pilots can and cannot attack. Robert Stack is a high-spirited pilot in the squadron who wants to complete his tour so that he can return to the United States to marry his girlfriend. When the commanding officer of the fighter group of which O’Brien’s squadron is a component is promoted to a new position, O’Brien is promoted to the Group Commander’s position and now has the responsibility of supporting the decisions of the higher ranking officers instead of complaining about them or ignoring them. The film is as much about squadron and wing politics as it is about flying activities. The intricacies of combat maneuvers and air discipline are hardly represented in the film, as most of the dramatic moments involve disagreements among higher-ranking officers about the best way to wage the war in the air.

Comic relief is provided in the character of a sergeant in the squadron who maintains a hidden supply of black cats which wander into the squadron area at regular intervals; when a cat appears, he is given the task of putting it in a sack and driving it off the post, away from the airfield, so that its presence won’t be seen as bad luck. Once off the post, he woos a variety of local English women. Of course his trick is found out in the end. The only women to be seen in the film are those he has apparently been wooing, and they gather in one final comic scene near the end of the film.

The film was shot at the Warner Brothers Hollywood film lot and at two airfields nearly a continent apart: an airfield at Glendale, California, and Oscoda Army Air Field. In addition to providing extensive ramp space for the assembled P-47s, the field at Oscoda was located on the edge of Lake Huron, and the shoreline simulated the coast of England, over which the P-47s were supposed to be flying enroute to their primary tasks of protecting American bombers or attacking targets in France. The northeast Michigan landscape provided a relatively flat but varied terrain over which the P-47s could be filmed as they flew in formation at low altitude. Because the airfield at Oscoda was remotely located, there were no problems about avoiding other aircraft in the area. A spur extension ran into the airfield from the local Detroit and Mackinac Railway (D&M), which greatly simplifying the logistics of setting up the required filming equipment, which had been loaded on boxcars. A trainload of cars devoted to transporting the entire cast and crew was brought into Oscoda by the D&M Railway. The military facilities at the airfield were in relatively good condition as a result of the recent wartime construction and training activities that had occurred there.

Walsh had gained the support of the U. S. Air Force (which had become a separate military service in September of 1947). In addition to allowing Walsh and his crew to use the facilities at OAAF, the Air Force had also given its approval for a number of P-47 aircraft to be flown by Air Force pilots in support of the film-maker’s efforts. Sixteen P-47 aircraft were used in the film, provided by the 105th Fighter Bomber Squadron of the Tennessee National Guard, the 156th Fighter Bomber Squadron of the North Carolina Air National Guard, and the 128th and 158th Fighter Bomber Squadrons of the Georgia Air National Guard. Eighteen Air Force pilots were provided to fly the airplanes. Major Joseph Perry of the 56th Fighter Group served as the Air Force’s official technical advisor to the film (Giant). Major Leroy “Lee” Gover, a World War II Ace who had flown with the 4th Fighter Group in England during the war, led the contingent of aircraft from the North Carolina Air National Guard. He flew the solo flights shown in the film; he stated that “Since I had so much more P-47 experience than anyone else, I did all of the low-level and precision flying and led all the formations.”

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One fatality occurred when one of the P-47 pilots, Lieutenant Louie Mikell, bailed out of his disabled aircraft. He was flying at 8,000 feet with two other aircraft when his aircraft went into a spin. Mikell, who was a member of the Georgia Air National Guard, deployed his parachute successfully and landed in the waters of Lake Huron, but apparently failed to wear his Mae West flotation gear. He drowned before a rescue boat could reach the site.

The aerial sequences at Oscoda were filmed by veteran Hollywood stunt pilot and aerial cameraman Paul Mantz in his specially modified B-25, which he used to film aerial action shots in many films, including the later Cinerama hit, Seven Wonders of the World. Mantz installed camera mounts and hatches in five different locations in the plane. He shot most of the aerial sequences from the navigator’s position in the nose of the plane, which offered the best view of any aerial activity. In order to provide an unobstructed view of the other aircraft, Mantz had a portion of the protective canopy in the nose of the aircraft removed. Even though he installed a windscreen to deflect the airflow, the men who were operating the cameras wore electrically heated suits to keep them warm in the cold upper air.

The actors playing the roles of the pilots in the film performed with energy and professionalism. In addition to the lead roles played by Edmund O’Brien (Major Ed Hardin) and Robert Stack (Captain Stu Hamilton), other roles were played by John Rodney (Colonel Bill Brickley), Walter Reed (Captain Duke Chappell), James Holden (Lieutenant “Tennessee” Atkins), Mickey McCardle (Lieutenant Jacobs), and Jack Larson (Lieutenant “Shorty” Kirk). All of these actors traveled to Oscoda. The roles of the general officers were played by Henry Hull (General Mike McCready) and Shepperd Strudwick (General Gilbert); the role of Sergeant Dolan was played by Tom D’Andrea, and his assistant, Private Wilbur, by Bill McLean.

The film is often remembered for the fact that a young, unknown actor by the name of Rock Hudson made his first on-screen appearance. He is cast as one of the pilots and can be seen only in the officer’s club sequences. He speaks three brief lines. As far as can be determined, he did not travel to Oscoda.

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The musical score was written by Max Steiner, best known for his score for Gone with the Wind. The musical theme that is heard whenever the P-47s start to taxi is especially memorable.

Walsh made excellent use of the airfield at Oscoda during the two-week period in which filming occurred. His cameraman filmed the movements of the P-47s as they fish-tailed their way along the taxiways (the pilots had to make small turns from left to right as they taxied because the engine of the aircraft blocked their forward vision; in one scene a crew chief sits on the wing of the aircraft directing the pilot’s actions). There are several shots of P-47s taking off and landing. Two crash landings are shown in the film; these were actual crash landings that occurred (and were filmed) during the war. One of the crash landings is made to look like a crash in which Hardin (O’Brien) lands his damaged aircraft with the gear up on the grassy area by the side of the runway (and in which he gives one of the classic lines of the movie, “Tell the taxpayers to bring me another airplane”). The one hazardous landing that was filmed at Oscoda shows Hamilton (Stack) landing his P-47 on the ground to rescue Hardin (O’Brien), who has had to bail out of his aircraft. In the film, this event is supposed to occur in an open field in France, but it was in fact shot on a smooth, flat area adjacent to the Oscoda airfield runway; Lee Gover was the pilot.

In the sequence in which Hamilton rescues Hardin, Hardin is being pursued by German soldiers. Many of the parts of German soldiers were played by the military personnel assigned to the base; some Oscoda natives were used as extras. This sequence was filmed in an area bordering the west side of the runway, in which the jack pines and scrub oak trees which bordered the field provide cover for Hardin in his efforts to evade the Germans. As Hardin attempts to avoid capture, Captain Hamilton (Stack) strafes the German soldiers in his P-47; the realistic visual impression of bullets being fired at the Germans on the ground was created by special effects technicians:

“[It] required the use of several hundred yards of tiny electrical cable, small powder charges, and a walkie-talkie set. . . . The powder crew laid out the approximate pattern a stream of machine gun bullets would make. In this area they laid their wiring and powder charges so that a row of eight charges would explode simultaneously followed by another and another, realistically duplicating the effect of eight 50 caliber machine guns fired from a P-47 Thunderbolt. The charges were carefully concealed by grass and covered with earth in order that puffs of dust would burst into the air following each explosion.”

The simulated combat action of the German soldiers chasing after Edmond O’Brien startled one unsuspecting Oscoda resident, Paul Mouland, a youngster at the time. He happened to be on his way to his favorite swimming hole on the Au Sable River below Foote Dam, which was located not far from the extreme western edge of the airfield, when he heard an outbreak of what sounded like heavy gunfire. Frightened by the gunfire, he first hid behind the closest tree. Then, working up his nerve, he decided to explore further:

“When I got the nerve to look around the tree all I could see were a bunch of men coming my way in Nazi uniforms. I wasn’t sure how I was going to escape without being shot. Just beyond the tree was a thick bush so I got on my belly and crawled underneath it. My heart was pounding and I held my breath until they passed. Once they were out of sight, I ran home to warn my mother to find cover because we were being invaded.”

After making a phone call on the neighbor’s party line, Paul and his mother learned that the area was being invaded by actors, not German soldiers.

In the scene which opens the film, Walsh cleverly creates a montage that combines two episodes filmed at Oscoda with three episodes filmed in the Hollywood studios, all in one continuous sequence, in which Sergeant Dolan is seen driving three newspaper reporters to the fighter station in an Army Jeep. The sequence begins as the jeep appears in the scrub pine area around the field at Oscoda; then follows a sequence filmed in the studio as the scenery whips past in the back ground as Dolan and the newspapermen talk while the jeep is supposedly moving down the road; then the jeep stops as Dolan is cleared on to the base by two guards; then the jeep passes by the P-47s on the ramp at Oscoda; and the sequence concludes as the Jeep pulls up in front of the officer’s club, actually located in California. Thanks to skillful editing, this visual sleight-of-hand sequence works well. One photo taken during the filming shows an Oscoda fire department truck watering down a dirt road to eliminate any dust that might be raised as the jeep driven by Sergeant Dolan with three visiting newspapermen travels along it.

Another photo shows a shirtless Robert Stack conferring with director Raoul Walsh and co-star Jack Larson prior to a scene shot on the flight line. Another photo shows three of the actors who played the fighter pilots in the film holding up a rather small fish, apparently caught in Van Ettan Lake during an off-duty moment.

Early in the stay of the company, an open house was held to give the local residents some idea of what was involved in making a film, and many of the company posed for photos that were later featured on the pages of the Oscoda Press. After the open house, local citizens were not allowed on the base unless they were working in support of the filmmaking activities. So I was disappointed in my desire to see the film being made. However, one young Oscoda resident, Jerry Wagner, was a little closer to the filming activities than I was and was able to see some of the action. His family lived not far from the main entrance to the base, and his mother, who had been employed to do the washing for the officers assigned to the base, was asked to do the washing for some of the stars, including Robert Stack, who frequently visited Wagner’s home. Wagner, living close to the perimeter of the field, would often go to a small hill on the east side of the base and watch the activities that were taking place. Unfortunately his horse, Maude, broke out of the family barn and started to run loose on the field while filming was taking place. The filming had to be stopped while the horse was captured and returned to its owners. The horse’s punishment was rather severe; she eventually became food for the Wagner family’s mink population.

Many of the company members ate at local restaurants, but in 1948 there were not many to choose from. Tony Decker’s Tavern, located at the junction of US 23 (the main north-south road through town) and the road that led west to the Oscoda Army Air Field, was well-known as the best place to buy a hamburger. As the restaurant closest to the airfield, it must have seen a significant increase in business. One of the more notable eating establishments was Ewing’s Chicken House, located just west of Oscoda’s main street in the center of town, and for many years afterwards photos of the film’s stars adorned the walls of the restaurant, which closed in the 1960s. Sie and Gert’s restaurant and filling station, on the south end of town, was also a popular eating place. The most popular watering hole was the Hilltop Bar, located on the road between town and the D&M depot, less than a half mile from our farm. Many of the film crew and stars would gather there after the day’s work was completed. One photo shows Robert Stack and Grace Hopcroft, the owner of the tavern, standing together near the entrance.

According to one account, the citizens of Oscoda accepted the presence of the Hollywood crew with relative equanimity. The only incidents of mild excitement occurred when, after high school graduation exercises, “several giggling misses” rapped on one of the local cottage windows and then raced away after Edmund O’Brien opened his window to see who was there. Another local girl wrote “Mary Lee loves Robert Stack” in a fresh patch of cement in Oscoda’s main street. One Oscoda resident wrote to Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper to comment favorably on the behavior of the film crew, especially praising one of the actors:

“We expected the worst and got the best. The entire company conducted themselves in the best manner, but one young man completely changed my mind about Hollywood. He is Jack Larson, who plays a young flier in the picture. He endeared himself to the whole community. Too bad people couldn’t know more about actors like Jack and less about some others.”

Alas, the excitement of Hollywood actors actually walking the streets of Oscoda (not that I was ever able to see any) was over too soon. Before we knew it, it seemed, the filming was complete and the California entourage was leaving town. The townspeople gave the troupe a special sendoff, however; nearly every available person drove to the train station one mile west of town to bid farewell to the Hollywood visitors, filling the train with lilac blossoms, which would have been at their fullest and most fragrant at the end of June.

In spite of decent acting and good music, the film was not considered a success. Except for some wonderful shots of the P-47s taxiing, taking off, or landing at the field at Oscoda, and some brief scenes of P-47s flying in low level formation, the other flying sequences are mechanical and artificial. Most of the close-ups of pilots flying were shot in the Warner Brothers studios, with the relatively unimaginative special effects typical of the period. Sequences showing the P-47s being attacked by German fighters (actually P-51s painted in German markings) were filmed in California, and the dry California hills and valleys are easily seen in the background; the shift from the flat green landscape of Michigan in the summer to the dry hills and valleys of California helped to destroy any hope of verisimilitude that Walsh might have wanted to create. There are some shots of buildings being blown up by the attacking P-47s; in fact, the buildings were miniature in size, part of a model layout. Although this was a common technique in Hollywood at the time, they add to the sense of artificiality of some of the combat sequences.

The film contains several sequences of actual combat footage, films recorded by US Army Air Force aircraft as they attacked enemy aircraft in flight and targets on the ground during World War II, and Walsh apparently wanted to create a film in which this combat action footage could be included. He had never made a film featuring wartime aerial combat and may have wished to do so while he had the opportunity, before public interest in war films faded. The segments of actual combat gun camera film (all in color) included in the film are fascinating, but the strange varieties of aircraft being destroyed (Japanese as well as German) and the varied settings in which the combat sequences were filmed are noticeably obvious. There is a marked contrast between their realistically jerky movements and often blurred focus and the mechanical studio shots of the pilots serenely flying through the air.

Some of the best moments in the film are the sequences of the squadron pilots as they relax in the squadron’s officer’s club, set up at the Warner lot in Hollywood. In these scenes, the setting is authentic and the uniforms worn by all of the actors are impressive; they all look good in uniform, and the uniform details are accurate. In these sequences the sense of camaraderie and good spirits among the pilots is nicely captured; the writers responsible for the script (or at least these sections of the script) must have had some familiarity with the actual life of fighter pilots in their off-duty moments.

But the very different aspects of these various sequences awkwardly linked together (the P-47s at Oscoda, the studio shots of pilots in the aircraft, the gun camera film, the high spirited actions in the officer’s club, the fakey models being destroyed, and the sequences of the German fighter attacks over the California real estate) result in a film that sacrifices coherence and believability for a series of impressive but disconnected visual impressions. Even I, as an eight-year old viewer watching the film in our local theater early in January of 1949, was bothered by the awkward jumps from one setting to another.

In the final minutes of the film, both Stu Hamilton (Stack) and Ed Hardin (O’Brien) die in aerial combat, which could be a disappointment for most viewers, who like to see the central figure survive against the odds. For me, the real stars of the film are the P-47 aircraft, especially as they appear in the wonderful scenes shot on the field at Oscoda and flying in formation over the green fields and forests of northeastern Michigan. And the message of the film now, as then, is that powered flight, even for flying machines designed to wage war, is a truly impressive human achievement. Although Oscoda was the site of the most interesting filmed action, Walsh did not return to Oscoda to open the film. It was premiered in Atlanta, Georgia, on November 27, 1948. Most reviews were not enthusiastic; the wonderful action shots of P-47s taxing on the field at Oscoda and flying over northeastern Michigan could not compensate for the film’s weaknesses.

By the July 4th holiday of 1948, the actors and technicians (and the P-47s) had left Oscoda, and the field essentially fell silent again for another two years. In 1950, the base was reactivated, in response to increasing international tensions related to the Korean crisis, and then, renamed as Wurtsmith Air Force Base, in 1953 it became a part of the Air Defense Command, and then the Strategic Air Command, which retained operational command of the field until 1993, when it was closed and engine noise of U.S. Air Force aircraft in the skies over the Au Sable River died away. But for one brief two-week period in the early summer of 1948, it was the site of the last vestiges of World War II fighter aircraft action, as formations of P-47s swept impressively through the skies above my grandfather’s farm.