Some Guys Named Joe: Fliers’ Heavens in World War II

Some Guys Named Joe: Fliers’ Heavens in WWII

David K. Vaughan

One of the most popular films to appear during World War II was the 1943 release, A Guy Named Joe.  It was directed by Victor Fleming and was based on a story by Chandler Sprague and David Boehm, adapted by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan; Dalton Trumbo prepared the screenplay from Hazlitt’s adaptation.  According to a reviewer in Life magazine, the film got its name from a quote attributed to General Claire Chennault, commander of the 14th Air Force in China (known popularly as the “Flying Tigers”):  “When I’m behind the stick [at the controls of an aircraft], I’m just a guy named Joe [a typical flier].”  In the film, Pete Sandidge (played by Spencer Tracy), dies while flying his B-25 aircraft on an attack against a German aircraft carrier in the North Sea.  His best friend and fellow pilot on this mission, Al Yackey (Ward Bond), returns from the mission to tell Pete’s girl friend, Dorinda Durston (Irene Dunne) that Pete has been killed.  Dorinda, an American ferry pilot flying planes to advanced military bases, decides to return to America.

After crashing his disabled aircraft into the German carrier, Pete Sandidge finds himself walking across a foggy, featureless plain and is surprised when he encounters an old friend, Dick Rumney (played by Barry Nelson), who previously died in an aircraft accident.  When Sandidge realizes that he is talking to a man who has died, he says that he must either be crazy or dead; Rumney replies, “You aren’t crazy.”  Rumney leads Sandidge into Headquarters, where the commanding general, played by Lionel Barrymore, gives Sandidge an assignment to ensure that a new pilot trainee, Ted Randall (Van Johnson), completes his training program successfully.

Returning to earth, Sandidge assists Randall in overcoming his fear of landing an aircraft and enables him to become a successful army pilot.  Randall reports to his new assignment flying P-38 fighter aircraft in the Pacific, where his commanding officer is Al Yackey (Bond), and Sandidge follows him.  There Randall meets Dorinda Durston, who is now flying replacement aircraft to the Pacific, and they soon fall in love, much to the dismay of Sandidge.  Sandidge becomes so upset that the General has to summon Sandidge to his heavenly Headquarters to remind him that his job is to help other pilots fly airplanes and win the war, not display jealousy about the affections of his former girl friend; his time on earth is over.

When Dorinda learns that Ted Randall has been assigned to fly a hazardous mission to bomb a Japanese ammunition dump, she jumps into the aircraft and flies the mission herself; Sandidge joins her in the aircraft and helps her to complete the mission successfully, and she returns for a happy reunion with Ted Randall.  Sandidge apparently reports back to Heaven for his next earthly assignment.

The improbability of many aspects of the plot was recognized when the movie first opened; Life Magazine, for instance, in a review of the film in its January 17th, 1944 issue, said that the film’s climax (in which Dorinda, with the help of Pete Sandidge, successfully attacks a Japanese target) was “almost pure ‘Perils of Pauline.’”  There were many technical and historical inaccuracies in the film: the Germans had no operational aircraft carriers; B-25s were not used against enemy shipping in the North Sea; American women ferry pilots were not used in England and would have been nowhere near active duty squadrons if they had been; and P-38s were rarely, if ever, sent on individual long-range bombing missions.  The film suggests that only Sandidge was in the aircraft when it crashed, as no other crewmembers are shown in these scenes.  Normally, of course, a B-25 would have had a crew of at least five men, including a co-pilot, navigator, bombardier, and gunner, in addition to the pilot.  The realistic roles and interactions of the full complement of B-25 crewmembers in aerial combat have been most vividly presented in Mike Nichols’ film version of Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch-22.

Of course, inaccurate military details were common in many films released early in the war; viewers were less interested in military facts, which would probably have been either classified or discouraging (at least early in the war) even if known; they wanted images showing the Americans and their allies striking hard at German and Japanese forces.  These images the Hollywood films of the time provided.

The Life magazine reviewer thought that the film’s greatest appeal was that its main characters acted like people who have “actually been at the controls of a plane”: “More effectively than any other recent movie, it succeeds in giving its audiences the feel of what it is like to be in the cockpit of a combat plane” (p. 39).  Most of the realistic flying scenes were associated with the flight training episodes in the United States.

Regardless of the improbability of much of the plot, audiences were so strongly moved by the fundamental idea of the film—that dead fliers could continue to provide assistance to living fliers—that the unlikely aspects of the plot were hardly noticed.  While the genesis of the idea that the film offers of a heaven for dead pilots cannot be traced with certainty, it was not original with the writers of A Guy Named Joe, not one of whom appears to have been a pilot or to have had any significant flying experience.

Since World War I (then called the Great War), there had been a strong desire on the part of family members to believe that men who had died far from home, in combat (or even in training for combat), had entered a special kind of paradise, as in the old German legends involving Valhalla, the hall for slain warriors.  This special form of remembrance of the warrior dead became popular during the years of World War I, 1914 to 1918, especially when many airmen (and of course many ground soldiers as well) died in circumstances where their bodies could not be recovered.  Military aviators, having been trained in the art of flight, could be perceived, in the popular imagination, as a group distinct from the foot soldier or sailor, as fliers were capable of physically leaving the surface of the earth and climbing into the sky where their military combat episodes would occur.  It was natural for family members to prefer to think of these men as passing on to a better world, some aerial warrior’s heaven, where their sacrifices would be appropriately rewarded.

An example of this kind of vision can be found in a book written during World War II by Catholic Archbishop Francis J. Spellman.  After visiting England during 1943, Spellman expressed similar thoughts in his meditation on fallen airmen, The Risen Soldier (1944).  Spellman begins and ends his meditation by recalling his visit to an American 8th Air Force airfield, where he watches the bombers take off on and return from a bombing mission.  One of the crewmembers to whom he talked prior to the mission was flying his 25th (and last) mission before returning to the United States.  When this individual fails to return from the mission, Spellman thinks of the missing airman as someone “who has flown into untellable light, and of untellable millions of his dead soldier-brothers, who have died for liberty, and, dying, hoped they died for ‘something good’” (30).  Spellman’s vision—of a dead flier moving into a world of “untellable light”—is expressed in religious language strongly similar to those of the works discussed here.

One of the earliest post-World War I versions of a heaven for pilots appeared in the 1928 story, “The Non-Stop Stowaway,” by Clayton Knight, an author, artist, and World War I aviator, who had provided the illustrations for Elliott White Springs’ memoir/novel of his World War I experiences, War Birds: Diary of an Unknown Aviator.  “The Non-Stop Stowaway” describes the fictional effort of two pilots to fly in a single-engine aircraft non-stop from New York to Karachi, India, with the young son of one of the pilots on board as a stowaway.  Just as their aircraft engine begins to fail and they despair of reaching their destination successfully, they see a mysterious airfield ahead of them, strangely lit (for the sun has just set behind them), around which numerous aircraft from earlier eras are flying.  Their engine, which had been malfunctioning, now runs smoothly.

When they land, they discover that have landed in a unique world of fliers who, “in the other world, gave their lives for the advancement of aviation” (p. 118).  They also meet many pilots whom the pilots had known during World War I and who had died in the war.  In this special world of fliers, their aircraft function perfectly, and they are able to fly without fear of engine failure or of bad weather.  But there is no interaction with the living on the part of these dead fliers.  As the story ends, we learn that the aircraft had “completely disappeared” and failed to arrive at its destination.  Intended for younger readers, the story gives Knight an opportunity to describe how an aircraft works, how it is flown, and provide stories (and wonderful color illustrations) about his flying days in World War I (Knight flew Bristol Fighters in 206 Squadron, RAF).

Another post-WWI work to include a similar concept was Leighton Brewer’s book-length poetic representation of the life of a combat pilot in WWI, Riders of the Sky, published in 1934.  Brewer was an English professor at Boston University who had been a pilot himself during the war and was credited with three enemy aircraft shot down; Riders of the Sky describes the life and death of a fictional pilot, Bob Wainwright, in a real American unit, the 13th Aero Squadron, the squadron to which Brewer had been assigned.  Wainwright is shot down on a mission in October 1918, in the final days of the war, crash lands in German territory and is taken, badly wounded, to a German hospital, where the attendants give him morphine to ease his pain before he dies.  As he lies on his death bed, his right arm amputated, he sees a vision of an angel; then six other war fliers, who had died previously, come to tell him that they are going to escort him to his final resting ground:

When they arrived

At the place, the heaven glowed with a strange light

Like the faint beginnings of a northern dawn,

A pale, cold, yellow light, and Bob could see

There were no tombstones there, but a great field

With row on row of military tents.  (159-160)

Among the residents Wainwright recognizes are George Washington, Harry Percy (Henry V of England), Saint Joan, and the Greek warrior Hector, and he realizes that he too has been welcomed into Odin’s Hall.  Although in this warrior heaven aviators are a new kind of warrior, he is specifically invited to join other aviators, where he will be able to “ride the sky with us” (162).

Although another film that appeared in the years before World War II is not exactly a story about an aviators’ heaven, its visual impact and general story line certainly informed that idea.  Lost Horizon was a Hollywood film based on the 1933 James Hilton novel.  In the original Hilton story, Robert Conway, a veteran of the British diplomatic service, is taken on a flight to a remote, mountainous area near Tibet along with three other passengers.  The plane crashlands and Conway and the others are led to a remote, isolated, mountainous land, called Shangri-La by Chang, one of the residents.  Initially the westerners want to leave Shangri-La to return to their world but gradually the pleasures of this utopian world work to change their minds.  The pleasant and harmonious lifestyle creates sensations of peace and tranquility, which stand in noted contrast to the war-threatened world outside the walls of Shangri-La.  Eventually, however, Conway agrees to lead one of his companions out of the valley but regrets his decision as soon as he leaves the valley of Shangri-La, and he eventually determines to return.

The 1937 Frank Capra film changed the plot only slightly, updating it to capitalize on increasing world tensions as the depressing war mood preceding the onset of World War II grew more pervasive.  The film suggests, even more convincingly than the book, that only a modern airplane could reach the remote location of Shangri-La, which, as shown in the film, was a visually stunning representation of a utopian, heavenly society.  While the pilots of the plane that brought Conway and his fellow travelers to Shangri-La die in the crash, the film and the story make it clear that access to such an exceptional world could be made most easily, if not exclusively, by airplane.  The men responsible for the script of A Guy Named Joe (Trumbo, Brennan, Sprague, Boehm) would certainly have been familiar with Lost Horizon; they may or may not have known of Riders of the Sky or “The Non-Stop Stowaway.”

One or more of them may very well have known of a play that was written if not performed in Los Angeles in 1942 or 1943, Assembly Call.  Although the author was listed as “A Flyer’s Dad,” it was apparently no secret that the author was Jack Preston, a Los Angeles newspaper man.  Preston’s son, Charles, had been an army pilot in the 432nd Bomb Squadron, and was killed, apparently during a local training flight, on 26 August 1942, when the unit was in the process of transitioning from flying B-25 aircraft to B-26 aircraft (some members of the squadron had been participants in Jimmy Doolittle’s famous B-25 raid over Japan in April of that year).  Preston states that he wrote the play in less than a week after his son appeared to his mother in a dream vision the day after his death with instructions for his father to “get at that play.”

Most of the action in Assembly Call occurs against a background intended to suggest a heavenly setting: “a terraced retreat is disclosed in a strange, beautiful setting.”  The setting appears to be similar that of some of the perspectives provided in the film version of Lost Horizon, which could generally be described as pleasant, beautiful, and serene, with a few scenes, shown in the foreground area of the stage, representing events on earth.  The main figure is a young pilot named Noel (“Timmy”) Taylor, who has died in the crash of a bomber he had been piloting.  As in the real-life situation involving Preston’s son, Taylor dies during an in-flight accident during training.  Taylor is brought onstage in a kind of wheelchair (in the play it is referred to as a “perambulator”) in his uniform apparently asleep.  When he is awakened, he finds himself in the company of an attractive young woman who informs him that he is in Heaven, and he realizes that he is dead.  Then, in a scene played at the foreground of the stage, Tim’s father, a newspaperman, receives a telephone call informing him that his son has died in an airplane crash.  Another foreground scene follows on the other side of the stage in which Tim’s father tells his mother of their son’s death.  Because they are able to accept the news of the death of their son without entering a stage of excessive grieving, Tim is able to become more active and is able to leave the perambulator.

He learns that he is in that part of Heaven known as Post D-4, number 7.  This is the location where all deceased flyers arrive.  He is informed that the other men who were killed in the crash of the bomber will be arriving shortly, as will some other flyers of European nationalities, but that their progress through this phase of their heavenly experience may not be as rapid as his, first because they may not be as accepting of their situation as he was, and second because excessive grief of their family members could cause delays.  These flyers enter and express amazement over their pleasant surroundings and food (they are served something like wine and wafers; the religious symbolism is certainly intentional) that is provided after they arrive.  The Commissioner of the Post arrives, and as he shakes everyone’s hand says that he was twice decorated at the Battle of Waterloo: first with a piece of rock deflected by a cannonball, and then posthumously with a piece of ribbon.  (The similarity of the military aspect of this heavenly setting to that of A Guy Named Joe should be noted.)

At the beginning of the second act Tim visits his mother in a dream vision to let her know that he is well, and then visits his father, who is more impaired by his grief than his mother.  Tim tells him that he has a special mission, to help the deceased and the families of the deceased to adjust to the loss: “Giving the other fellow a lift is what we live for,” he tells his father.  The flyers are invited to travel to Plane X-212, a part of Heaven that has a special appeal for flyers, because that is where “the little they know about aviation on earth originated.”  Tim, however, decides to remain at his current post, believing that is where he belongs.  When his best friend Eric arrives, Tim welcomes him with the remark that by arriving in this location they “went Shangri-La one better,” thus suggesting the playwright had Lost Horizon in mind when imagining the setting.  Eric, however, is only wounded and is fated to recover, and cannot remain with Tim and the others.  At the end of the play Tim takes the place of the Commissioner at Post D-4, Number 7, having decided that this is the position he should hold in Heaven.

As in A Guy Named Joe, the aviators in heaven are assigned responsibility for assisting in the well-being of those still living, primarily family members who must be helped to overcome the debilitating effects of excessive mourning for the dead.  While they have the opportunity to visit that part of heaven specially dedicated to concepts of flight, that portion of heaven is one of an infinite number of otherworldly activities, and the main focus is on the responsibility for the dead aviators to console those who remain behind on earth.  While the message of “Assembly Call” is provided in an obviously traditional Christian context, the world of the afterlife in “Assembly Call” is one in which aviators are at home.  While the afterworld of A Guy Named Joe shares some similarities with that of “Assembly Call,” its context is military action in a Christian concept.  The primary function of the dead aviators in A Guy Named Joe is to help other men become good pilots who can then become more effective instruments of war, while the task of the dead aviators of “Assembly Call” is to soften the effects of their loss in the world they left behind.  (Though it should be observed that no German or Japanese pilots appear in Assembly Call.)

Another play that depicts the intervention of the spirit of an American military aviator in the affairs of those still living is Ralph Nelson’s The Wind Is Ninety, which was performed in New York City in the late summer (June through September) of 1945.  Nelson was a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Force and was a flight instructor at the time he wrote the play over a period of several months in 1944.  The play describes the actions of a typical American family as it goes about its daily business before and after it receives news of the death of the pilot, Don Ritchie.  The Ritchie household includes the dead pilot’s mother and father, a family doctor, his wife, Jean, and their two young children, daughter Joan, aged ten, and son Chris, aged nine.  In the play, Don returns to his family after he has been shot down flying a reconnaissance mission over Germany.  He is accompanied by a figure from the other world who serves as a guide and who explains that Don’s task is to comfort his grieving family members and to help them accept his loss and move forward with their lives. The guide from the other world is revealed as the American Unknown Soldier of World War I; this part was played in the stage production by a young actor named Kirk Douglas, who received more favorable reviews than the actor playing the main role of Don Ritchie, Wendell Corey.

Act One of this three-act play shows the five members of the family in their daily activities, discussing the progress of the war and concerned about Don’s well-being as an American pilot stationed in England; the act ends with the arrival of the telegram bringing news that Don has died.  Don and his guide appear on stage immediately prior to the news of his death and witness the reactions of all family members to the news of his death.  The second act shows the effects of the news of Don’s death on all family members, but especially in the young boy, Chris, Don’s nine-year old son, who is devastated.  The third act shows how each family remembers Don in a series of flashback mini-scenes.  Don realizes that his challenge is to replace these old, dated, inaccurate memories with a more current vision of Don and of his vision for their future.  He is finally able to do so in a spiritual moment when the wind comes to them from the east (from a heading of ninety degrees, or due east, on a pilot’s aircraft compass).  In an effective dramatic moment, Jean is shown speaking the lines that Don is thinking and saying, lines that are effectively able to provide a sense of healing and solace for all of the family members.

The play received mixed reviews from the critics, but was fondly remembered by all who were a part of it; Nelson received letters from some members of the audience who told him that the play helped them to deal with the loss of their family members who were killed in the war.  Nelson risked the success of the drama by including a large number of children in the cast and by assigning central roles to the two young children, but the sense of loss presented in the emotional responses of the young son and daughter were probably more dramatically effective than the more controlled responses of the adult characters.  Ralph Nelson was clearly encouraged by the relatively modest success of the play, and after the war he went on to become a well-know film director in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, responsible for such hit films as Fate Is the Hunter, Lilies of the Valley and Charly.

The visions of fliers’ heavens during World War II were not provided solely by American writers; the British provided their versions as well.  One of the most memorable is that of Roald Dahl’s short story, “They Shall Not Grow Old,” one of ten “stories about flyers and flying” collected in a book entitled Over to You, written while Dahl was living in the United States during World War II.  At the start of the war, Dahl had joined the Royal Air Force in Africa, where he had been working for Shell Oil, and had flown single-engine fighter aircraft for a while in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean area, including Greece and the Holy Land.  An injury received while flying, however, caused him to be removed from flying status and he was assigned as a military attaché to the British embassy in Washington from 1942 until the end of the war.  Many of the stories in Over to You were published in American magazines like the Saturday Evening Post and the Ladies’ Home Journal.

The central character of “They Shall Not Grow Old” is a fighter pilot named Fin, who is overdue on his return from a reconnaissance mission he was assigned over Beirut Harbor.  When Fin fails to return, his two friends, Stag and the narrator, decide that he has “had it,” has died in some unknown manner.  Two days later, unexpectedly, Fin returns and lands as if nothing had happened.  He does not believe it when the other pilots tell him he has been missing for two days; as far as he knows, he flew his mission and returned.  When questioned by the Commanding Officer about his absence, he cannot recall anything unusual.  One week later, on a strafing mission over the Free French airfield at Rayak, one of the squadron pilots is hit by flak and dies when he crashes into the airfield.  Fin, who has been flying this mission, suddenly yells over the radio that he has remembered what happened to him while he was gone.  In the debriefing room after the mission, Fin tells the story of what happened to him as the other pilots listen.

While flying the first part of his reconnaissance mission he found himself flying inside a thick white cloud from which he could not seem to escape.  Just when he thought he would never escape from the cloud, it disappeared, and he found himself flying alone in a “pure shining” blue sky.  In the distance he could see a long string of aircraft flying in a line toward some distant destination.  As he looked at them he suddenly knew that “these were the pilots and air crews who were killed in battle, who now, in their own aircraft were making their last flight, their last journey” (141).  Fin sees aircraft of every type and almost every nationality (including English, German, and Italian) in an unending moving line that “reached across the blue sky” from one side to the other until it “faded from sight” (141).

Fin’s aircraft eventually joins this long line of aircraft, and he sees a British Swordfish bi-plane in front of him and an Italian aircraft behind him.  His aircraft is flying by itself, as if controlled by some kind of autopilot, and he sees that all the pilots and crewmembers are very happy because, he realizes, they are about to land on a “vast green plain” over which a bright white light is shining.  Fin experiences great relief and sees in his rear view mirror that he is smiling like those around him.  Although his aircraft levels off as if it were about to land, it never does land.  Although he tries to push the nose over, to force the aircraft down towards the landing field, it keeps flying and then begins to accelerate, flying upwards instead of downwards.  His aircraft gains height, leaves the green field behind, and re-enters that thick white cloud.  He eventually falls asleep and dreams that he is flying over familiar territory along the east coast of Lebanon.  He completes his reconnaissance flight and lands, where he learns he has been gone for two days.  When he saw the other pilot crash on the field at Rayak, he found himself saying, “You lucky bastard.  You lucky, lucky bastard,” and he remembered where he had been.  A few weeks later, Fin himself is shot down, and as his burning plane plummets toward the ground, the other pilots hear him call, “I’m a lucky bastard.”

One other film should be mentioned in the context of fliers’ heavens during World War II, the 1946 British film by Michael Powell and Eric Pressburger, A Matter of Life and Death, released in the United States as Stairway to Heaven.  In this inventive and creative film, David Niven stars as a British pilot who jumps from his burning plane without a parachute and survives, due to the neglect of one of heaven’s angels.  The film is divided between the love story of Niven and Kim Hunter, the American-born radio operator to whom he was talking when he had to leave his aircraft, and the debate in heaven as to whether he should be allowed to rejoin the world of the living.  The populous world of heaven is shown effectively in the staging and design of the film; however, those in heaven remain in heaven and do not revisit the earth to assist in earthly duties or to alleviate earthly pain.  It is clear, however, that those who have died while fighting on earth (for a good cause) are given special distinction in heaven.

It is not surprising, given that these works were written during the war, or in response to wartime experiences, that the fliers’ heavens tend to discriminate in the kinds of souls who are allowed to populate those heavens.  There are German as well as Allied aviators from World War I in “The Non-Stop Stowaway,” though they are seen at a distance, flying their aircraft.  The heaven of A Guy Named Joe consists solely of U. S.  Army Air Force aviators, and only officers; no enlisted men are present.  Even U. S. naval aviators are not present, presumably because they have their own (probably more elite) heavenly residence.  The heaven of “Assembly Call” admits international aviators as well as American aviators, as we see Canadian, English, Russian, and even Italian aviators, the Italian aviator being the sole representative of the Axis Powers present in the play.  The fliers’ heaven of Dahl’s “They Shall Not Grow Old” also includes aviators from both sides, Germans and Italians as well as British (but no American); we can assume that enlisted aviators are allowed into Dahl’s heaven as it appears that all members of the aircraft are in the aircraft landing in Heaven.  Although these heavens are variously populated, there are three common themes:

These aviators live in a world where, if they continue to fly, their aircraft are wonderfully reliable and their flying weather is—what’s the best word?—heavenly.  The stresses and strains of combat flying are over, and fear of flying and its results are not factors to disturb the flyers’ minds.

Some of these aviators live in worlds where they have obligations to the living, to make their world better, through helping to train other fliers, or to assist those on earth in dealing with the grief associated with loss.

Finally, these aviators live in worlds specially created to honor their achievement and ability and to enroll them among the warriors of the past.  And with one exception (Leighton Brewer’s Riders of the Sky), aviators are the sole occupants of their heavens.  However, as “Assembly Call” suggests, Heaven is a pretty big place, so undoubtedly there are sufficient heavenly locations for all people, warriors or civilians as well.

And if these fliers’ heavens seem a little too idealistic to be easily believed, we should understand that the impulse that led to the creations of these worlds came from times of nearly universal stress and loss and from individuals who wanted to believe in the possibility of such worlds, as a tribute to the memories of those lost fliers and to the symbolic significance of the act of flight itself.


Works Cited

Brewer, Leighton.  Riders in the Sky.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934.

Dahl, Roald.  Over to You: Ten Stories about Flyers and Flying.  New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1946.

Hilton, James.  Lost Horizon.  New York: Morrow, 1933.

Knight, Clayton.  “The Non-Stop Stowaway.”  Minneapolis: Buzza, 1928.

Nelson, Ralph.  The Wind Is Ninety.  Chicago: Dramatic Publishing Company, 1945.

Preston, Jack [A Flyer’s Dad].  “Assembly Call.”  Hollywood: Murray and Gee, 1943.

Spellman, Francis J.  The Risen Soldier.  New York: Macmillan, 1944.

White, Randall.  A Guy Named Joe.  New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1944.  The “novelization” of the film.