Thought for the Day: “12 O’clock High”

Builders:

I had not seen the film in 30 years. In the middle of the night, fighting a round of insomnia, I stumbled over the beginning and watched it start to finish. It was much more powerful film than I had remembered. It dealt with a lot of uncomfortable topics for a film made just 4 years after the war ended.

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Dean Jagger and Gregory Peck. The film contains a particularly disturbing scene where Jagger is drunk and he says he can no longer remember the faces of all the men from the squadron who have perished, and to him they have all blurred to just one face and “it looks very young”. Jagger won the academy award for his performance. The film was well reviewed, Including by Curtiss LeMay, then head of SAC. LeMay said that he “couldn’t find much wrong with it.”, for him, it was a rave review.

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If you have not seen it, it has little flying in it, it is instead focused on the human element and cost of flying daylight bombing missions into Germany. It isn’t ‘nice’ nor uplifting like John Wayne movies. It is a harsh look at the brutality of command, navigators pressured to suicide, cowardice, fear, ptsd and many other unpleasant aspects of the work done by the 8th Air Force.  People who like simplistic flying movies with lots of CGI action and uplifting moral messages, and story lines that have enough survivors to allow a sequel or franchise opportunity, 12 o’clock High will disappoint. If you like thinking films, make sure you see it.

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When watching, I kept thinking about the B-17s and other war birds that come to Oshkosh and do the flyby’s and pyro shows for the general public, and how this is billed as a ‘tribute’ to WWII aviators. Yes it is nice to see the hardware, but I suspect that the men who actually fought in those planes might rather have everyone watch this film to better understand the human costs of flying these planes on their intended missions, it might be a far better tribute to those men, to invest 2 hours to see something of how emotionally cruel the actual missions were, something the war bird show at Airventure does nothing to capture.

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About William Wynne
I have been continuously building, testing and flying Corvair engines since 1989. Information, parts and components that we developed and tested are now flying on several hundred Corvair powered aircraft. I earned a Bachelor of Science in Professional Aeronautics and an A&P license from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and have a proven 20 year track record of effectively teaching homebuilders how to create and fly their own Corvair powered planes. Much of this is chronicled at www.FlyCorvair.com and in more than 50 magazine articles.

16 Responses to Thought for the Day: “12 O’clock High”

  1. Mike Dean says:

    Spot on with your review, William. 12 O’clock High is one of the finest “war” movies ever made. Precisely because of the reasons you state. It gives us a glimpse (and it is only a glimpse) into the true hell that war is. Though it is all too often necessary, given the presence of evil in this world, for good men and women to answer war’s call – and I honor those who have, and do – no one in their right mind would say that war is a good thing. I think it’s important that we be reminded of the horror, and not just the “glory”. Perhaps if more people were to understand, it truly would become the measure of last resort.

    Michael Dean

    I’m a crippled American. Polio at the age of 3. As such I was not physically fit to serve. Most of the time I feel fortunate to have been spared. Other times I wonder perhaps, when I see the comradery of brothers-in-arms, if I have been denied a great opportunity. Either way, I am grateful to those who have served, and serve now, in my place.

  2. B Wunder says:

    I am on the 3rd book written by Stephen Ambrose titled the Victors…after reading D Day and Citizen Soldier. They are books that detail the unbelievable sacrifice given by those who fought in WWII and this movie fits in well with his books! More people need to read these books and watch movies like this.

  3. Robert Sceppa says:

    I have seen the movie when it came out. I was too young for WW2. A great movie always a pleasure to see it again and again. All the movies during the war were a sight to see and some were sad because of loved ones who were fighting and had lost their lives.

  4. Dan glaze says:

    Or better yet, go find one of the few men left that were there and listen to what they have to say about the war, and listen very close. It might bring you to tears, I already am missing my buddy Jack and he’s only been gone 3 weeks. Dan-o

  5. jaksno says:

    The point is to all leaders: don’t be willing to send anyone anywhere you wouldn’t be willing to give your life for in a last heartbeat in the next 60 seconds. Governments and their collusion with commerce and religion are the most overt works of the ‘enemy’. My take on Vietnam in 1965 to my parents was: “Bomb them into the stone age or leave them the hell alone. Anything in between is death at the caprice of politicians.” Never the less, was drafted in ’66 so volunteered to choose my own MOS.” That didn’t work, as I spent the next 1000 days with my name in a death hat in the Infantry and Cavalry. Fortunately for me, I was stationed in USAREUR and Kansas; even though, I had orders to go to SE Asia two times that were rescinded both times, and never saw action. I soldiered anyway because it was the only right thing I could do. I never knew a Vietnamese to ‘hate’. But I sure did fantasize about the death of too many career minded Americans around me that did not give a damn for my life. Also fortunate for me, I forgave them. But I didn’t forget. If you’ve heard this story from me before, too bad – I’ll probably repeat it every time these issues come up.

  6. Steve Glover says:

    I had the opportunity this past weekend to meet one of such men whom had dealt with these impossible circumstances of the war. We are fortunate to have the Planes of Fame museum on our field where many of these men volunteer to tell their stories lest we forget.The ravages of war can still be seen on his body as he slowly approaches to greet us. He has gravitated to a place many warriors do, near the comforts of an era when honor, courage, and integrity was not something touted as a slogan, but lived every day. Wilbur volunteers at the B-17 restoration exhibit He hands out the log penned he at that time to provide a glimpse in to his life during the 2 1/2 months he spent in theater flying combat missions out of England in 1944. He stands by ready and willing to share his memories of this period and talk about the bird that kept him safe for 30 combat missions.

    Wilbur is a 19 year old kid who had become a ball turret gunner on a B-17 bomber. This position was one of the most compromised on the aircraft. He tells us they would get in the turret 10 minutes before take off and get out about 15 minutes after landing. He explains the operational and targeting system in the same manner as most would speak about their child or favorite possession. As you read through the log you begin to realize this man had more grit than the majority of our youth today. This however, was not Halo, or some other X-box game.

    Wilbur’s longest flight in the ball was 11 hours 45 minutes. One would have to see the accommodations to appreciate what a feat it is to be stuck on one position for this amount of time, let alone fight for your life. This was not the turret and blaster from the Millennium Falcon with the nice comfy high back chair but I am quite sure he made it perform like one when it counted. For this mission his log reads; Brux, Czech. 400 BANDITS! 2 1/2 HR. BATTLE, IN-OUT TARGET. Bomb nearly hits us, “Hits Miss Mae 1, No Chutes”.

    As you read though the log the acknowledgement of loss becomes all too real. After one such entry he writes, “Flak intense. BANDITS! 30 lost, 27 of our A/C damaged. Excel View of Eiffel Tower.”…

    Wilbur’s 30th and final mission was to Munich. Entry reads, Heavy Flakk 155mm. BANDITS! 2 holes in Kismut 1 – Purple Heart, One in Me.

    Wilbur took a round into the ball. The shrapnel from the hit did as much damage as the round. He tells us that the round came through the side and deflected off one of the guns first. He casually says, “If it would have came through the glass it would have likely been over for me.”

    I shake Wilbur’s hand and express my deepest gratitude for my freedom, his service, and setting the example for those who came after. I hope to meet him again.

    As we are walking away a young family approaches Wilbur and asks his name. After a brief exchange the young man tells Wilbur his name and the young man shakes his hand. Wilbur doesn’t respond. After a short silence Wilbur asks if he can answer any questions for him. The young mans just shakes his head and continues on with his family. Once out of earshot of Wilbur I overhear the young man tell his wife he’s was “mad that old guy didn’t say anything to me when I told him my name”. Apparently he failed to notice half of his ear on the side he was standing was missing. Fortunately for the young man he won the lottery. Wilbur did not hear him, he was out with his family, and we were in a place that was established to honor the great Americans who fought for our freedoms. As WW can attest, I don’t play well with others occasionally and this would have been a prime opportunity to impart some “wisdom.”

    No William, the dog is not helping…

    Steve Glover

  7. Harold Bickford says:

    I’ll take a bit of a different tack here. Yes, “12 O’Clock High” is a good movie for the portrayal of the effects of war on people. It should make people stop and think. My parents and most of their relatives and friends served in WW2. Their hope was that I’d never have to face such. Instead the cold war and VietNam loomed and one result was a five year tour in Berlin courtesy of the USAF. Needless to say, totalitarian regimes do not impress me. Simultaneously there has never been a day of regret over serving.

    In 2014 our EAA chapter sponsored the B-17 tour to Lincoln, NE. At the conclusion there were nine seats available for the run to Denver. Edi and I spent over three hours flying to DEN in the B-17. At every point in the flight it was clear that those who flew those missions were flying in a machine that in a combat environment might or might not get them back. The metal skin didn’t offer much protection against flak and shells. There are lots of vulnerabilities and noise in there. Looking out through the nose was spectacular yet the thought that in combat you were awfully exposed was immediately apparent.

    Simply put, such crucibles will make and break people. Yet there are times when standing by will just not do. Whether the cause seems large or small the principle remains.

    Harold

  8. Larry Nelson says:

    Right on target William. This movie is a little different for me. The man you quoted about being drunk was in the same position as my great-grandfather in WWII. As a family we did not get any information about his service in the war because he died in an accident back in the 70’s. As such whenever this movie comes on we point out to eachother that specific roll and how that represented what great grandpa did during the war. He was the XO for the 359th fighter group. really that is all I know about him.

  9. Stuart Snow says:

    One of my favorite movies and I have referred to it often when facing tough leadership challenges. I just finished reading “Unbroken” the story of Louis Zamperini. The human cost of war is fresh in my mind and the power of forgiveness. I am amazed that so many WWII survivors were able to go on with their lives afterwards even while bearing the mental and physical scars. I am thankful to live in a country that produces such men.

    • Stuart,
      In that book, Chapter 8 starts with describing a B-24 mission out of Hawaii on January 8, 1943, that ended in a crash that took the lives of the whole crew. The highly respected squadron commander flying the plane was Jon Coxwell’s father. Many builders had a chance to meet and work beside Jon at Corvair College #20. (Jon is building a GN-1 aircamper) -ww.

  10. Thomas Ward says:

    Great movie! Until very recently, we used this film at the US Army Command & General Staff College as a vehicle to study leadership, and the effects of stress over time on even the most competent and dedicated leaders. Interesting fact: personnel losses by the USAAF in Europe were just about the same as the USMC in their Pacific campaign. Who lost more depends on where you get the information, and how it is counted. “More” is not important, and that’s not meant to disparage the Marines, it’s just that most people have very little idea of how difficult and deadly the war in the air over Europe was, especially in the first half of the war. The crews certainly understood, and just keep going up anyway. When the Memphis Belle crew completed 25 missions, it was a BIG deal, and that was not until May of 1943. If you have a chance, book a ride in Aluminum Overcast. A fantastic experience! Not cheap, but well worth it (& discounted for EAA members), and the proceeds go to keeping it flying. It helps to comprehend a little better what those guys did on a daily basis in their very impressive, but frail and relatively crude machines.

  11. Bruce Culver says:

    Another film used at the War College was “Command Decision” with Clark Gable, another excellent view of the stress and choices of commanding an air division in England during WW2. In a history of the bomber war, the author states that statistically, an Army sergeant was safer leading an infantry platoon across Italy than serving as a waste gunner in an 8th AF B-17…..

  12. Sarah Ashmore says:

    I was doing some late night TV viewing and saw that movie as well. That movie dates back to a time when they were more interested in telling a story, today the same film would be all blood and gore and I fear the message would be lost. How any man could get into those aircraft mission after mission knowing their life expectancy was on the order of 15 missions, well that is a heroism I cannot begin to comprehend but there was no shortage of men and that speaks loads for their generation and their values.

  13. Jim Womack says:

    Right on with your review, WW. The movie is a well done piece of “fictional history” documenting the human cost of war, specifically the Eighth AF’s campaign of daylight precision bombing. One my favorites.
    Anyone interested in this theme should read “Serenade to the Big Bird” by Bert Stiles. It’s a moving, funny, and at times tragic diary compiled by Lt. Stiles during his tour in the 91st. It’s simply the finest piece of literature to come out of WWll, in my humble opinion. It should be a must read for all politicians before they send our young men off to war.
    On a different note, when are you having another Corvair College in Florida?

    • Jim,

      I think the next College the we will have to serve the South East region is Barnwell in November, which will be College #39, we have a sign up sheet open for it already. If you are strictly speaking about Florida events, Dan and Rachel, the SPA Panther people will have a large presence at Sun n Fun, and they will have all of our products on display, But I will not be there, because I will already be on the western college tour.

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