When President Reagan roamed Ft. Roach as a member of the Culver City Commandos

My old friend and colleague Don Dwiggins has dug up some little-known information about Ronald Reagan's military service in World War II.

Reagan did not run for office as a war hero, of course, but the President happened to be in Strasbourg, France, on the recent 40th anniversary of V-E Day, and like any old veteran, he was moved to reminisce.

"On that day 40 years ago," he said, "I was at my post in an Army Air Corps installation in Culver City, Calif. Passing a radio, I heard the words, 'Ladies and gentlemen, the war in Europe is over.' I felt a chill, as if a gust of cold wind had just swept past. . . ."

Dwiggins has turned up a few anecdotes of Reagan's service in researching "Hollywood Pilot," his biography of Paul Mantz, the best known of Hollywood's fabulous stunt fliers.

Mantz happened to be head of the FMPU (First Motion Picture Unit), better known as the Culver City Commandos, which was based at the Hal Roach studios (Ft. Roach).

Reagan's career on active duty started inauspiciously. A second lieutenant in the Army Reserve, he was called to active duty as a cavalry officer and reported to Ft. Mason, San Francisco. Encountering his commanding officer, Col. Phillip Booker, at the Officers' Club, Reagan saluted and said, "Colonel, you and I have something in common."

"How's that, Reagan?" the colonel said.

Reagan explained: "I understand you're a graduate of Virginia Military Institute. I once played in a picture about VMI, called 'Brother Rat.' "

"I saw that, Reagan, and nothing ever made me so damned mad!"

Reagan was soon transferred to Culver City. On the scene, he was amused by the spectacle of colonels saluting privates in Western Costume uniforms who were playing generals.

The future President helped meet a crisis one day when Gen. Hap Arnold, commander of the Air Corps, asked if FMPU could put together a film of outtakes to show at a Pentagon party--scenes where actors blew their lines, fell off horses and so on.

Col. Owen Crump, a producer in civilian life, called an emergency staff meeting and gave the unit's top writers, including Norman Krasna, 48 hours to come up with a script.

A week later Gen. Arnold's guests are sitting back at the Pentagon party. Lights dim. The film rolls. Reagan, playing an Air Corps general, is shown angrily chewing on a cigar and stabbing his pointer at a wall map, briefing a squadron of bomber pilots on a vital mission.

"This is our target for tonight!" he snaps. The wall map rolls up like a runaway window blind, and there stands a naked girl.

Dwiggins says that Sgt. Charles Tannen, a former actor, once told him, "Don, we won the war in spite of the FMPU--or maybe the Nazis and the Japs had their own motion picture units too!"

Tannen was a clever impersonator, and one night when Reagan had the duty he shook up the future President with a phone call:

"Uh, lieutenant," he said, "we all jus' arrived at Union Station from Ft. Leavenworth. I've got me 500 cavalry troops here with their horses. Would you kindly tell me the best route to Ft. Roach? And has the hay arrived yet?"

On another night when he had the duty, Reagan evidently got bored with inaction. Mantz found this entry the next morning in his log: "3 a.m.--Post attacked by three regiments of Japanese infantry. Led cavalry charge and repulsed enemy. Quiet resumed."

Once when reporting as duty officer, he found the notation: "Special Instructions Passed on to New Officer of The Day: 'New officer indeed,' " he wrote. "Did they see me in those West Point pictures?"

Pvt. Charlie Foy was on guard duty with Reagan one afternoon when a column of Culver City commandos marched past the flagpole. "Splendid, men!" Reagan shouted. "With half this many men we could take MGM!"

"Millions of feet of exciting combat film came in from overseas in 1943," Dwiggins writes, "leading Reagan to bet Capt. Eddie Gilbert, the writer, that the war would be over by Labor Day. When it didn't end, Reagan paid off the bet--$25."

Some of FMPU's top talent did go overseas, including Capt. Clark Gable, who rode with a B-17 crew on 25 missions. Gable barely escaped with his life on the last mission, when the bomber was hit 15 times by flak.

One of the war's best-kept secrets was a film called "Target Tokyo," which Reagan narrated. It simulated an actual air raid on Japan. Special-effects men were flown to Washington for briefings on every known landmark--cemeteries, rice paddies, factories, geisha joints.

The first fire-bomb target simulated was Ota, where Nakajima was mass-producing the deadly new fighter plane, Ki-84. From match sticks, piano wire, plaster and cheesecloth, the FMPU's model makers replicated the entire route to Ota. Above the 90-by-90-foot scale model swung a camera crane with a clever synchronous interlock drive designed by Sgt. Don Klopfel. Cotton clouds were added for further realism.

Reagan's voice narrated: "You are now approaching the coast of Honshu, on a course of 300 degrees . . . to your left, if you are on course, you will see a narrow inlet. . . ."

Rushed to Saipan, the film was chilling to see. "Uncannily accurate," the 21st Bomber Command reported. "It was as if a camera were mounted in the nose of a B-29 and had flown the entire mission beforehand."

When the war ended Reagan left the service with the rank of captain.

And now, of course, he's commander in chief.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World