The Culver City commandos have landed and the situation is well in hand
Stories about any particular outfit in World War II always bring letters from veterans who were in that outfit, and remember it fondly, now that time has washed out the hardship and boredom and bitterness.
Even my tales of Ronald Reagan’s old outfit, the First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU), which was headquartered in the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City (Ft. Roach), have brought forth memories of that storied outpost.
I got my anecdotes from Don Dwiggins, my old colleague, who dug them up while researching a book on Paul Mantz, the movie stunt flier. But of course all stories of derring-do in wartime are part legend, and a President, more than most men, must expect to have his life reconstructed by facile raconteurs.
Dwiggins recalled a film the unit is said to have made on order for Gen. H. H. (Hap) Arnold, commander of the Army Air Corps. Arnold wanted a comic film of clips showing bloopers and miscues made at Ft. Roach during the making of training films. You know--generals slipping on banana peels and that sort of thing. It was to be shown to the high brass in Washington to relieve the strain of running the war.
According to Dwiggins, Reagan was in the film, playing the part of an Air Corps general. He is shown 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.
John Apostolou says he has access to that film, and that Dwiggins’ version is “highly inaccurate.”
“Reagan appears to be wearing a captain’s bars. He is giving a briefing to a bomber crew and the wall map does roll up. However, he is not chewing on a cigar and he does not say, ‘This is our target for tonight!’ And there is no naked lady, just a blank wall.”
Well, heck, it was better the other way. And as Winston Churchill said of a famous story in English legend, he was not going to disbelieve it merely because tedious historians said it wasn’t true.
“I can confirm much of what Don Dwiggins passed on to you,” writes Stanley Rubin, who describes himself as one of the Culver City commandos, “including the scripting and shooting of deliberate bloopers for Gen. Arnold’s party. That they were deliberate was unknown to the general.”
Also, Rubin notes that a film simulating an air raid on Tokyo was not called “Target Tokyo,” as Dwiggins recalled. “ ‘Target Tokyo’ was the name of a documentary film I wrote and produced in which my combat cameramen and I followed one squadron of B-29s from their final training in the United States to their setting up of a base on Saipan right on through to the real bombing of Tokyo.”
Rubin recalls a grotesque mix-up in connection with this project: “My original orders from Washington were so secret that they didn’t reveal the subject of the film I was to shoot, only that I was to report to Grand Island, Neb. There I was introduced to a colonel who was about to start training for a top-secret mission of his own. He thought my crew and I had been assigned to cover his mission.
“I was kept on tenterhooks for 48 hours, then abruptly was told that a grave mistake had been made. My crew and I should not have been sent to Grand Island, but, rather, to a base in Kearney, Neb.
“Two stern orders were now given to me: first, to move on to Kearney as quickly as possible; and second, immediately to wipe out of my mind even the name of the colonel at Grand Island who had thought I was to accompany him .
Months later, back at Ft. Roach, while completing “Target Tokyo,” Rubin picked up The Times one morning and saw a large picture of that top-secret colonel on Page 1.
“Everything suddenly came clear. His name was Paul Tibbets, and he had just dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.”
Another veteran of Ft. Roach, Don V. Kloepfel, recalls also that the station was the scene of many hilarious incidents.
“Three Cadets” was a film about VD and how to avoid it. Several of the unit’s handsome young actors, ever eager, applied for parts without reading the script. In one scene an actor was required to show a part of his anatomy that was never revealed on screen in those days except in blue films. He was outraged, and especially so when the photographer called for a powder puff to kill a glare.
Kloepfel does not suggest that this actor was the future President.
“I remember Ronald Reagan as a pleasant nice-guy officer,” he recalls, “always friendly to enlisted men and officers alike.
“It was Capt. Reagan who broke the news to us. He came on the set, called for attention, and after a pause he said simply, ‘Roosevelt is dead. Harry Truman is President. God help us,’ and he stalked off the set.”
By the way, I am astonished that some readers thought my column was a political attack on Reagan, “a cheap shot.”
When it isn’t a tragedy, war is a comedy, and only those who can laugh at themselves can survive with their wits.
I suspect that if Ronald Reagan were to read that column he would laugh.
For all our sakes, I hope so.