Twelve O’Clock High

Air combat in World War II was ruthless. You didn’t see the enemy’s face nor the targets you bombed on the ground.

The world probably will never know such air combat as what occurred in the sky of Europe again — the number of men and aircraft involved, or the type of formations and strategies involved. There were problems with bad weather, mistiming in forming and accidents because the formations were so tight. Men suffered horrendous wounds. It’s no wonder that commanders then faced pilots who found excuses not to fly.

To lead these men and make them find their courage in the midst of their greatest fears was one of the commander’s greatest challenges. No film shows this better than Twelve O’Clock High.

The film takes place in England in 1942 in the European Theater of Operations. In the early years of WWII, the U.S. Air Force was part of the Army. It was called the Army Air Force. Twelve O’Clock High covers the struggle of a Brigadier Gen. Frank Savage to mold the 918th Bomb Group into an excellent fighting machine to bomb crucial sites in Germany. Twentieth Century Fox and Darryl F. Zanuck produced the film in 1949, directed by Henry King.

The film is excellent in demonstrating the leadership principles for the Armed Forces. The crisp, clean scenes are well acted and packed with dramatic punch and tension.

Gregory Peck, who played Savage in the film, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a leading role for his performance. Twelve O’Clock High was nominated for Best Picture. Dean Jagger, who played Maj. Harvey Stovall, won for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.

The Film and Book

The movie is based on the book by the same name. Col. Beirne Lay, Jr. and Maj. Sy Bartlett wrote the story in 1948 and the screenplay later. Although Twelve O’Clock High is a fictitious story, according to the book, the authors did “fly numerous combat missions in the air war against Germany.” Lay commanded the 487th Bombardment Group and Bartlett served in Operations on the staff of the Eighth Bomber Command. Some of the information is based on their own experiences and true stories. The book and film do have elements that differ from each other. By comparing the two, you can appreciate why it is important to be familiar both.

The title, Twelve O’Clock High, comes from the direction enemies were flying at American pilots. In the Army Air Force, the pilots traveling straight ahead were going toward 12 o’clock. Enemy planes shooting toward a gunner at the wing at the right angle would be firing from 3 o’clock. The Americans advocated the use of daylight bombing in WWII. The Germans would try to fly out of the direction of the sun, so when the Americans looked up, the sun would blind them.

Robert Johnson, Chief of the Archives Branch of the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, confirmed that Duke Field at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida held the 918th bomb sets for the film in May and June 1949. The filmmakers shot the operational aircraft scenes at Ozark Air Force Base in Alabama. At the beginning of the film, Stovall bicycles to his old airfield, Archbury. That was also filmed at Ozark. Twelve modified B-17s were used in the picture.

Throughout Twelve O’Clock High, there is a concern that the bomb group puts up 21 airplanes, because during that time, each plane used six crew members to man the guns. One less aircraft, therefore, made a big difference. The pilots and aircrew had to put forth maximum effort with each mission, which caused a considerable strain on them. This is one of the ongoing themes of the film.

Character Development

The interplay among the characters in both the book and the movie is the crux of the storyline. The theme is how an officer cannot lead if he overidentifies with his soldiers.

Savage has to whip the men into shape after he relieves Col. Keith Davenport, the commander of the 918th. Davenport overidentified with his pilots, making excuses for their flying mistakes and for his pilots riding the sick book. Both the movie and the book have the same plot in how Savage accomplishes this agenda.

Savage’s exterior does crack in leading the group when Maj. Joe Cobb and Second Lt. Jesse Bishop die and Lt. Col. Ben R. Gately is injured. The difference between the movie and the book, I feel, is that the book develops the relationship between these men more. You can understand to a greater degree why the loss of Cobb and Bishop impact Savage so much. In all fairness, though, a film only has a certain amount of time to cover the material — and it does so the best it can. Peck’s facial expressions in the picture reveal the respect Savage has for these men and the pain he feels after their death.

The end of the movie actually depicts the pressure of leadership on Savage better than the book. You can see the tension in Peck’s face, and then his body ease after as almost all the airplanes return from a mission.

The bit about Bishop receiving the Medal of Honor is based on a true story. On July 28, 1943, Second Lt. John C. Morgan of the Army Air Corps. did earn a Medal of Honor for his valor for saving his pilot, the crew and the aircraft on a bombing raid over Europe. German gunfire had injured the pilot and the top turret gunner, and damaged the aircraft, resulting in the other gunners becoming unconscious from lack of oxygen. The communication system had also been knocked out. Morgan, a co-pilot, had to fly the plane back to base while fighting with the pilot who still wanted to control the aircraft while having half his skull blown away.

Martin W. Bowman, author of several aircraft books published by Osprey Publishing Co., said that Savage was based on several commanders. One of these was Col. Frank Alton Armstrong, Jr. Armstrong was considered a “troubleshooter” for a Brigadier Gen. Ira C. Eaker for “hard-luck” groups. On July 31, 1942, Eaker had Armstrong relieve the commander of the 97th Bomber group because of the troops’ lack of good training. They were in the first group of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers sent to England.

Bowman said it was with this Armstrong group that made the first USAAF bombing raid on Rouen-Sotteville, France, on Aug. 17, 1942. The group hit the target with all 21 planes returning to base.

Soon after, Eaker appointed Armstrong to take over another difficult group, the 306th Bomber Group run by Col. Charles ‘Chip’ B. Overacker Jr.
Armstrong was the perfect choice to replace Overacker. His orders were clear-cut and to the point. According to the Web site, one person said, “When things [got] tough, I’d rather have Frank Armstrong running the show than any officer I’ve ever known. Cucumbers could take lessons in coolness from him.”

One of his colleagues said, “He doesn’t know the meaning of the word excited.”

The 306th served as the longest continuous bomb group of the Eighth Air Force during WWII.

Inside Information

Morgan said Lay confirmed that the part of Twelve O’Clock High where Savage breaks down in a near catatonic state after leading his group on a particularly harrowing and costly mission is not based on Armstrong, but modeled on a Brigadier Gen. Newton Longfellow. Longfellow tore himself up after a panicking experience on his plane where some of the crew was badly injured in the Le Trait Raid. The military sent him back to the U.S. afterward in June 1943.

Raids on the ball-bearing plants in Germany were conducted by the Army Air Force in the early years of the war, something mentioned in Twelve O’Clock High. You can view actual WWII stock footage in the film, loaned by the U.S. Air Force and the German Lutwaffe.

Men did suffer from some horrible wounds and did face unthinkable risks. I believe the book describes the savagery and dangers of the air war better than the movie.

Interestingly enough, the book has women in it, whereas the film does not. In the film, the mission is everything to Savage. This is not so in the book. He woos a woman and gains a fiancee in Pamela Mallory, a W.A.A.F., who is often on his mind and at one point adds to his stress. She gives him crucial information about a mission that adds tension to the plot.
However, I feel her absence in the picture allows it to sharpen its focus on the complexities of the relationship of the men in the 918th and Savage and the burdens of his leadership. Twelve O’Clock High is a different type of war film because it examines the connections between the men in the military rather than illustrating the strategies of the combat so much.

The book includes another character, a Brigadier Gen. Ed Henderson, who is the boss of Savage and chooses him to run the 918th. The friction between these two men is not depicted in the movie, but since the film illustrates the crux of the theme of the story so masterfully, you will not miss him.

In addition, once Davenport is relieved in the book, he does not return. To me, it seems unrealistic to have Davenport take care of Savage when Savage breaks down in the film at the end. I found it disconcerting.

Twelve O’Clock High is one meaty dish made by a chef of a four-star restaurant. I relished each morsel of food in it. It is sharp and precise about its messages. After I had viewed the film, I felt like I had participated in a boot camp and received my bars. I salute the creators of Twelve O’Clock High. It is a classic to appreciate over and over again.

Ingrid Floyd is a freelance writer from Towson, Md.

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