The USAAF's Famed Fort Roach

Condensed from a major treatise by MSgt George J Siegel, California Military Museum

About a year and a half before the World War 2, Warner Bros were contacted by the Army with a request that a series of short subjects be made for release in theaters throughout the nation to familiarize the public with the various branches of the military. At the time the public was unaware of the importance of branches like the Armored Forces, the Engineers, Air Corps Cadet Training, etc.

    Jack L Warner accepted the challenge with enthusiasm and conferred with Gordon Hollingshead of his Short Subjects Department, who in turn called in Owen Crump, a writer at the studio. After Crump researched and visited various Army bases around the country, a series of eight two-reel subjects was produced in Technicolor, at the time an innovation in the short subject field.

    Once the Army films were released in the theaters, similar requests came from the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard for films about pre-Pearl Harbor orientation. It was natural that General Henry H Arnold, chief of the AAF, realizing the necessity for films on training, orientation, and inspirational subjects to keep pace with the growth of the Air Forces, would request Warner and Crump to come to Washington.

The Army Signal Corps Photographic Section had made all training films for the air arm, but Arnold saw the immediate necessity of organizing and activating his own film unit to serve the particular needs of the new Army Air Force as a separate service branch. The outcome of the meeting resulted in Jack Warner being commissioned a lieutenant colonel in the AAF and Crump a captain. Their primary assignment was to organize the First Motion Picture Unit of the USAAF (FMPU).

Most urgent was a film aimed at speeding up enlistments in the Cadet Training Program since the AAF then could not draft men for Cadet Training and was in a position where more than 100,000 young men needed to voluntarily enlist within a three-month period.

    Warner turned over the facilities of his studio to the project. Work was carried out on a 24-hour basis. Crump wrote the script and John Houston directed the film, in which then-Lt James Stewart played himself, and in 14 days it was finished. Released in most theaters throughout the USA, its effect was immediate, intense. More than 150,000 enlistments were directly attributed to the effect of the picture, "Winning Your Wings."

    First home for the FMPU was the old Vitagraph Studio in East Hollywood. It was vacant, but it had sound stages and storage and office space. Arnold sent out a lieutenant and two sergeants to handle the military paper work to properly activate the Unit. Once word got out about the need for craftsmen, from grips to producers, they came from every studio in a wave of patriotism.

Along with the studio personnel, popular actors came from nearly every studio (including President Ronald Reagan as a captain), as did directors, producers, and some of the finest writers in the industry, all as soldiers in the service of their country. SEE ALSO Stars in the Skies.

Although the idea of direct enlistment into a particular military unit was quite unheard of, General Arnold agreed to it as the only way such a complicated organization could be assembled quickly. After four weeks of Army basic training in other parts of the country, studio workers returned to sleep on cots on the sound stages and to eat in the commissary.

It was, however, soon evident that because of wartime priorities on equipment, a studio completely equipped for the making of motion pictures was needed. When it was learned that the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City were out of production, in a matter of days it was leased by the AAF, and some 300 men marched in to take over what would become known as "Fort Roach."

One week later, shooting began on the first picture, "Live and Learn," a six-reeler that illustrated the mistakes young cadets should avoid in flight training. Within two months, 300 pictures were underway, and the range of subject matters was incredibly varied—flight operations, survival training, even sex hygiene. The first Japanese Zero captured intact was immediately sent to FMPU to film it in the air doing a series of maneuvers with a technical narrative for viewing by combat units in the Pacific.

    A notable top-secret project was a huge, scale miniature of the main island of Japan that covered an entire sound stage. With a camera moving overhead, briefing films were made for use on Okinawa to train pilots to bomb Japan. Thus could B-29 crews see the trip they were to make, pick out check points and the target.

    During FMPU's life more than 400 films were made. In the end there were 1,110 men, not counting Combat Camera Training and units in the field, technical advisors on special assignment, or personnel on temporary duty from AAF units. Combat camera crews trained by FMPU at nearby Page Military Academy were sent out to AAF fronts. They went along on bombing raids as a matter of routine and suffered many casualties.

    FMPU represented an historical moment since it marked the first time in history a military unit was formed entirely of motion picture personnel.

Some titles produced by FMPU USAAF:

Air Defense Team (1944, 17m)
Air Pattern: Pacific (1944)
Aircraft Wood Repair: Parts 1 thru 4 (1943)
B-17 Flying Fortress: Elementary Ground Work, The (1944)
B-29 Flight Procedure and Combat Crew Functioning (1944)
Basic Electricity As Applied to Electronic Control Systems (1943)
Beyond the Line of Duty (1942)
Cadet Classification (1943)
Combat America (1943)
Ditching: Before and After, Featuring C-46 Commando (1943)
Fight for the Sky, The (1945)
First Motion Picture Unit: Army Air Forces (1943)
Flak! (1944, 16m)
Flying the P-39 (1943)
Flying the P-61 Series Airplane (1943)
Handling Aviation Gasoline in the Field (1943)
How to Fly the B-17 (Part 1, Ground Operations) (1943)
How to Fly the B-17 (Part 2, Flight Operations) (1943)
How to Fly the B-17 (Part 3, Emergency Operations) (1943)
How To Fly the B-24D (1943)
How To Fly the B-25 (1942)
How To Fly the B-26 (1944)
How To Fly the P-47: Pilot Familiarization
How To Fly the P-47: Ground Handling, Take Off, Normal Flight (1943)
How To Fly the P-47: High-Altitude Flight and Aerobatics (1943)
How to Shoot a Rifle (1943)
How To Survive In The Arctic
Japanese Zero (1943, 20m)
Land and Live in the Jungle (1944)
Land and Live in the Desert (1945)
Learn and Live (1943)
Materials Handling in AAF Depots (1943)
Memphis Belle: Story of a Flying Fortress (April 1944)
Mental Attitude of the Soldier
Oil Fires, Their Prevention and Extinguishment (1943)
Operation of C-1 Autopilot, Part 1: Setting Up for Flight (1943)
Operation of C-1 Autopilot, Part 2: Setting Up for Bombing (1943)
Operation of the Bombsight
Operation Vittles (1948)
P-38 Flight Characteristics (1943)
Rear Gunner, The (1942, 20m)
Reconnaissance Pilot (1943, 28m)
Resisting Enemy Interrogation (1944)
Servicing P-39: Bore Sighting All Guns (1942)
Servicing P-39: Procedure for Uncrating (1943)
Servicing P-39: Synchronizing .50-cal Fuselage Guns (1943)
Sikorsky Helicopter, The (1943)
Target For Today
Target Invisible; B-29 radar ops (1945)
Target Tokyo - Special Film Project 153 (1944)
Theory of the C-1 Autopilot, Part 1: Basic Principles (1943)
Theory of the C-1 Autopilot, Part 2: Control Panel (1943)
Three Cadets (1943)
Turbosupercharger: Flight Operation (1943)
Turbosupercharger: Master of the Skies (1943)
Uncrating and Assembly of the Thunderbolt Airplane (1943)
War in the Sky (1944)
Wings Up (1943, 18m)
Winning Your Wings (1942, 17m)