Monday, September 7, 2015

Hollywood Went to War

Number twenty in our series Hollywood Went to War, before he took us in a Wagon Train to the Stars, Gene Roddenberry served in WWII.

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In the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roddenberry received a telegram with orders to attend Kelly Air Force Base, enlisting on December 18, 1941. Following the completion of boot camp, he was sent to Corsicana, Texas for pilot training by civilian instructors. He completed sixty hours of flight time there, including thirty-two solo hours. In March 1942, he moved to Goodfellow Field (now Goodfellow Air Force Base) in San Angelo, Texas for basic flight training where he flew a Vultee BT-13 Valiant. Roddenberry graduated on August 5, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.

His initial posting to the Pacific Theatre was delayed by a month, during which he completed further training on the Cessna AT-17 Bobcat. By virtue of this additional training, and because Roddenberry's height made it unlikely that he would be suitable for a combat fighter pilot, he was assigned to bombers. He received orders to report to Bellows Field, Oahu, to join the 394th Bomb Squadron, 5th Bombardment Group, of the Thirteenth Air Force. The squadron flew the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, which had previously been used by the 19th Bomb Group, and were en route to a maintenance overhaul when they had to flee due to the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. Roddenberry was assigned as Captain William Ripley's co-pilot for the flight that the squadron took to Christmas Island, and the following day to Canton Island. An additional flight on November 17 took the squadron to Nadi, Fiji, where they were expected to go on to the New Hebrides. Instead they were ordered to remain in Nadi to fly reconnaissance missions.

In January 1943, the squadron was ordered to conduct bombing missions, alternating between bases in Espiritu Santo, Nadi, and Guadalcanal. These missions consisted of teams of four to eight planes, with no fighter support. It was during these flights that Roddenberry faced Japanese fighters for the first time. On August 2, 1943, while flying out of Espiritu Santo, Roddenberry was piloting a B-17 but realized the plane did not have enough speed to take off. He applied the brakes to stop the aircraft but they did not respond. The tail brake was applied but it also failed. The plane overshot the runway by 500 feet (150 m) and impacted trees, crushing the nose, and starting a fire. Bombardier Sgt. John P. Kruger and navigator Lt. Talbert H. Wollam were both positioned in the nose and died on impact. While an official report absolved Roddenberry of any responsibility, there were those in the squadron who blamed him for the men's deaths. Early in September 1943, the squadron was rotated back to the United States...

Roddenberry spent the remainder of his military career in the United States, and while he did not keep an ongoing record, he estimated that he had flown eighty-nine combat missions. This number was disputed by the records of the Army Air Corps and other members of the 394th Bomber Squadron... In October, he was assigned to Fort Worth, Texas and then the 18th Replacement Wing at Salt Lake City. He was subsequently moved to the Office of Flight Safety based in Oakland, California. In February 1944, he moved back to March Field and was promoted to Captain and subsequently flew all over the United States in his role as a plane crash investigator. During this time he was in another accident as a passenger on a military flight that crashed and caught fire. Roddenberry pulled three men to safety. During his military career, he was awarded the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Captain Roddenberry, we salute you for your service. R.I.P.

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