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Tom Cleaver
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Joseph Heller at war

February 4, 2023 · in Uncategorized · · 12 · 0.7K

This 6min 38sec clip is most likely out-take footage that was going to be used in a documentary, "Training For Combat" which was the "boondoggle" that Joseph took part in in 1944 - there is a few moments of him in the bombardier nose, where he is playing "Pete, the replacement bombardier."

First Lieutenant Wilbur Blume, a fellow bombardier, was a pre-war documentarian. The 340th Bomb Group's commander, who was angling to become a general, assigned Blume to make "training fims" which were then forwarded to XII AF HQ and presented as films to be picked up by the USAAF for training in other units.

"Training for Combat" was about the training provided replacement aircrew in the 340th to prepare them for operational flying. The project began in September, and ran until mid-December, before it was shelved. Aircrew were assigned as "actors" for the project, and since they needed to survive long enough to not create any continuity glitches in the movie, they got favorable treatment in mission assignments, i.e., "milkruns." There were not many of them during the Brenner Pass campaign that began in November and ran to the following April to break the main German supply line for the army in Northern Italy.

Joseph Heller always told people he had a "nothing tour," that he flew "mostly milkruns," and whenever he was asked for a photo of him during the war, he said there weren't any. In fact, between his first mission at the end of May 194 and the end of August, he had 40 missions and most of them were "hot." When he left the group in early January 1945, he had 60 missions in his record (at a time when the "tour" was 70 missions and about to be extended "for the duration" due to the difficulty in getting replacements). From May-August, he flew 2-3 missions a week. After mid-September, he flew 20 missions over four months, around one a week. This was when he was part of the cast of "Training For Combat."

Interestingly, he got this after being a "dissenter" over the bombing of the Settimo Bridge in late August, which resulted in a small undefended village being bombed. The incident is fictionalized, but uses all the actual facts, in
his famous novel "Catch-22" which he always told people was complete fiction (except it isn't). How did this happen? Heller's not here to answer that question, but the circumstantial evidence is that he said "yes" to the deal his alter ego Yossarian said "no" to, following the fictional "Settimo" mission - "Like us, we can make life easy for you." There is a strong case to be made that as a writer, he decided to create an alternative universe in which he made the moral act he thought he hadn't made in 1944, when he agreed not to push things over the incident. Thus "I flew mostly milk runs" as he said. The fact he was able to leave with an uncompleted tour shortly after work on the film ended is really strong evidence - since no one else could do that - that he did get "taken care of" for something. As Buck Henry told me, "Joe Heller was the angriest guy I ever met" - a sure sign of personal anguish over things not done as he thought was "morally right."

When I was writing "the Bridgebusters", Blume's son found several boxes of film and negatives of stills from the movie, when he cleaned out his father's home after his death. I got to see some of it, and that's why I think this footage is from that film.

If he did feel as it seems he did after the war, he was probably happy to think this footage with him in it would never show up.

Reader reactions:
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12 responses

  1. Thanks for sharing, Tom @tcinla
    Great video, impressive to see the moment where the Mitchell did shut down one engine and still flies as usual. Also the large formations at the end of the movie are great.

  2. Very interesting Tom, the information on Heller and his all too human obfuscation of the actuality is fascinating. His ability to finesse a shorter tour would be a very interesting story.

    • That story (or at least an educated guess to fill in the blanks Burton Blume didn't have from his father's account - BTW, it turns out this clip is one of 9 of similar length, all establishing shots of airplanes in flight, with A LOT of Joseph Heller in them, that Burton Blume forced out of NARA in 2020, part of the never-finished film) of how Heller got the acting gig, and the full story of the Settimo Bridge attack, is in "The Bridgebusters" now re-released in trade paperback.

  3. Just reading your book Tom! My Dad was kind of the same "It was all over by the time I got there". But when you read the combat reports for 243 Squadron they lost 5 pilots in June 44.

  4. Nice video and story over one of my favourite planes .The longer the distance in Time of WW 2 to the present the more the truth tends to be obfuscated. Film and honest memoirs are what will keep telling truths.
    Archive as much as one can for all combatants.

  5. The little things noted in the film. The back of the props warn down to bare metal. Canopies cracked and a patched with a square piece of plexiglass glued over a bullet hole? Heller smoking in the nose section.
    Flying in formation with the escape hatch open just behind the waist gunners position. Feathering the prop for engine out flying . . .

    Weathering and exhaust staining over wings. Good info for modeling. Of course this is source material for better understanding Catch-22 and the writer. The environment of having lived in.

  6. A very interesting background story, thank you for the captivating pictures. "Catch 22" is a milestone, I will watch the flick again with broadened horizons, thanks Tom!

  7. Great info and flick. Heller defiantly has that "Yossarian" look. Heller's war record and "Catch-22" would make great topics in a discussion when compared/contrasted with Crane's "Red Badge of Courage".

  8. Great info indeed, Tom!

  9. Didn't read Catch-22 till later in life, but it still rings true.

    As a writer of bad fiction, I understand how our main characters, er, alter egos, uh, fictional selves want to make the choices that we didn't.

  10. @tcinla, Thanks for an interesting article Tom. There was a man on a forum I used to frequent, who was one of the B-25 pilots for the "Catch 22" production. His name was Stoney something, I never knew his last name. He had some interesting tales from the filming sequences too.

    btw-Tom, did you see the PM that I sent?

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