Air Force (film)

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Air Force
File:Air Force - 1943 - Poster.png
Theatrical release title lobby card
Directed by Howard Hawks
Produced by Hal B. Wallis
Jack L. Warner (executive producer)
Written by Dudley Nichols
Starring John Garfield
John Ridgely
Gig Young
Arthur Kennedy
Harry Carey
Music by Leo F. Forbstein
Cinematography James Wong Howe
Elmer Dyer
Charles A. Marshall
Edited by George Amy
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • February 3, 1943 (1943-02-03)
Running time
124 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $3,000,000 (1942)[1]
Box office $2.7 million (US rentals)[2]

Air Force is a 1943 American black-and-white World War II film from Warner Bros., produced by Hal B. Wallis and Jack L. Warner, directed by Howard Hawks, that stars, John Garfield, John Ridgely, Gig Young, Arthur Kennedy, and Harry Carey.

The story revolves around an actual incident that occurred on December 7, 1941. A bomber aircrew, flying an unarmed Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress named the Mary-Ann, is ferrying the heavy bomber across the Pacific to the United States Army Air Corps base at Hickam Field, when the bomber flies right into the middle of the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor and the beginning of the second world war.

An uncredited William Faulkner wrote the emotional deathbed scene for actor John Ridgely, the pilot of the Mary-Ann. Made in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, Air Force was one of the first of the patriotic films of World War II, often characterized as a propaganda film.[Note 1]


[Note 2] On December 6, 1941, at Hamilton Field, near San Francisco, a United States Army Air Corps B-17D bomber Mary-Ann and its crew are being readied for a flight across the Pacific.

Master Sergeant Robbie White (Harry Carey), Mary-Ann's crew chief, is a long-time veteran in the Army Air Corps, whose son, Danny White is a West Point graduate, an officer, and a pilot. The navigator, Lt. Monk Hauser Jr. (Charles Drake), is the son of a famed World War I aviation hero of the Lafayette Escadrille. The pilot is Michael Aloysius "Irish" Quincannon Sr. (John Ridgely), the co-pilot is Bill Williams (Gig Young) and the bombardier, Tom McMartin (Arthur Kennedy).

The crew also includes a disaffected gunner, Sergeant Joe Winocki (John Garfield), who, as an aviation cadet in 1938, washed out of flight school at Randolph Field, Texas when he was involved in a mid-air collision in which another cadet was killed. Quincannon was the flight instructor who requested the board of inquiry dismiss Winocki; later on, in the Philippines, Major Mallory recalls training Quincannon at Kelly Field, Texas. Both the navigator and bombardier also washed out of pilot training.

With the United States at peace, Mary-Ann and the rest of its bomber squadron are ordered to fly without ammunition to Hickam Field at Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii. Before the bombers depart, Quincannon's wife arrives to give him a "good luck" gift, a toy pilot from their infant son, Michael Aloysius Quincannon, Jr. Young Private Chester also asks Captain Quincannon to meet his worried mother and tell her it is a standard flight to Hawaii.

As it happens, Mary-Ann flies into the Japanese aerial attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.[Note 3] In its aftermath the beleaguered B-17 crew is taxed to the limit, as they are ordered on, with little rest, first to Wake Island, and then to Clark Field; both locations have also come under Japanese attack. While en route to the Philippines, the crew listens to President Franklin D. Roosevelt ask Congress for a declaration of war. They have taken along fighter pilot Lt. Thomas "Tex" Rader (James Brown) and a small dog from the Marines on Wake Island named "Trippoli". [Note 4]

When they land at Clark Field, White receives the news that his son was killed on the first day trying to lead his squadron into the air against an attack. Quincannon has to give Robbie his son's personal effects. Soon after, Quincannon volunteers his bomber for a one-aircraft mission against a Japanese invasion fleet, but the Mary-Ann is attacked by enemy fighters and forced to abort. The badly wounded Quincannon orders his men to bail out of the stricken bomber, and then he blacks out. Winocki checks on him, sees he is passed out from his injuries, and decides to now guide in the shot-up bomber for a belly landing. Later on at Clark Field, having told a dying Quincannon that Mary-Ann is ready to fly, the crew works feverishly through the night repairing the bomber as the Japanese Army closes in. Private Chester volunteers to fly as gunner in a two-seat fighter aircraft defending Clark Field. In aerial combat the pilot is killed, and Chester is forced to bail out; he is machine-gunned by a Japanese fighter pilot while suspended, helpless, in his parachute. The same Japanese aircraft strafes Chester on the ground one final time, leaving behind a lifeless body. Winocki and White team up and shoot down the Japanese aircraft. When the side-armed enemy pilot stumbles from his burning aircraft, a furious Winocki machine-guns the enemy pilot. The aircrew barely manages to finish their repairs as the airfield comes under attack. With the help of U. S. Marines and U. S. Army soldiers, they refuel the bomber shortly before the B-17's position is overrun by Japanese soldiers; her engines now powered up and the bomber's .50 caliber machine guns returning fire, Mary-Ann barrels down Clark Field's runway and flies again.

As the B-17 heads for the safety of Australia, with Rader as a now reluctant bomber pilot and the wounded Williams as co-pilot, they spot a large Japanese naval invasion task force below. The crew radios the enemy position to all nearby U. S. airbases and aircraft carriers, and the bomber circles until those reinforcements arrive in force; Mary-Ann then leads the aerial bombing attack that destroys the Japanese fleet.[Note 5]

Much later, the first bombing mission against Tokyo is announced to a roomful of expectant bomber crews; among them now are several familiar faces from the Mary-Ann. As their aircraft take off, a stirring speech by President Roosevelt is heard in voice-over as waves of bombers join up and head toward the rising sun, and victory.


As appearing in screen credits (main roles identified):[3]

Actor Role
John Ridgely Captain Michael Aloysius "Irish" Quincannon, Sr., Pilot
Gig Young Lt. William Williams, Co-Pilot
Arthur Kennedy Lt. Thomas C. McMartin, Bombardier
Charles Drake Lt. Monk Hauser, Jr., Navigator
Harry Carey Master Sergeant Robert "Robbie" White, Flight Engineer & Crew Chief
George Tobias Corporal Weinberg, Assistant Crew Chief
Ward Wood Corporal "Minnesota" Peterson, Radio Operator
Ray Montgomery Private Chester, Assistant Radio Operator
John Garfield Sergeant Joe Winocki, Aerial Gunner
James Brown Lt. Thomas "Tex" Rader, Pursuit Pilot - (Passenger)
Stanley Ridges Major Mallory - Clark Field
Willard Robertson Colonel at Hickam Field
Moroni Olsen Colonel Blake - Commanding Officer at Manila
Edward Brophy (as Edward S. Brody) Sergeant J.J. Callahan, USMC
Richard Lane Major W.G. Roberts
Bill Crago Pilot P.T. Moran at Manila
Faye Emerson Susan McMartin - Tommy's Sister
Addison Richards Major Daniels
James Flavin Major A.M. Bagley
Dorothy Peterson Mrs. Chester - uncredited
Leah Baird Nurse #2 - uncredited
Ann Doran Mrs. Mary Quincannon - uncredited
Ruth Ford Nurse - uncredited


File:The Mary Ann - B-17 filmed in Air Force - 1943.jpg
Boeing B-17D Mary-Ann as seen in the film.

Director Howard Hawks credited the concept of the film to Lt. Gen. Henry H. Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, based on the experiences of a flight of B-17s that left Hamilton Field, California, on the night of December 6, 1941, and literally flew into the war the next morning at Pearl Harbor. Executive producer Jack Warner was adamant that the film be ready for release by December 7, 1942, the first anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. To that end, miniatures for battle sequences were filmed in May and June 1942, before completion of the script and storyline.[1]

Although pre-production work on Air Force had already taken place, the official start of the production on May 18, 1942 was tied to the War Department approving the script.[1] Development of the film was concurrent with script-writing by Dudley Nichols, with some characters based on Air Corps personnel Hawks met while traveling to Washington, D.C. to confer with Arnold and the War Department Motion Picture Board of Review.[1] Nichols's script, submitted June 15, was 207 pages in length (twice that of the normal feature-length film), had its initial 55 pages devoted to "character development," and was not finished.[4]

Principal photography for Air Force, consisting of aerial shots and exteriors, took place at Hendricks Army Airfield, Florida,where the first exterior ground day scenes photography was done, MacDill Field, Florida; Randolph Field, Texas; and Santa Monica Bay, California, the latter for water scenes and miniatures.[5] Shooting began June 18, 1942, using a rented mock-up of a B-17 interior, in which the 10 principal characters performed for a month. The company then moved by train to Drew Army Air Field, Florida, at the end of July, to spend the next month shooting aerial sequences coordinated by Paul Mantz, chief pilot and aerial technical coordinator [Note 6] for the production.[6] Drew was selected because of fears that use of aircraft marked as Japanese might cause panic on the West Coast.[7]

At the end of August, Hawks returned to Hollywood and engaged William Faulkner to rewrite two scenes for Air Force, including the death of the Mary-Ann's pilot. By then, the film, scheduled to be completed by September 17, was three weeks behind schedule and only half completed. Production featured a celebrated clash between producer Hall Wallis and Hawks over the latter's constant changing of dialogue as scenes were shot. Hawks was briefly replaced on October 4 by Vincent Sherman, but returned from "illness" on October 10 to take back primary direction. Sherman remained as second unit director to assist with completion of the picture, which wrapped on October 26, 1942, failing to shoot 43 pages of script and 33 days over schedule, too late to meet its December 7 release date.[1][8]

Wallis wrote that AAF Captains Sam P. Triffy and Hewett T. Wheless were technical advisors to the film, and that Triffy in particular made significant contributions to the storyline, dialogue, and sets.[9] "Shorty" Wheless had previously been a B-17 aircraft commander in the Philippines with the 19th Bomb Group and had been one of the survivors evacuated to Australia in December 1941. He was at Randolph Field, Texas, in the process of appearing as himself in the Academy Award-winning short film Beyond the Line of Duty when he assisted on Air Force.[Note 7]


The U. S. Army Air Forces provided the various aircraft that appear in the film:

  • Ten Boeing B-17B/C/D Flying Fortresses were from Hendricks Army Airfield at Sebring, Florida. The majority were B-17Bs upgraded to B-17C/D standards, as was the B-17 that portrayed Mary-Ann; the bomber's sec464"urity-based-for-theatrical-audiences-that-might-include-enemy-spies serial number 05564("40-5564") is listed in the film credits, the real.serial being "8584"(38-584) - on the left side of the vertical tail, the second "5" and the "4"at the end of the "serial"on the vertical tail are a different tonal value being more faded. This SN "05564" actually belongs to an AT-6! Also, in the beginning flight ĺine scene, the first exterior traveling shot following the pilot's walk to the B-17, in the back of the lineup on the flight line, a YB-17 can be seen in the background, and also is seen taking off overhead in the film's trailer.
  • North American AT-6 Texans and Republic P-43 Lancers were painted as Japanese fighters.
  • Bell P-39 Airacobras and Curtiss P-40C Warhawks were the AAF fighters; they were from Drew Army Airfield, Florida.
  • Six Martin B-26C Marauders were painted as Japanese bombers; they were from MacDill Field.[10]

The real Mary-Ann was reported lost in the Pacific shortly after the film production wrapped, according to information attributed to the production's technical advisor; actually, no early Flying Fortresses served for long in Pacific combat after Pearl Harbor. Another claim, attributed to a newspaper article, was that "the real Mary-Ann "went on tour to promote the film, then was assigned to Hobbs Army Air Field, New Mexico, then later to Amarillo Army Air Field, where it was assigned to a ground school. Two early B-17B aircraft, upgraded to the later model "D" standards, played the role of Mary Ann; AAF serial numbers 38-584 and 39-10(seen in background projection for a second or 2 as John Garfield boards the aircraft ) were reclassified in late 1943 as instructional airframes; following the war, both were scrapped in January 1946. [Note 8][11]

Historical accuracy

The basic premise of Air Force, that a flight of B-17s flying to reinforce the defense of the Philippines flies into the attack on Pearl Harbor, reflects actual events. From that point on, however, all of the incidents are fictitious. No B-17 reinforcements reached the Philippines; the survivors of those already based there retreated to Australia less than two weeks after the war began. The major bombing mission depicted at the film's climax most closely resembles the Battle of the Coral Sea five months later. Miniature shooting for its battle scenes was filmed in May and June 1942, concurrent but probably coincidental with Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway.

Anti-Japanese propaganda in the film included scenes in which the crew is forced to land on Maui Island and is shot at by "local Japanese," and the assertion by the Hickam Field commander that vegetable trucks knocked off the tails of parked P-40 fighters as the attack began. As detailed in Walter Lord's book, Day of Infamy, later investigations proved no Japanese-American was involved in any sabotage during the Pearl Harbor attack.

There are several scenes in Air Force showing a tail gun position on the Mary-Ann. The bomber in the film is playing the part of a Boeing B-17D, and all early B-17s, series A to D, were not fitted with a machine gun position in their tails. Tail machine guns were not added to the B-17 until Boeing rolled out their redesigned B-17E model. However, in the film, the crew of the Mary-Ann are shown making a field modification to their bomber's rear fuselage to allow for the installation of a single, improvised, machine gun position, "a stinger in our tail" as one crewman calls it. According to an article, some crews did install a broomstick painted black in the clear plastic tailcone, to hopefully frighten or at least attempt to warn off any enemy attacking from the rear, so this has a basis in fact, although there wasn't a big enough path to the tailcone for a crew member to travel from the rear fuselage, regardless of tailwheel position.This is a)) desperation act just like what Col. Jimmy Dolittle did on the early unprotected-tail B-25 Mitchells used off the U. S. S. Hornet.However, in the book "Swoose" some crews did in fact install a remotely-controlled (via a cord) .30 caliber machine gun


Critical acclaim followed the film's premiere as Air Force echoed some of the emotional issues that underlay the American public psyche at the time, including fears of Japanese Americans. In naming it one of the "Ten Best Films of 1943", Bosley Crowther of The New York Times characterized the film as "... continuously fascinating, frequently thrilling and occasionally exalting..."[12] When seen in a modern perspective, the emotional aspects of the film seem out of proportion, and although it has been wrongly dismissed as a piece of wartime propaganda, it still represents a classic war film that can be considered a historical document.[13] When initially released, Air Force was one of the top three films in commercial revenue in 1943.

Later reviews of Air Force noted that this was a prime example of Howard Hawk's abilities; "Air Force is a model of fresh, energetic, studio-era filmmaking".[14]

Air Force placed third (behind The Ox-Bow Incident and Watch on the Rhine) as the best film of 1943 by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures.


Air Force editor George Amy won the 1944 Academy Award for Best Film Editing, defeating Casablanca, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Five Graves to Cairo, and The Song of Bernadette. The film was also nominated for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White and Best Effects, Special Effects (Hans F. Koenekamp, Rex Wimpy, Nathan Levinson) and Best Writing, Original Screenplay. Elmer Dyer, James Wong Howe and Charles A. Marshall were nominated for an Academy Award in the Cinematography - Black and White division.[15]

Radio adaptation

Air Force was presented on Lux Radio Theatre July 12, 1943. The adaptation starred Harry Carey and George Raft.[16]



  1. The finale of the movie features a patriotic statement on screen indicating victory is still to be won followed by the standard World War II motion pictures ending: a request for the theater audience to buy War Bonds.
  2. Excerpts from the Gettysburg Address precede the film's action scenes.
  3. This is based on a true incident.
  4. The dog always snarls and barks at Lt. Rader, who has been told, as a friendly prank by the bomber's crew, that the dog's name is really "Moto" (after the fictional Japanese secret agent Mr. Moto).
  5. Although using wartime combat footage sparingly, the eventual missions portrayed in the Coral Sea sequences mirror real-life events.[1]
  6. The aerial technical coordinator was typically considered the "air boss." Besides flying, Mantz operated as a third director or assistant director on the staged aerial sequences.
  7. Wheless rose to the rank of lieutenant general and was Assistant Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force at the time of his retirement in 1968.
  8. Stills from the film have indicated that B-17B 38-269 may have actually played Mary-Ann.[11]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Orriss 1984, p. 67.
  2. "Top Grossers of the Season", Variety, 5 January 1944 p 54
  3. "Credits: Air Force (1943)." IMDb. Retrieved: June 24, 2011.
  4. McCarthy 2000, pp. 336–337.
  5. Orriss 1984, p. 68.
  6. Orriss 1984, p. 64.
  7. McCarthy 2000, pp. 337–339.
  8. McCarthy 2000, pp. 341–342.
  9. Wallis, Hal B. and Charles Higham. Starmaker: The Autobiography of Hal Wallis. London: MacMillan Publishers, 1980. ISBN 0-02-623170-0.
  10. Orriss 1984, p. 69.
  11. 11.0 11.1 "Tampa in the 1940s." Retrieved: July 25, 2011.
  12. Crowther, Bosley. " 'Air Force' (1943)." The New York Times, February 4, 1943.
  13. Macdonald, Daniel. "Air Force." DVD Verdict, August 31, 2007.
  14. Anderson, Jeffrey M. "Wing Men." Combustible Celluloid, June 8, 2007.
  15. "The 16th Academy Awards (1944) Nominees and Winners." Retrieved: June 22, 2013.
  16. "Radio's Golden Age". Nostalgia Digest. 40 (1): 40–41. Winter 2014. 


  • Dolan, Edward F. Jr. Hollywood Goes to War. London: Bison Books, 1985. ISBN 0-86124-229-7.
  • Evans, Alun. Brassey's Guide to War Films. Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2000. ISBN 1-57488-263-5.
  • Hardwick, Jack and Ed Schnepf. "A Buff's Guide to Aviation Movies". Air Progress Aviation, Vol. 7, No. 1, Spring 1983.
  • McCarthy, Todd. Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood. New York: Grove Press, 2000. ISBN 0-8021-3740-7.
  • Orriss, Bruce. When Hollywood Ruled the Skies: The Aviation Film Classics of World War II. Hawthorne, California: Aero Associates Inc., 1984. ISBN 0-9613088-0-X.

External links