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Hollywood Goes to War: Wild Bill Wellman

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
November 4, 2022 3:00 am

Hollywood Goes to War: Wild Bill Wellman

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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November 4, 2022 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, here to tell another Hollywood Goes to War story is Roger McGrath. McGrath is the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes: Violence on the Frontier. A U.S. Marine and former history professor at UCLA, Dr. McGrath has appeared on numerous History Channel documentaries and is a regular contributor for us here at Our American Stories.

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Visit UHCMedicareHealthPlans.com. This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. And to search for the Our American Stories podcast, go to the iHeartRadio app to Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Here to tell another Hollywood Goes to War story is our own Roger McGrath. McGrath is the author of Gun Fighters, Highwaymen and Vigilantes, Violence on the Frontier, a U.S. Marine, a former history professor at UCLA. McGrath has appeared on numerous history channel documentaries and he is a regular contributor for us here at Our American Stories.

Here's McGrath. William Wellman was one of Hollywood's greatest directors. In a career that spanned 40 years, he directed 81 movies, including the first movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, Wings. There could have been no better director for Wings, a movie about the daring do of World War One fighter pilots because that is exactly what Wellman was and it was in the skies over France where he earned his nickname, Wild Bill. Released in 1927, Wings was the 12th movie that Wellman directed and it would be followed by such classics as The Public Enemy, The Call of the Wild, The Star is Born, Bo Jest, The Oxbow Incident, The Story of G.I.

Joe, Battleground, Across the Wide Missouri, Westward the Women, The High and the Mighty, Track of the Cat. The actors Wellman directed were the stars of Hollywood's Golden Age, James Cagney, Barbara Stanwick, Clark Gable, Loretta Young, Gary Cooper, Janet Gaynor, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Ginger Rogers, Gregory Peck, Robert Taylor, Ann Baxter and Robert Mitchum. William Wellman is born in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1896. His father, Arthur Wellman, can trace his ancestry back to the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1640. His mother, Cecilia McCarthy, arrives in America in 1872 as a young child in an Irish family.

With a square jaw and strong chin and flaming red hair, she can be mistaken for nothing but Irish. Little Billy Wellman is the second son in the family, his older brother is Arthur, who is called Arch. For the first eight years of Bill's life, all goes well, although his father begins to drink heavily. The drinking finally causes his father to lose his job with a brokerage firm and he has to sell the family home. The family moves to a neighboring town of Newton and rents a house. For the next several years, the father is in and out of work. The mother is forced to go to work at a newly created position, a probation officer for women and children.

She has great people skills and excels at the job. Billy throws himself into sports at Newton High School, lettering in football, baseball and ice hockey. The Boston Sunday Post calls him the best quarterback in the history of Newton High. A semi-pro ice hockey team wants him to drop out of high school and play for them. Billy thinks about the offer, but decides he owes it to his mother to stay in school and graduate.

However, his wild streak and fighty nature gets him into trouble again and again. Just shy of graduation in his senior year, he pulls his ultimate prank. From the school's second story, he drops a stink bomb on the head of the principal. Billy Wellman is promptly expelled from school. He then works at a variety of jobs, but has a penchant for getting into fist fights and being fired.

Ultimately, this redounds to his benefit because he decides he'll never be able to work a regular job. And he signs with the semi-pro hockey team that had earlier made him an offer. Suddenly, he's on the ice in Boston Arena, not only scoring goals, but also earning time in the penalty box for fighting. He's a fan favorite. One of those fans is a famous actor who is in Boston for a stage play, Douglas Fairbanks. The actor tells Billy, if you ever need a job, come out to Hollywood and look me up. Another fan of Billy's ice hockey prowess is Earl Ovington, a pioneer aviator who invites Billy to an airfield outside of Boston. Billy meets the pilots there, is taken on flights, receives flying instruction, and listens to stories about the beginnings of aviation. Now, Billy begins dreaming of making a career as a pilot, and the war in Europe is providing an opportunity for those wanting to fly, if they are willing to risk death. When the United States declares war in Germany in April, 1917, 21-year-old William Wellman tries to enlist in the Army's flight program.

However, he doesn't have a high school diploma and is rejected. He then learns he can go to France and enlist in the French Foreign Legion, and then, if accepted, transfer into the French Air Service, which has a unit for American pilots, the Lafayette Flying Corps, with its famous squadron, the Lafayette Escadrille. By the end of May, 1917, Bill Wellman is sailing for France.

Less than two weeks later, he's in Paris, waiting to begin training with the French Foreign Legion. While walking along the Seine River, he spies a young woman dressed in black and perched on a bridge. Suddenly, she leaps and crashes into the water far below. Wellman strips off his boots and jacket, dives into the Seine, and swims to the spot where she hit the water. He sees her head bobbed to the surface, then disappear.

He dives after her, brings her to the surface, and tows her to a nearby pier. And you've been listening to a heck of a story told by Roger McGrath about Billy Wellman. Wants to fly, gets rejected by the U.S. Army, and what does Billy do? He goes to France and joins the French Foreign Legion so he can fly. And that's the American spirit right there.

You don't take no for an answer. When we come back, more of this remarkable story while Bill Wellman, Hollywood Goes to War series with Roger McGrath, continues here on Our American Stories. Here at Our American Stories, we bring you inspiring stories of history, sports, business, faith, and love. Stories from a great and beautiful country that need to be told.

But we can't do it without you. Our stories are free to listen to, but they're not free to make. If you love our stories in America like we do, please go to ouramericanstories.com and click the donate button. Give a little, give a lot. Help us keep the great American stories coming.

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To learn more, visit Bose.com. And we return to our American stories and to Roger McGrath and his Hollywood Goes to War series and story about World War One pilot Wild Bill Wellman. We last left off with Wellman saving a young woman in Paris who was drowning.

Let's return to McGrath. She never stopped struggling, Wellman later said. I thought she was trying to get away from me. I was a fine swimmer, had been taught how to save a person under these conditions, so I cold cocked her.

She became limp and I was able to get her to the pier and pull her up on it. Bystanders think Wellman is a hero, but the woman he saves stares at him with, as he described it, frozen hatred. She is one of the many French women who commit suicide or attempt it. When they learn, their husband has died fighting at the front. By the end of June 1917, Wellman is training at a French foreign Legion camp in the south of France. Conditions are horrible, but Wellman's spirits are buoyed by several Americans in training with him, all hoping to make their way into the Lafayette Flying Corps.

There are even two Wellman knows from back home in Massachusetts. Wellman trains in a series of airplanes, each one more advanced. Training accidents, mostly due to weather or mechanical failures, leave many a would-be pilot injured or dead, including friends of Wellman. At the end of September, Wellman graduates from the basic flight class and is sent to advanced fighter school for training the aerobatics in gunnery. The new training school in the shadow of the Pyrenees has far better accommodations and food, but demands far more of pilots in the air. Wellman excels throughout the advanced training.

The school's commander writes on Wellman's graduation certificate in November. A born pilot, but crazy! Wellman is now sent to an airfield 30 miles from Paris for his final training before combat. On the wintery day, he is returning to his airfield with clouds above and thick ground fog below. The usual landmarks are obscured with thick fog and he can't see the ground, let alone the runway. He dives through the fog and tries to level out, but he's so close to the ground that his landing gear gets entangled in rolls of barbed wire on an old battlefield full of trenches.

The plane lurches to a stop, damaged but repairable. Same for the pilot, Bill Wellman. In December 1917, Wellman finally gets what he wants and is sent to escrow drill number 87 of the Lafayette Flying Corps to replace a pilot recently killed. He's now Corporal Wellman and volunteers to fly a mission the day after he arrives. He's told to strafe and bomb a German airfield and to not make more than two passes at the field, otherwise he will run out of gas on the return flight.

By flying at treetop level, Wellman surprises the Germans at dawn. He strafes and bombs planes, soldiers and hangers on his first pass without any return fire. On his second pass, bullets are whizzing by his head and others hitting his plane. Nonetheless, he inflicts more damage on the enemy and because he has some ammunition left, he can't resist a third pass. Return fire this time is thick and bullets tear all through his plane.

With ammo expended, he heads for home. Back at his airfield, his fellow pilots are aware that Wellman has been gone too long. Just when they are beginning to give him up for loss, they spot a tiny speck in the sky. It's soon identified as Wellman's plane, but it's moving slowly.

There's a reason for that. Wellman is out of gas and is gliding in. He just barely clears nearby hilltops and then skims trees at the end of the runway.

His dead stick landing is perfect. Cheering and applauding, pilots run out to him. His captain christens him, Wild Bill.

As the summer wears on, weather becomes more and more of a problem. Returning from a mission on Christmas day, Wellman finds the runway covered with snow. He sets the plane down as gently as possible, but the wheels dig into the snow and send the plane cartwheeling down the buried runway.

The plane is demolished, but Wild Bill walks away from the spectacular crash. Whenever weather permits, Wellman's in the air, shooting down enemy planes and attacking enemy airfields. He's awarded the coveted quality gear and is promoted to sergeant.

In March 1918, he flies for the first time in support of American forces. The 42nd Infantry, known as the Rainbow Division. The 42nd is to lead a major attack into German lines. Wellman and the other pilots of the Esker drill number 87 are told, under no conditions will you allow an enemy's machine to fly over the French and American lines.

If they attack and your machine gun jams, ram your opponent. Circling over the battlefield, Wellman wishes he were wearing an American uniform rather than a French. From below, an American artillery barrage begins and Wellman watches American soldiers of the Rainbow Division scramble out of trenches and move forward. Almost at the same time, German planes arrive. Without hesitation, Wild Bill dives his plane into them, shooting down one with the initial burst of his machine gun. Before the air battle ends, he shoots down a second enemy plane and damages a third, forcing it to land.

Wild Bill is awarded another palm leaf for his quality gear, signifying a second award. On March 21, 1918, Wellman is flying a reconnaissance mission into enemy territory when he sees a small French village with a German flag flying over it and German soldiers lounging about. Recon mission or not? Well, Bill can't resist strafing the enemy. He kills several before they can reach cover.

On subsequent passes, his bullets cause a fire and explosion in an ammo dump and knock down the pole, flying the German flag. With his plane full of holes and his engine sputtering, Wellman hits for home. He's some miles from the village when an aircraft shell hits his plane. The explosion knocks Wellman silly, but he doesn't lose consciousness. With blood running out of his ears and nose, he tries to control what's left of his plane as it plummets to the Earth.

He's fast approaching a thick forest and reckons his end is near. Miraculously, a gust of wind dramatically slows the fall of the plane into the treetops. The impact throws him out of the plane and he crashes, tree limb by tree limb, to the ground. Wild Bill wakes up in a French hospital and learns that a patrol of French soldiers found him unconscious and brought him back to friendly territory.

He's broken his back in two places, has shrapnel in his face, and is suffering from internal bleeding, but he's alive. On March 29, 1918, Sergeant William Wellman is discharged from the Lafayette Flying Corps. He leaves with four confirmed aerial victories and three probables and dozens of enemy planes destroyed on the ground.

On his chest is the quarter gear with two palm, the grand gear, and the Verdun medal. And you're listening to Roger McGrath tell the story of Wild Bill Wellman as a part of our Hollywood Goes to War series. And my goodness, he does that crazy thing Americans do, which is he wants to fly so badly in defense of his nation that he joins the Allies. And ultimately, down the road, there he is in 1918 with the Lafayette Air Corps leading the Americans as they attack the German positions. And my goodness, what crazy stories about this man, a born pilot, his graduation certificate reads, but crazy. And that's what you're hearing stories about a born pilot who is crazy.

When we come back, more remarkable stories about Wild Bill Wellman brought to us by Roger McGrath, a part of our Hollywood Goes to War series here on Our American Stories. The Frito-Lay Pass the Ball Challenge. Frito-Lay, the official USA snack of the FIFA World Cup 2022, is giving you the chance to win two tickets to the FIFA World Cup 2022 final by joining their Pass the Ball Challenge. To enter, just scan the QR code on specially marked bags of Lay's, Cheetos, and Doritos. And look for the Golden World Soccer Ball. Be one of the first to add your picture to the Golden Ball to receive a one-of-a-kind collectible NFT. Then pass the ball to other soccer fans and play daily games to score additional entries in a chance to win custom swag and awesome prizes. So grab a specially marked bag of Lay's, Cheetos, or Doritos.

Or visit FritoLayScore.com and pass the ball now for your chance to win two tickets to the FIFA World Cup 2022 final in Qatar. When the world gets in the way of your music, try the new Bose Quiet Comfort Earbuds 2. Next-gen earbuds uniquely tune to the shape of your ears. They use exclusive Bose technology that personalizes the audio performance to fit you, delivering the world's best noise cancellation and powerfully immersive sound so you can hear and feel every detail of the music you love. Bose Quiet Comfort Earbuds 2. Sound shape to you.

To learn more, visit Bose.com. Full of BS. I'm Ty Montague and I'm the host of Calling Bullsh**t, the podcast about purpose washing, the gap between what organizations say they stand for, and the actions that they're taking. Let's call BS on the organizations that deserve it and also make some positive concrete suggestions for cleaning that BS up.

Whether you're an entrepreneur, a business leader considering purpose-led transformation, or just looking for advice from companies that are actually getting it right, listen to the Calling Bullsh**t podcast on the iHeartRadio app or wherever you get your podcasts. And we continue with our American stories and the story of Wild Bill Wellman as told by Roger McGrath and this is a continuing part of our Hollywood Goes to War series. Let's pick up where Roger last left off. After more than a month of rehabilitation in France, Wellman, wearing a back brace, steps off a ship at New York. The next day newspapers in New York and Boston run stories on them. Sergeant William Wellman arrives with coveted quada gear, says the New York Tribune. Wounded flyer glad to see New York again, but here's call a battlefront, says the Boston Globe.

Several other stories on Wellman echo these themes. When he arrives back home in Newton, Massachusetts, there are throngs of people waiting to greet him. For more than two months, Wellman is on the war hero circuit, giving speeches and interviews.

He doesn't enjoy it in the least. However, he does get to spend time with former President Theodore Roosevelt in his home at Oyster Bay. What Wellman really wants is a commission in the U.S. Army Air Service and a return to the battlefront. But he knows his injured back will cause him to fail the physical. Then he gets a call from an officer in Washington, whom he knew from the Lafayette Escadrill. The officer is organizing a unit of combat veteran pilots to be instructors in dogfighting for army pilots. Wellman is overjoyed, but expresses his doubts about passing a physical.

Don't worry, says the officer. Wellman fails the physical, but strings are pulled, and he's commissioned a first lieutenant in order to Rockwell Field on North Island in San Diego Bay. Bill Wellman is delighted to be a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army and to be flying again. He's respected and admired by the pilots he's training, and he's determined to prepare them for aerial combat. After a month of instructing in mock dog fights, though, he grows restless. He misses the adrenaline rush of combat. He wonders if he can somehow get orders cut for duty again at the front in France.

While Bill is still while Bill. A Hollywood producer hosts a dinner party in Wanner at the Hotel del Coronado, a world-famous hotel on the Coronado Peninsula close to Rockwell Field. This was my introduction to a new wonderworld, the land of the cinema, said Wellman. There were a lot of strange new people there, actors and actresses, and they liked me in the uniform and the medals. And I was very humble, and my limp was eye-catching. Whether it's the limp, the uniform, or the medals, Wellman catches the eye of the young actress. They're soon dating on weekends, either in Hollywood or San Diego.

Wellman's mood improves, not with the thrill of combat, but with the thrill of romance. Early in November 1918, the Army puts on an airshow at Rockwell Field. With the war in Europe drawing to a close, the Army is eager to show off its airbase and its planes.

To ensure the general public and politicians will continue to support funding for the Army's air service. It's a grand event, which includes static displays of planes and weapons, and pilots meeting and greeting. And the Army marching band entertains the crowd, which includes generals and other high-ranking officers, as well as prominent politicians and businessmen and San Diego city officials. Into a beautiful blue San Diego sky goes the Army's finest planes in squadron order. The pilots make passes over the airfield in formations, and then perform various standard aerobatics to thrill the spectators. After landing, the pilots are greeted with loud applause and shouts of approval. Over a loudspeaker, an air service officer announces the grand finale of the airshow. Ladies and gentlemen, this is our best chase machine, the SPAD S-13, flown by our top instructor, Lieutenant William Wellman, a decorated fighter pilot performing a series of spectacular stunts. I told him to show you something you hadn't seen before.

Take it away, Wild Bill. Wellman performs spectacular stunt after stunt, punctuated by low passes over the crowd. The crowd is awestruck. He decides on one final stunt, performed as close to the ground as possible. All goes well until his final maneuver, when a wingtip clips the ground in the plane cart wheels to a stop. Wellman is pulled from the wreck and taken to a hospital.

Miraculously, he has nothing but three small fractures and two knocked out teeth. His first words are, well, I showed him something they hadn't seen before. Within days, Wellman is ready to fly again, but the war ends with the armistice on November 11, and Lieutenant Wellman is mustered out of the army. He recalls Douglas Fairbanks telling him to look him up if he gets to Hollywood. He also recalls that Fairbanks sent him a congratulatory telegram when he received the aquatic air. Wellman hears about a lavish polo party. Fairbanks and his wife, Mary Pickford, will be hosting. The who's who of Hollywood and beyond will be there. Well, Bill Wellman makes his entrance to the party at 135 miles per hour in a spad fighter, flying low over the polo field, then climbing to a higher altitude and performing stunts.

The partygoers watch in awe, thinking this is a special treat, courtesy of Fairbanks and Pickford. Wellman comes in and lands. He climbs out of the cockpit, and in his metal bedeck uniform, walks up to Douglas Fairbanks. Remember me, Mr. Fairbanks? says Wellman.

You said if I ever came to Hollywood to look you up. Fairbanks turns to his wife and says, Mary, I'd like you to meet Wild Bill Wellman. He's a hell of a hockey player and a war hero. Wellman spends the next 40 years in Hollywood, first as an actor, then primarily as a director, but also as a writer. It's as a writer that he wins an Oscar for Best Writing, a regional story for A Star is Born. He also directs the movie and is nominated for Best Director.

In fact, he's nominated three times for Best Director. After several short-lived marriages, Wellman marries freckle-faced Dorothy Coonan in 1934. She's an answer who has appeared in 10 movies but is only 19.

He's 38. Everyone predicts this will be another of Wild Bill's short-lived marriages. But the Wellmans have seven children and remain happily married until he dies at 79. Late in 1975, Wellman is diagnosed with leukemia.

Wellman rejects various treatments, saying he'd rather spend his last days at home and not in a hospital. Three months later, he's lying on his deathbed at home. A priest administers last rites, and Wild Bill tells his oldest son to take care of his mother and says, don't feel sorry for me.

I've lived the life of a hundred men. And a terrific job on the production and the editing and storytelling by Greg Hengler and his special thanks as always to Roger McGrath, author of Gunfighters, High Women and Vigilantes, Violence on the Frontier. And what a story this was. I particularly love the way he made his debut with Douglas Fairbanks. What a stage entrance that led to a prolific career.

Three Oscar nominations as Best Director, wrote A Star is Born and directed it. And my goodness, Public Enemy and so many more. By the way, have your kids watched these old black and white films because you can't understand the new ones without having seen the old ones.

The story of Wild Bill Wellman, part of our Hollywood Goes to War series here on Our American Stories. When the world gets in the way of your music, try the new Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2. Next gen earbuds uniquely tuned to the shape of your ears. They use exclusive Bose technology that personalizes the audio performance to fit you, delivering the world's best noise cancellation and powerfully immersive sound so you can hear and feel every detail of the music you love. Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2. Sound shape to you. To learn more, visit Bose.com. Listen to the Calling Bullsh** Podcast on the iHeartRadio app or wherever you get your podcasts.
Whisper: small.en / 2022-11-07 14:38:15 / 2022-11-07 14:44:49 / 7

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