The First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU), later 18th Army Air Forces Base Unit, was the primary film production unit of the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) during World War II and was the first military unit made up entirely of professionals from the film industry. It produced more than 400 propaganda and training films, which were notable for being informative as well as entertaining.
When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, the USAAF was a part of the army, and motion picture production was the responsibility of the Army Signal Corps. USAAF Commanding General “Hap” Arnold believed that the formation of an independent film entity would help lead to the air service gaining its independence. At a meeting in March 1942, General Arnold commissioned Warner Bros. head Jack Warner, producer Hal Wallis and scripwriter Owen Crump to create the unit. Warner was made lieutenant colonel and Crump a captain but Wallis, who was then in production with Casablanca, did not accept the offer. Of immediate concern was a critical shortage of pilots and recruits. Arnold told Warner he needed 100,000 pilots, and contracted with Warner Bros. to produce and release a recruitment film, which would come to be known as “Winning Your Wings”.
On July 1, 1942, the FMPU became an active unit of the USAAF. Key personnel that formed the initial roster included Lt. Col. Warner as commanding officer, Capt. Crump, Capt. Knox Manning, 2nd Lt. Edwin Gilbert, 2nd Lt. Ronald Reagan and Cpl. Oren W. Haglund.
At first the unit operated out of offices at Warner Bros. in Burbank, California, and then moved to Vitagraph Studios in Hollywood. Vitagraph, however, had not been maintained and proved to be inadequate for movie production on a scale required by the FMPU. By sheer happenstance Crump came upon the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City.
The studio had everything the motion picture unit needed: six warehouse-size sound stages, prop rooms, editing bays, costume and makeup departments, even an outdoor set made to look like a city street … The lot comprised 14 acres and dozens of buildings …
In October the unit moved into Hal Roach Studios, which the men nicknamed “Fort Roach.” Lt. Col. Paul Mantz took over as commanding officer.
Personnel assigned to the FMPU included some of the most well known film professionals of the day, as well as filmmakers who would have great success after the war. Actors such as Clark Gable, William Holden and Alan Ladd, and directors including Richard Bare and John Sturges served with the unit.
Future president Ronald Reagan, who transferred from the cavalry reserve, was a captain in the unit. He was the personnel officer and was responsible for maintaining personnel files and orienting new recruits to the operational aspects of Fort Roach.
The first film project undertaken was a flight training aid titled, “Learn and Live”.
One of the most important assignments of the unit was to develop navigational and topographic materials to support the bombing campaign against Japan. This top secret series of films, code-named “Special Film Project 152” was, according to Gregory Orr, “perhaps the most important and challenging effort to come from the First Motion Picture Unit.” The unit was given forty days to produce the films which would be used by B-29 Superfortress crews.
A primary function of the FMPU was the training of combat cameramen. The units were based at nearby Page Military Academy. There were approximately 16 combat units, each made up of seven officers and between 20 and 30 enlisted men. They were trained to use a variety of photographic equipment and cameras and also received combat and weapons training. The cameramen were sent to every army air force base to document all aspects of the base’s operations as well as aerial battle tactics and enemy airplane performance. Every cameraman was trained to load film into their camera under adverse conditions, and if need be, to develop it on location.
After Nazi Germany surrendered in May 1945, General Arnold ordered Crump to document the extent of the damage caused by aerial bombardment. This project was code-named “Special Film Project 186.” Crump and his crew, using color film, surveyed bomb damage inflicted on the major European cities. In addition, Crump recorded the debriefings of Nazi civilian and military personnel in Allied custody such as Herman Goering, as well as the capture of the Ohrdruf and Buchenwald concentration camps by American soldiers.
The unit existed from July 1, 1942 until December 1945 with a strength of 1,100 staff.