The Greatness of 12 O’Clock High - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Greatness of 12 O’Clock High

Those of us who grew up in the 1960s have fond memories of one of the best World War II television series 12 O’Clock High. The series ran on ABC for three seasons from September 1964 to January 1967. Produced by Quinn Martin Productions for Twentieth Century Fox, 12 O’Clock High was based on both the 1948 novel written by screenwriters Beirne Lay, Jr. and Sy Bartlett and the 1949 movie starring Gregory Peck as General Frank Savage, the leader of the (fictional) 918th Bomber Group. The streaming service Amazon Prime is currently showing all episodes of the television series commercial-free.

The series was filmed at Chino Airport in California, which actually served as a civil training field for pilots during World War II. In the series, the 918th Bomber Group was a B-17 bomber force stationed in England with the mission of bringing the war home to the Third Reich. Each episode combined actual combat footage from World War II (provided by the U.S. Air Force) with the human drama of men in aerial combat. Actor Robert Lansing played the role of General Savage for the television series, though the producers killed him off in the first episode of season two. Lansing was replaced by actor Paul Burke, who played Colonel Joe Gallagher, a character who had made cameo appearances in a few episodes of season one.

But it is Lansing’s General Savage who is the most memorable character of the series. Savage leads his men in missions over Germany, flying a B-17 named Piccadilly Lilly. He is a no-nonsense commander who understands what is at stake in the war against Hitler. Savage is stern and uncompromising at times; but at other times, he is supportive and caring for the men who serve under him. He doesn’t smile much his job is to send men on missions that often result in their deaths. He is not afraid to challenge his superiors when they try to interfere with his mission. And he is willing to experiment with new strategies, even if it means risking greater losses and mission failures. He is, in short, the consummate war leader strong, temperamental, focused, and determined just like the men who helped win World War II. He is television’s version of the Air Force’s heroic General Curtis LeMay.

He is, in short, the consummate war leader strong, temperamental, focused, and determined just like the men who helped win World War II.

Each bombing mission over Germany or German-occupied France encounters heavy ground flak and German fighter attacks that B-17 gunners battle. On virtually every mission, co-pilots, gunners, and/or bombardiers are killed or injured. Each episode features a guest star sometimes two around which the show’s drama focuses. The series’ realism is derived from actual World War II footage and the skilled acting that often shows the clash of personalities, the strain of frequent air combat, the second-guessing by higher command, and the hidden fears of the men who flew those dangerous missions.

Another memorable aspect of 12 O’Clock High is the musical theme for the series, which was written by composer Dominic Frontiere. Each hour-long episode introduces the initial drama, followed by a clock that strikes 12 o’clock with bells ringing in the background. And then the familiar theme plays and it is repeated throughout each episode. When you have watched several episodes as I recently have that theme rings in your ears — sometimes haunting, sometimes inspiring. It is a theme that brings to mind courage, bravery, duty, honor, and country the best characteristics of the American soldier, sailor, and airman. It brings to mind the closing lines of the aircraft carrier captain in the movie The Bridges at Toko Ri: “Where do we get such men?”

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