By Laurence Smelser
Above, Clark Gable chats with Sergeant Gunner Kenneth Huls, left, and Sergeant Gunner Phillip Hulse, 1943.
My father, Major Harold C. Smelser, had gone missing in action over the coast of France in late November of 1942. His plane had been shot down off the coast of Brittany during a raid on the submarine pens of St. Nazaire. He was commander of a B-17 squadron, the 324th from the 91st Bombardment Group based at Bassingbourn in England.
On Thanksgiving Day, the 26th of November, 1942, as dinner was being prepared, my mother, Mary Laraway Smelser, answered the door to be handed a telegram with the news that my father was missing.
In early 1943, Clark Gable was briefly posted to Fort Wright, west of Spokane, for gunnery training before deployment to England. After the death of Carole Lombard, he had volunteered for duty and completed basic training elsewhere. In Spokane, Gable had a suite at the Davenport Hotel, going every day straight to the gunnery range to avoid local fans and invitations. Rumor had it that every woman in town wanted to meet him.
Now my father had been stationed at Fort Wright until the late fall of 1941, and had known the base commander, General Olds (whose wife incidentally was Gore Vidal’s mother). So it was thought that Mother might be cheered up if Gable could escort her out for an evening at the officers’ club.
Initially Mother hesitated, saying she did not want to be criticized, but she was finally persuaded to go ahead. Mother said she wore a black dress with high heels, a red turban, and a mink coat loaned to her by her cousin Aileen Lindsay, with whom we were staying while her husband, a doctor in the army, was stationed in Alaska.
After a friend of Mother and her date, a colonel, arrived, they drove across the Spokane River out to Fort Wright which lay on a low bluff along the river. First they stopped for cocktails at the current general’s quarters, a large red brick house on officers’ row.
When Gable arrived, he and Mother were introduced and drinks were served. After several drinks and some chatting, the general said they should go on over to the club for dinner. As Gable helped Mother on with her coat, he said “May I look after you tonight, Mrs. Smelser.”
The group walked along snow-shoveled sidewalks to the officers’ club which had been newly constructed out of logs and overlooked the icy river.
The club was packed, full of officers, local non-military members and guests. When Gable entered, like a cliché, all heads turned to get a look. The general led them to a table by a big rock fireplace in the main room near the orchestra. Before ordering their meals, Gable volunteered to get the drinks.
At the bar, he had to wait and wait just like all the other officers. When he returned, he asked Mother to dance. She said she could feel women watching with envy. When they sat down, he offered Mother a cigarette, pulling out a case engraved from Carole Lombard.
During dinner Gable asked Mother more about my father’s status. He said he’d also be going over to the war soon. From time to time, Gable was introduced to other officers. Then a lady came rushing up to the table. With great excitement she said she worked at the Red Cross. Then she said, “We are making itty-bitty bandages for your big chest,” poking him hard there. “Oh sh–,” Gable said under his breath to Mother. “Let’s get out of here.”
Mother suggested coming over for scrambled eggs, an idea that appealed to him. So Mother, Gable, and Mother’s friends bid goodbye to the general and his wife and drove back through the snow to the house on the South Hill.
Once there, the four of them talked quietly as Mother’s cousin was in bed. After scrambled eggs and coffee, and time to hold me up from my crib, Gable said he needed to go back to the Davenport Hotel but would take a taxi. Saying goodbye, he encouraged mother not to lose hope, saying, “When your old man comes back, you’re welcome at my place anytime.”
The next morning, when Mother’s cousin found out that Clark Gable had been in the house while she slept, she was furious! Quickly word got around town and the phone rang off the hook. “Who are you?” women asked. But they did not know that my father was missing in action.
In years to come, Mother would say that Gable was a gentleman, but that he sure had a salty vocabulary.