The Reel Catch-22, Pt. 2: Joseph Heller and Training During Combat

Today’s post was written by Burton Blume, a brand consultant/creative strategist based in Tokyo, Japan. He contacted us last year when we featured footage shot by his father, Lt. Wilbur T. Blume. In part one of this series of posts, Blume traced his father’s story up to when Lt. Blume was assigned the task of producing a film about the training of 340th Bomb Group air crews. 

Training During Combat and Catch-22

As more and more of my father’s service career emerged, I began to think more of Joseph Heller and Catch-22. Were some of the people in Dad’s photos models for characters in the book? Dan Setzer, son of another 340th veteran, wrote an article identifying many of the real-life people that Heller had based his characters on. I was able to assist Dan by identifying another: the young pilot who had flown Heller’s plane during an extremely dangerous mission over Avignon during August 1944. This episode clearly provided the inspiration for a recurring nightmare in Catch-22 when a young gunner is seriously wounded by flak as the pilot takes evasive maneuvers. Were other identifications possible?

In 2012, Patricia Chapman Meder, daughter of Col. Chapman, published The True Story of Catch-22, the Real Men and Missions of Joseph Heller’s 340th Bomb Group in World War II. Using both military records and personal resources, Ms. Meder also identified real-life individuals who served as inspiration for some of Heller’s fictional characters. However, what really electrified me was “Appendix B” which contained stills and promotional flyers for Training During Combat. There on page 236 were the credits with my father’s name, and two shots of him behind the camera. In one photo an arrow points to Joseph Heller. He is leaning over maps with another officer, his hat set way back on his head of thick black hair.

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Filming Training During Combat. Joseph Heller (as “Pete”) receives navigation training.
Photo courtesy of Burton Blume.

I already had copies of the photos, but the positive identification of Heller unlocked another avenue of investigation. Heller obviously appeared in one scene of the film. Was he in others as well? Over the years only a few photos of Heller have emerged from his days on Corsica. Now, I realized, there was perhaps motion picture footage shot by my father.

My search led me to the National Archives. A NARA blog had already featured a short, silent film my father shot about a Christmas party for Corsican children near Alesani. (4-year old Dominique Taddei and his playmates appear in this film!) Staff at NARA put the search into high gear.

Earlier this year, the team at NARA struck gold. They found nine reels of unedited footage from Training During Combat that was shot by my father. The combined running time of this footage is nearly 73 minutes. Of this, over eight minutes contain scenes showing Joseph Heller in uniform. Also found in the archives were some important production documents including a story treatment, and a full cutting script and narration written by my father and Sgt. Frank Hickey. (Click the links for downloadable PDFs of the story treatment and script.)

We could not locate a completed version of Training During Combat, but NARA staff created this highlight video from the nine reels of raw footage shot by Lt. Wilbur T. Blume.

The story follows the activities of a replacement crew that have just arrived at the forward base at Alesani and follows their progress as they go through the indoctrination and technical training needed to perform their missions. There are two protagonists in this film: a pilot named “Bob” and a bombardier named “Pete.” Photogenic young Joe Heller plays Pete.

Like my father, Heller was a B-25 bombardier. Both of them would have been intimately familiar with the training routines depicted in the film.

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Capt. Cornelius O’Brien trains the “new bombardier” (Joseph Heller).

We see Heller’s group climbing out of a C-47 transport and arriving at GHQ as veteran crews return from a mission. We see the new arrivals greeting CO Willis Chapman and Maj. Randall Cassada, a wild, wacky grin breaking across Heller’s face as he shakes the colonel’s hand. We see Heller in the map room, reviewing targets and bomb plots with Capt. Cornelius O’Brien. He see Heller on top of a “bomb trainer” using the famed Norden bombsight, one of the most advanced technologies to come out of the war. We see Heller aloft in the cramped Plexiglas nose of the B-25 looking exactly like actor Alan Arkin playing “Yossarian” in the 1970 film of Catch-22.

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Heller shakes the hand of Col. Willis Chapman as the new crew is introduced to their CO.

There’s also a scene with Capt. George Wells, Director of Training, who flew a record-breaking 102 bombing missions. There’s “Bob” in the “Link Trainer,” flying blind as he practices evasive maneuvers. There’s a rubber dinghy being removed from a fuselage hatch on the top of a B-25 to demonstrate emergency procedures for ditching at sea. There’s the gunnery trainer with its pressurized squirt guns that make one chuckle. And there’s an aerial shot of practice bombs falling on Pianosa, a small rocky island that is the imaginary setting of Catch-22.

Over and again, these scenes evoke the characters and world of Heller’s satirical, groundbreaking novel. The footage is priceless.

Epilogue

Lieutenant Wilbur T. Blume flew 34 combat missions and went on to produce several other PR films including Blood Goes to Battle as well as a short about recovering stolen Florentine art treasures from the Nazis. After the war, he moved to Los Angeles where he received a Masters degree in filmmaking from the University of Southern California. In 1955, he won an Academy Award for The Face of Lincoln, a documentary he produced while teaching at the USC Cinema Department. He later produced and directed numerous films for the Department of Defense, and was head of Motion Picture and Television Policy for the USIA from 1974 to 1980. He died in 1989.

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Joseph Heller performs a practice bombing in Training During Combat.

Lieutenant Joseph Heller flew 60 combat missions as a bombardier. After the war, he studied English at USC and NYU on the GI Bill. Heller later received his M.A. in English from Columbia University and spent a year as a Fulbright Scholar at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford. He taught at several universities in the early 50’s before finding work in a small NY advertising agency. He began writing Catch-22 in 1953 and published the first chapter in 1955. First published in 1961, the novel has sold over 10 million copies and is considered a modern classic. The book was made into a motion picture in 1970 and is listed #7 on Modern Library’s Best 100 Novels of the 20th Century. Other novels by Joseph Heller include Something Happened (1974), Good as Gold (1979), God Knows (1984), Picture This (1988), Closing Time (1994), and Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man (2000). He died in 1999.

About Audrey Amidon

Audrey works in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, which is responsible for performing conservation and preservation work on motion picture records held across the National Archives.
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3 Responses to The Reel Catch-22, Pt. 2: Joseph Heller and Training During Combat

  1. Phil says:

    Good Blog!!
    FYI, that was a C-47 transport that Heller’s group climbed out of…

    Like

  2. derek holtham says:

    hi
    golly what a great find, heller in corsica .trully remarkable film.
    derek

    Like

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