In 1940, the US Army contacted Jack Warner of Warner Bros studio requesting that the studio produce propaganda films to educate the public on certain parts of the military. Warner turned over the responsibility of handling the military shorts to their Short Subjects Department. From there, the crew worked with gusto to present them in theaters across America.
After Pearl Harbor was attacked, it was in 1942 when General Henry "Hap" Arnold requested to meet with Jack Warner to produce work for the Army Air Forces. After agreeing to produce the training and propaganda films for Arnold, Warner was made a Lieutenant Colonel with writer Owen Crump as a Captain.
The First Motion Picture Unit was set up at Hal Roach Studios. Word was sent out in the trades papers to employ anyone and everyone they could utilize their talents for making the films.
Their first film aptly titled, "Winning Your Wings" (1942) was directed by John Huston and starred Jimmy Stewart, who was currently serving at the time. The music was provided by Alfred Newman as well. The film's demographic was to encourage young men to join the Air Force and opens with Jimmy Stewart answering questions from men who come from various social backgrounds. Then the film proceeds to show the audience the training process that the young men may endure once they enlist. The 18-minute film made such a strong impact, that it was nominated for "Best Documentary" at the Academy Awards. General Arnold claimed this film alone recruited 100,000 pilots.
One of the most important figures of the unit was Captain Ronald Reagan who was serving in active duty as well. He was Personnel Officer for the unit. He was in charge of setting up the records and personal contact information for the men who enlisted in the Unit every day. In addition to his duties in the unit, he appeared and narrated in several of the films.
Another movie star who was serving at the time was none other than the King of Hollywood, Clark Gable. He enlisted shortly after his wife and actress Carole Lombard passed away in an airplane accident after she made her contribution to the war effort by selling a record 2 million war bonds in her hometown of Indiana. He narrated the film, "Combat America" (1944) in which combat footage was used to show the affects of B-17s and other aircraft.
Other movie stars of the motion picture industry also contributed to the films including William Holden, Gilbert Roland, George Reeves (also a Sergeant) and Betty White.
The volunteer camera units were trained by Hollywood cinematographers in order to use 35 mm and 16 mm cameras. They were also trained to handle combat behind enemy lines while they were getting the shots they needed for the films. However, the First Motion Picture Unit was not without unfortunate casualties. The combat camera units and combat photographers suffered the most casualties of any service in World War II.
When the war ended, the unit was disbanded but not without one last film. It was "Wings For This Man" (1945) and the subject matter was about the Tuskegee Airmen, the first unit of African-American pilots in the US Military. The narration was done by Captain Ronald Reagan and although the film lasted only 10 minutes, the narration provided a profound statement, "These men were pioneers and pioneers never it easy."