All those Wonderful Stories
Making Island in the Sky
From the Journal of Captain Frank Kennedy
Ernie Gann told me an interesting story one time when we were both
laying-over at Wake Island.
One of the first books he wrote was titled Island in the Sky. It didn’t catch on well after its initial publication so he put it out of his mind and went on to other writing. An inmate in I’ve-forgotten-what-prison, got the book from the prison library and copied it word for word as his own creation.
He submitted it for publication and at the same time to film studios as potential material for a movie script. A proof reader for the publishing company found a familiar sound to the writing and began checking and finally found the deception. John Wayne’s film producing company, Wayne Fellows, took a close look at the book and decided to use the story and to star the big man himself, John Wayne.
Ernie took leave of absence shortly thereafter and with the proceeds from this initial success devoted full time to writing. We wished him well. Sometime later we heard that our company, Transocean had the contract to do the flying for Ernie’s picture. It
was pretty clear that he was doing his old friends a favor by throwing some work our way. We were always thankful to get work for the company of any kind.
My regular route then was across the central pacific to Tokyo, taking about two weeks for the round trip, then having a week or 10 days off. We layed-over at Honolulu and Wake Island then had several days off in Tokyo before returning. Dispatch called up two days before our scheduled departure, telling me I was one of three captains that were going to fly DC-3s as the picture Island in the Sky was made. I was to go to Kansas City to pick up a DC-3 from TWA and bring it back to Oakland to be repainted and fitted out for the picture. I had very little time in a DC-3. I had flown the navy R4D which was the military version of the same plane.
The ground scenes in the picture were made at Truckee Airport. The air scenes were taken over the northern California Sierras – any flat area we could find with good snow cover. John Wayne and his party stayed at Donner Lodge during most of the shooting. We stayed at the Reno Hotel.
Bill Wellman was the movie director and quite a character he was. Never missing an opportunity to show how tough he was and that he was in charge. He held a meeting each day before shooting began which was in a tent near location.
On one important scene to be shot, the downed airman have been found and the plane that found them is to circle back and buzz low over them while they jumped about and waved in excitement. I was to fly this plane and attended the morning meeting. Wellman went into detail about the path to be flown and how high, etc. He emphasized that on the swoop low over the jubilant airman I should be VERY low. Wayne, who was in this ground party, showed some concern. He called me to one side and in a voice which Wellman could hear said, “Now Frank, Mister Wellman is in charge, I know. And we should all do as he says. But when he says to come real low over us, he don’t mean lower than SIX FEET FIVE!” He got some laughs from everyone around.
All our flying part came off like clockwork and they were well ahead of their shooting schedule. They saved the most difficult scene until last. It was the scene where the drop of supplies was made and they needed an accurate drop. I overheard one of the shooting crew say, “We’ll be a long time on this. I've seen them try to get an accurate drop before!”
This took place in 1953 and I had been on our Alaska contract in 1949 and 1950. Some of our work was making drops to small outlying camps. Heavy items, such as drums of heating oil were dropped with parachutes to slow their impact speed. But the small items, such as mail bags were dropped without chutes, where they only had to walk a few steps to get them. We would buzz the camp and circle until someone came out to watch, then drop the mail right in front of him. I would always come back over low & slow to see where the drop had landed. I would waggle the wings to acknowledge their “thank-you” wave and be on my way.
Well, this dropping experience paid off. They had made a target X in the snow with pine bows and I hit the target on the first try. It saved a lot of production time. John Wayne asked Ernie for a suggestion on how he could reward us. Ernie, never at a loss for a suggestion said, “Why not give each one a month’s pay?” We were then making a salary of $800 a month.
We were invited to an impromptu production completion party the following night. I called my wife, Neen, and she drove up to go to the bash with me. Jack Elsbree was the copilot and his wife, Helen came along with her.
There was plenty of food and booze at Donner Lodge that night. Wayne got a head start and was pretty wobbly. His brother, who was much shorter than John, and whose job seemed to be that of a general expediter, handed me a check for $1000. I caught sight of Ernie in the background beaming a big smile. The other two captains were given the same and the copilots were given $500. Copilot’s salary at that time was $400 a month. It doesn’t sound like much money now, but comparatively US senators about that time were paid $10,000 per year. I made a copy of the check before cashing it. Still have it around somewhere.