12 O'clock High: A Great War Movie

Poster for the movie 12 O'clock High

I Hear Ghosts

One of my favorite movies is “12 O’clock High” starring Gregory Peck, who, along with Jimmy Stewart, happens to be one of my favorite actors of all time. I recommend the movie if you haven’t seen it and if you have seen it then please watch the movie before reading on, or don’t be mad if I spoil the beginning for you. Air and Space Forces article on the real 12 O'clock High.

12 o'clock high movie opening scenes

The film opens with Dean Jagger visiting a village in post-war England where he was stationed during WWII. Jagger plays the role of Major Stovall, the Adjutant to the Bomber Group that Gregory Peck takes command of, which then becomes the center plot of the movie.

12 o'clock high movie opening scenes

In a village antique shop, he sees and purchases a caricature mug that belonged to the Bomber Group. This prompts him to visit the nearby abandoned USAAF airfield where he was stationed. The scene continues with Mr. Stovall walking out through the wheat to the abandoned control tower. The sounds and scenes of that time come rolling back to him in a blur—the sounds of an active military base and the aircraft coming to life and roaring off the ground to head to targets in Germany. The rest of the movie is a flashback of his memories.

12 o'clock high movie opening scenes Toby Mug

Right at the moment, I’m camped at the Davis-Monthan AFB RV park and I’m out here working a job but the downside is that the campground butts right up against the fence line of the Boneyard. If you don’t know what it is then Google Earth Davis Monthan AFB and take a look at the satellite view, or go here “309 AMARG.” Basically, it’s where the DoD stores many of its old aircraft, either temporarily until they are needed to replace an aircraft that was lost, as in destroyed or damaged beyond economical repair, or as parts donors for aircraft still in service. Some fighters get turned into target drones, but most aircraft eventually get chopped up and melted down.

For Crew Chiefs, this is about the most demoralizing thing for us to know, and the only scenario that’s worse is to lose a jet in an accident, and it’s especially bad if you lose crew. Most fighter Crew Chiefs I know would rather their old jets be turned into target drones and eventually go down in a blaze of glory rather than being chopped up by the scrapper’s guillotine. It’s just a Valhalla thing, okay? We spend more time with our jet than we do with our families, so we get just a little attached to them.

And as for me, I have these Dean Jagger moments. It happens when I find myself on an abandoned or reutilized military base, or at a military museum, or even standing outside a VFW that has an aircraft, tank, or artillery gun. I hear the voices and sounds of all the people who worked there. Military aircraft have a distinct smell that never goes away, even after decades in a climate-controlled museum, and some of the smell is human sweat (and other stuff sometimes). It’s a tangible reminder of the people who toiled in the aircraft to fly them and keep them flying. I was born on an Air Force Base to a Crew Chief and spent 38 years as one myself on multiple fighter and attack aircraft. I know the sounds, the voices, the drama, and the boredom. My last jet, an F-16, is in the Boneyard now, up on wooden cribbing with no wings and no nose gear. She flew combat missions all over the world for decades and rarely broke. And she always brought her pilot home. Now she sits baking in the hellish Arizona sun with thousands of other warriors, quietly awaiting their fate with the Grim Reaper, just like me. Except I’m not so quiet.

12 o'clock high movie briefing room

But still twice a day I drive by all the beautiful girls parked in neat rows, and in the evening I sit outside my trailer in 90-degree heat at 2300 hours and can see a parked B-52H. The poor girl fought in the Cold War and now she has no vertical stabilizer. And yet there she sits, patiently serving a country that has forgotten her. Nothing now but a donor. I know that all the girls hope to be rescued by the Pima Air Museum on the south side of the base, but the odds are way against them.

But I remember you, girl, and I appreciate all that you did. And there are still tens of thousands of maintainers and crews who remember you too, and even once you are gone you will live on in their memories.

12 o'clock high movie aircraft in flight

Maybe all of this sounds stupid and slightly insane to you, but that’s okay. It’s one of those “You had to be there and one of us” sorts of things. Suffice it to say that most Crew Chiefs are very attached to their planes and remember tail numbers better than their kids’ birthdates. 

I am reminded of the intricate dance we engaged in every day, ensuring each bolt was tightened just right, each system checked and double-checked. The weight of responsibility was immense, knowing that lives depended on our meticulous care. Every takeoff and landing was a testament to our dedication. The camaraderie among the crew chiefs, the shared hardships, the silent nods of understanding when words weren’t enough—all these memories come rushing back whenever I see those planes.

12 o'clock high movie cockpit scenes

Walking through the Boneyard is like traversing a graveyard of memories. Each aircraft has a story, a legacy of missions flown and battles fought. They are more than just machines; they are living embodiments of history. I can almost hear the engines roaring, the ground crews shouting commands, and the faint echoes of laughter and sorrow from days long past.

It’s a surreal experience, being so close to these once-mighty warriors of the sky, now silent and still. I can’t help but feel a profound sense of respect and sadness. These aircraft served their country with honor and distinction, and now they wait, as if in silent vigil, for their final fate.

12 o'clock high movie aircraft crash scenes

In many ways, my time here at Davis-Monthan AFB feels like a full circle. It’s a place where the past and present coexist, where memories linger in the dry desert air, and where the legacy of service and sacrifice is ever-present. Each day, as I work with the next generation of maintainers, I’m reminded of the importance of passing on our knowledge and ensuring that the spirit of those who came before us lives on.

12 o'clock high movie scenes

Yes, I hear ghosts from across the fence. And one day, I will join them.

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