Co-writer of “Twelve O’Clock High” was from Berkeley Springs
Once in awhile, a reader contacts The Morgan Messenger with a fact about Morgan County that no one knows anything about.
Such was the case when Steve French asked about Beirne Lay, Jr. Apparently, Lay was the answer to a recent trivia question on the West Virginia Archives website.
A Berkeley Springs native, Lay is best known for writing the screenplay for the movie “Twelve O’cCock High.” A little digging uncovered that he not only wrote the movie, but co-authored the book Twelve O’Clock High with Sy Bartlett in 1948.
The book is about a tough general taking over a bomb group in England with low morale and whipping them into shape while enduring the stress of flying daylight bombing missions over Nazi Germany.
The 1949 movie starred Gregory Peck and is a classic war film.
Lay was born in Berkeley Springs on September 1, 1909 to Beirne Lay, Sr. and Marian Hunter Lay.
Little else is known about his early life. He attended an exclusive college preparatory high school, St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, and went on to Yale University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 1931.
Lay wanted to fly. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in July 1932 and trained as a pilot at Randolph Field near San Antonio, Texas. In June 1933, he received his wings and was promoted to second lieutenant in the Army Reserve.
In early 1934, while serving in the Army Air Corps, Lay flew U.S. mail between Chicago and Nashville and was part of what was called the “Air Mail Scandal,” an unsuccessful attempt to use the U.S. Army Air Corps to deliver air mail.
Flying old and mostly open cockpit planes through blizzards during one of the worst winters in history, the Air Corps recorded 66 accidents with 12 deaths. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was forced to suspend air mail service on March 10, 1934.
The Air Corps took most of the blame for the fiasco.
Early writing career
Lay started his writing career by submitting articles to national publications defending the Air Corps against what he felt was unfair criticism.
He also wrote general articles about aviation for Esquire, Saturday Evening Post and Harper’s.
Lay left active duty in 1935, but continued serving as a reserve officer.
One of the magazines that published his stories was The Sportsman Pilot and Lay became its managing editor in 1936.
He wrote a book about his pilot training days titled I Wanted Wings. It was published in 1937 and was later made into an orientation film for Air Corps pilot candidates.
When war broke out in Europe in 1939, Lay asked to be placed back on active duty with the Air Corps. After I Wanted Wings came to the attention of Colonel Ira Eaker, chief of the Air Corps Information Division, Lay was transferred to headquarters in Washington, D.C. He was promoted to captain and wrote speeches for General Henry Hap Arnold, the Chief of the Army Air Corps.
In 1942, Eaker was promoted to Brigadier General and went to England to form what became the Eighth Air Force. Lay accompanied him as the unit’s historian and film commander. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.
In August 1943, he was granted permission to fly combat missions to prepare for commanding a combat unit. Lay flew five combat missions as a copilot on a B-17 Flying Fortress with the 100th Bomb Group, including the Regensburg portion of the costly Schweinfurt-Regensburg mission.
That mission was an attempt to cripple the German aircraft industry. Although heavy damage was inflicted on aircraft factories in Regensburg, the Air Corps lost 60 bombers and many more were damaged beyond repair.
Lay later wrote a critique of the mission for General Curtis LeMay. He used this material to write an article for Saturday Evening Post and then for a chapter in Twelve O’clock High.
Returning to the U.S., Lay was assigned to a B-24 Liberator unit for training in Salt Lake City. In February 1944, he commanded the 487th Bombardment Group which was deployed to Lavenham, England.
On May 11, 1944, Lay’s B-24 was shot down over northwest France. He parachuted from the aircraft and landed near Normandy. There he was hidden by members of the French Resistance.
After the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, Lay linked up with the invading forces and returned to England. He was prohibited from flying combat missions because of his knowledge of the French Resistance.
From these experiences, he authored I’ve Had It: The Survival of a Bomb Group Commander in 1945. The book was reissued as Presumed Dead in 1980.
After the war, Lay settled in Hollywood where he met another Eighth Air Force veteran, Sy Bartlett, his Twelve O’Clock High collaborator.
Lay remained a colonel in the Air Force Reserve and met fellow reservist James Stewart, who had also served as a pilot in the Eighth Air Force.
They approached Paramount with the concept for the film “Strategic Air Command,” which was released in 1955 and starred Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson.
Lay continued writing for movies and television until he retired. He died in Westwood, California at age 72 on May 26, 1982.
Among his other film writing credits were “Flying Leathernecks” (1951), “Above and Beyond” (1952), “Toward the Unknown” (1956), “The Gallant Hours” (1960) and “The Young and the Brave” (1963).