ROBERT ALTMAN: I enlisted because I was going to be drafted. I don’t think it was anything I would’ve chosen otherwise. I went into the Army Air Force because I was in Wentworth and we found out that if we wanted to take the Air Force exam, they had to let us go—and the test was going to be in Kansas City.
It was one of those multiple-choice things, about a two-hour exam. I didn’t even read the questions. I just went down and arbitrarily marked the answers, ’cause I wasn’t there to take the exam. I didn’t care about going into the Air Force. I cared about having a night or two in Kansas City. They came back and said I got a fairly high score, so I went into the Air Force.
JOAN ALTMAN SARAFIAN: I remember when he was leaving. He was in this truck with all these kids, and we followed in the car down to the Union Station. We weren’t supposed to upset him or cry or anything, but it was heartbreaking.
ROBERT ALTMAN: I went to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, and we did more tests. And they said, “You tested equally well for all these three things”—you were either a pilot, a bombardier, or a navigator. Most of the kids in there all wanted to be pilots. I didn’t care about that. In fact, I was saying, “Oh, I think I want to be a bombardier,” because I was good at math. But when they said I scored equally well on all three and I could make my choice, I said, “Oh—pilot.” I think I picked pilot because that’s what most of the kids I was there with wanted the most. I don’t know if that means I had a competitive nature or that I wanted to please other people.
Copilot Robert Altman of the U.S. Army Air Force
I went to pre-flight training at Jefferson Barracks, and then I was sent to flight training. Muskogee, Oklahoma, then to Coffeyville, Kansas, then Frederick, Oklahoma. Eventually, before going overseas, I got to California, at March Field in Riverside. The P-38 was what I thought I’d like—a twin-engine fighter—but I ended up getting put into multiengine bombers. You were put into those categories according to what their needs were. So in that part of the river, that’s what I was pushed into.
I was ordinary, middle-of-the-road. I was fairly coordinated. In training, I thought I was hot stuff—everybody thought that they were hot stuff. I don’t know what makes a good car driver or aviator, but I know now I would never have been at the top. I know I would never win an auto race or an aero race.
JOAN ALTMAN SARAFIAN: When he was in training, he hooked up with a girl named Daphne. She used to go down to Muskogee to see him. I think Daphne would be every young boy’s dream. Gorgeous. She was about four or five years older than him. Her husband had been killed in the war—he flew a Black Spider, and when you’re hit there’s no way you can get out of those, so he died. I think she really kind of introduced him to a more interesting sex life than what he was used to. I remember how she would put on her lipstick, because we’d all watch her. She would powder her lips first, then put on the lipstick. Then powder it again. Then blot them. And we all thought that was something, because we weren’t even allowed to wear any.
FRANK W. BARHYDT (screenwriter): There’s a story about Bob losing his virginity in a whorehouse. I don’t know about that, but he had a girlfriend who his father didn’t particularly like. So he didn’t want Bob to marry her, and he figured that if Bob got laid his mind would be off it. I’m not sure that’s the beginning, middle, and end of that story. But I do remember his father kind of setting him up.
BARBARA ALTMAN HODES: Bob met LaVonne, LaVonne Elmer, when he was in training, though he didn’t marry her until later. Blonde, very attractive, and had a real nice figure, very nice.
JOAN ALTMAN SARAFIAN: He met her in Salinas, California. She was a phone operator. Incredible figure. Always in high heels, and she couldn’t even walk barefooted because her feet were curved for heels. She cooked great breakfasts for him. He didn’t love her. He said he didn’t. But I guess she was a good lay and he liked that. She was wild, but she loved him. God, she loved him so much.
CHRISTINE ALTMAN (daughter): My mother was from a small town in Nebraska. She graduated and she decided she wanted to go out and see the world and do things. So she went to California and stayed with one of my aunts. That’s when the war was going on, and she would go to these dances at the NCO clubs, and that’s where she met my dad.
She was very beautiful. She was a knockout. Her hair was brown and she always had a white streak coming down one side. I don’t know if she did that. She was very exotic-looking. She was thin and she was just gorgeous. My dad told me one time she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Of course they hooked it right up, I guess.
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Robert Altman at the beach with his first wife, LaVonne Elmer
BARBARA ALTMAN HODES: When he’d come home during training, he’d say, “All right, now you better go on upstairs and get your good clothes on. We’ve got a date tonight. Not you, Joan, I’m taking Barbara.” And we’d go down to the drugstore, sit up at the fountain, and we’d have sodas, me in my dress and him in his uniform. I must’ve been about twelve. I thought, “My God, he’s wonderful.”
JOAN ALTMAN SARAFIAN: We were a very, very close family. When Bob went into the service and was stationed in California, our father moved our family out there, to be with him.
BARBARA ALTMAN HODES: When we went to California, I was dating R.J., Robert Wagner. You know, he was in high school when I was. He was just a nice person. From a well-to-do family, but, you know, just a nice guy.
We’d come home and Bob would grab R.J. “What in the hell, where in the hell have you been with my sweet sister?” He used to do that every once in a while. He’d be in a bad mood and grab R.J. and put him up against the wall. B.C. would say, “Come now, Bob. Everything’s fine. She’s home early.” God, it was funny. But Bob used to drink, you know, quite a bit.
ROBERT ALTMAN: When I first went to California, I really was kind of a star fucker. I mean, I got as close to all that stuff as I could. And I think I fell for the glamour of it, and the girls. I had an aunt and uncle who lived out there, my aunt Pauline and her husband, John Walsh. She had written a song that had been a hit, and he was a hustler of some kind—a lawyer. They were on the edges of people who knew people. And I just decided I wanted into that world.
JOHN HOROSCHAK, JR. (bomber crew gunner): We were in the 307th Bomb Group. Just before we were going overseas, Bob got together with his aunt Pauline and decided to have a party for the crew. There were ten of us—I was the armor gunner. She supplied cars and chauffeurs to bring us up there. Bob had a convertible Cadillac and he and I were in there. He got stopped for speeding and he talked fast. Somehow he got away with it.
So we got to his aunt’s house, in Beverly Hills, overlooking Hollywood and L.A., a big, beautiful home with a swimming pool, a tennis court. A bicycle rack maybe fifty bicycles long. We opened the door and she had a band in one corner of the big living room and they played a welcome to us. They had ten girls from UCLA dressed up in evening gowns and they were there to greet us—to dance with us and play tennis with us. We stayed overnight—not that there was anything done, of course. The next day she let the servants off for the day and she made breakfast for all of us and the college girls. My room had a Plymouth-type bed with an overhang. Like something from the movies, you know?
The party was going on and a lot of us were in a rec room off the living room, a beautiful big room. His aunt came in and Bob says, “Aunt Pauline, you see John over there, the little fella? He’s in the ball turret on the bottom of the airplane.”
“What’s that?” she says.
“It’s a steel ball with two guns on it.”
And she says, “That sounds complicated.”
She had a big glass table in the middle of the room, oblong, maybe ten feet long by three feet across. Cactus plants underneath.
Bob tries to show her. “John gets into the turret”—and he sat in the middle of the table—“and he’d be on his back.” Well, Bob broke through the glass and went down into the cactus.
She says, “Oh, I’ll call an ambulance.”
And Bob says, “Nah, I’m all right.”
That’s the way Bob was.
WILLIAM STUCKEY (bomber crew gunner): We all acted like gentlemen. When the evening was over, Bob Altman’s father and I drove the girls home. He was a very nice guy. I’m not sure where Bob was.
JOHN HOROSCHAK, JR.: We were in San Francisco on the night before we were leaving. We sat around as a group, the enlisted men, and we decided that since our pilot was named Dale Dennison we’d call ourselves Dennison’s Dragons.
WILLIAM STUCKEY: Yeah, Dennison’s Dragons. I thought it was kind of silly.
JOHN HOROSCHAK, JR.: When we were going overseas, we stopped at different islands in the Pacific. Bob and Lester Goldschlag, the first officer, would always get hooked up with Army nurses. The first night, they both shacked up with them.
Unbylined story headlined “Exploits of B-24 ‘Long Rangers’ to Provide Lively Post-War Yarns,” The Washington Star, October 20, 1945: Here’s what Daddy did in the Big War if he was in the “Long Rangers” group, one of the famed B-24 outfits of the Jungle Air Force.
He was a member of a team which: Reached out from its South, Southwest Pacific and Netherlands East Indies bases to plaster the Japanese over an area of more than eight-and-a-half-million square miles, considerably more than the area of the United States; Struck the enemy on more than seven hundred days of its three years in action, usually flying two or more missions a day; Earned two Distinguished Unit Citations, awarded by direction of the President, for cracking the tough Turk and Balikpapan bases; Helped neutralize the bristling bases of Turk, Yap and Palau in less than four months to pave the way for the invasions of Guam, Saipan and the Caroline Islands; Threw the Standard Operating Procedure book on B-24 Liberators out the window to put all four squadrons of the group in the air for one-hundred-eighty-seven days with only one twenty-four-hour period of inactivity in a six-month climax ending June 28, 1945—dropping ninety-eight hundred tons of bombs in thirty-seven thousand air hours logged.
Garrison Keillor, writer and radio impresario, from the Los Angeles memorial for Robert Altman, DGA Theater, March 4, 2007: This was an amazing plane for a nineteen-year-old kid from Kansas City to be piloting. It had a crew of ten people, four gunners, it had the pilot, the copilot, it had the navigator and the bombardier, a flight engineer who doubled as a gunner, and it had the radioman who also doubled as a gunner. It had six people manning guns on a plane with four engines, a twin-tail plane that was stripped down to carry a maximum of fuel and bombs. It carried a bomb load of more than two tons, about five thousand pounds of bombs, flew at twenty-five-thousand feet. He told me all this, reeled off all this information about the B-24. It had a range of up to two thousand miles.
He was flying all over. And it was in the Pacific, and all of the navigation was by celestial navigation and by landmark. There was no radar on board the plane. And the navigator had been trained just as rapidly as you had been. So if you lost your way, you were in trouble rather quickly. At twenty-five-thousand feet.
I said, “Well, what is it like up there?”
He said, “It’s cold.”
It’s thirty below zero and the plane was not insulated at all. He said it was as loud as a steel foundry inside. The wind came blowing through the cracks and the gun turrets and the bomb bays. You could barely hear yourself in there. You were on headphones on the radio and you had oxygen and you were flying this thing that had the power of about ten semitruck engines and weighed about as much as one, so that you could fly at three hundred miles per hour at twenty-five thousand feet, thirty below zero.
Any crewman who flew more than thirty missions had only about a thirty percent chance of coming back. And Bob flew almost fifty.
ROBERT ALTMAN: I was stationed in the Halmahera Islands, on an island called Morotai. We flew missions over Borneo, which was a long way. It was like a six-hour flight, maybe a four-hour flight to the target, and then the time over the target was usually twenty minutes. And then back. We were just constantly hitting those oil fields in Borneo, at Balikpapan. We’d fly in echelons of six, or in threes that would come together to make a group of six or nine. Once there was a plane, and I was on its left wing. I saw it get hit—blap!—by a piece of antiair flak. The whole front of the plane just disappeared out of the air.
Flight Crew F8–360-AW 8, aka Dennison’s Dragons. In the top photo, Robert Altman is kneeling, second from right; in the bottom photo he is kneeling, second from left. In the top photo, the front row, from left, are Lester Goldschlag; Charles W. McKay, Jr.; Altman; and Dale Dennison. Behind them, from left, are John P. Lister, Jr.; Harold Nichols; William Stuckey; John Horoscbak, Jr.; William Keel; and Harold Eleson.
The flak is there and you’re there, and you can’t fly away from it. It either hits you or it doesn’t.
I don’t remember any specific feelings about dropping the bombs. I was more concerned with watching the flak, the antiaircraft stuff going on around us, than I was about what the bombs were doing. I didn’t have any ethical response to it.
JOHN HOROSCHAK, JR.: Almost every mission we had flak coming up from the targets trying to shoot us down. Also, the Japanese would fly above us and drop phosphorous bombs on the formation. Some were dropped clean and some were on parachutes. They missed us, but they hit other aircraft. There’s danger, but you live with it. You get back to the base and say, “Well, that’s one out of the way, we’ve got another mission to go.” That’s the way you looked at it.
WILLIAM STUCKEY: Bob was an excellent copilot, every bit as capable as the pilot, Dale Dennison. On some missions Bob did the takeoffs and landings and so forth. I was the nose-turret gunner, and he was sort of in charge of me. He’d get on the intercom and tell me that we had aircraft coming at us and keep an eye out but don’t fire. More than once they were Navy aircraft flying around someplace. We didn’t want to entertain them.
JOHN HOROSCHAK, JR.: Our pilot was like an old man. Even after the war he wasn’t friendly.
Bob actually saw himself more as a fighter pilot—he liked the excitement of a fighter plane. He was not happy about becoming a copilot of a big bomber. In a fighter plane, he’s all alone. His personality was more suited to that. But he was a good B-24 pilot, too.
DALE DENNISON (pilot): Yeah, I knew him. He was a good pilot. That’s all.
Entry in wartime diary of John Horoschak, Jr., June 8, 1945: Took off at 0740 for Balikpapan. Took a cameraman. Put on my flak suit and broke my oxygen bottle. Cameraman was hit in shoulder by flak. [Waist gunner William] Keel was hit on his shoe. I stood still and watched flak bursts all around us—black and all colors—sounded like buckshot. Pilot’s windshield was blown out and left landing gear was shot out. Big flak hole on right vertical stabilizer.
JOHN HOROSCHAK, JR.: That entry is from a mission to Balikpapan, over in Borneo. It was an oil-refinery center—very big among the Japanese as a source of fuel for their boats and their planes. The Japanese didn’t have the sophistication that we did with antiaircraft guns. They had maybe four or five batteries of aircraft guns, and each one would fire at a different altitude, with a different color. It was like a big cloud of bombs—blue smoke at one level, red at another altitude, orange, and so on. They’d have guys on the ground with binoculars. When they found out which was the right altitude, which color was closest to our plane, all the other batteries would go to the same altitude. Depending on how long it took to get there, most of the time we could get the hell out of there, but not always. That’s what happened on this mission.
The windshield on Bob’s side, the right side, got hit with shrapnel. It ran up the side of his arm. There was shrapnel flying all over the place. It tore his flying suit off on the left-hand side. Gave him a gash on the side of his arm—he was hurt, but not that bad. He wrapped it in white cloth and came back to see how the fellas in the back were doing. We had a photographer on that mission, and he was hit. He went out like a light.
WILLIAM STUCKEY: The waist gunner, Bill Keel, got on the pipe and said, “I’ve been hit. I’ve been hit.” But he wasn’t hit—it was just the heel was taken off his shoe. Flak came through and took the heel off his shoe and ended up in the photographer’s shoulder.
JOHN HOROSCHAK, JR.: We were up at twenty-six thousand feet—it was cold as anything. We took our jackets off and gave him whatever blankets we had. We were able to put the intravenous solution in him to try to take away his nerves, to calm his nerves down.
To make it back we had to strip the plane of all the heavy items. We lost an engine, so we were running on three engines. We lost fuel, too. We took all of the guns out of the turrets and tossed them overboard. Any bombs we still had, we dropped. We dropped the bombs over neuterritory over the island of Borneo—we let the bombing wire go with them, so they wouldn’t explode. We made it back and landed, with ambulances and fire trucks all around, and we found something like twenty-seven holes in the plane.
WILLIAM STUCKEY: There were thirty-two holes in the ship. We lost one engine. I didn’t know we took so many hits until we got down on the ground, back at base. We were a lucky crew.
JOHN HOROSCHAK, JR.: They covered all the holes with pieces of aluminum. You pop some rivets in there. The crew that took that plane up next, they got as far as the northern part of Borneo. It started to vibrate terribly, and they crash-landed on the island and everyone died.
JOAN ALTMAN SARAFIAN: A friend of Bob’s, a man that he knew in the Air Force, came over to visit and to pay his condolences to Mother and Dad. Well, they hadn’t heard anything, and I don’t know if Bob ever told them anything about getting hurt. But B.C. found out he wasn’t dead.
ROBERT ALTMAN: There were more good experiences than bad. I’m talking about setting up an officers’ club on Morotai, and I remember doing the paintings on the windows. We’d get Australian girls and invite them to party. The whole idea of setting up this officers’ club was so we could have a reason to attract these Aussie women in there. It worked pretty good.
Entry in wartime diary of John Horoschak, Jr., June 9–13, 1945: Altman came to visit us every night and drink beer.
* * *
JOHN HOROSCHAK, JR.: Bob wasn’t like the other officers. He was friendly. He’d introduce us to girls. He was a good friend. The Australian Army occupied Morotai. Bob and another officer, Lester Gold-schlag, got familiar with a couple of the Australian nurses and they invited me over there to that side of the island. There was a beach. They bought a package of beer. So they introduced me to this girl. This girl and I made out good. We were up in the coconut grove at the beach.
Bob got hell from the pilot, Dennison, for that kind of thing. The pilot made sure he was the boss. The copilot—that’s Bob—he’s got to be the boss, too, so Dennison didn’t like when Bob spent time with us. After a mission, we’d go play cards at the officers’ club. Bob would take us in. He was losing money at cards, so he’d come over to our tents and borrow money. When his father sent him money, he’d pay us back with a tip for loaning him the money. The pilot didn’t like that one bit. Dennison was going to court-martial him for borrowing money from the enlisted men. In the end it got blown over, because Bob was a pretty slick talker. He talked his way out of it.
ROBERT ALTMAN: I didn’t like the military. I didn’t like anything about it. I wasn’t a big in-line-for-promotions person. I was not interested in that. I did not try to become a successful Army person, and I’m usually interested in being successful in whatever area I’m in. But the Army was never part of that. It wasn’t anything I wanted. I didn’t want to be a major—well, I would have loved that, but only because it would have given me more girls, you know?
Dialogue from M*A*S*H:
CAPTAIN WALTER “PAINLESS POLE” WALDOWSKI (Played by John Schuck): I wasn’t gonna fool around out here, because I got these three girls I’m engaged to back home.
ROBERT ALTMAN: When I was discharged, I could go back on a ship or I could get a plane and fly back. I signed up to fly back because I wanted to be in California as fast as possible. It was five days to fly back, so I took five pair of pants, five shirts, five pair of socks, and my flight suit. At each stop I’d take a shower and throw those clothes away. When I landed in Sacramento, that was it, I was out. I didn’t even have a bag to carry.
Undated letter from General George C. Kenney to Bernard C. Altman: Recently your son, Robert B. Altman, was decorated with the Air Medal. It was an award made in recognition of courageous service to his combat organization, his fellow American airmen, his country, his home, and to you. … Your son took part in sustained operational flight missions during which hostile contact was probable and expected. These operations, consisting of bombing missions against enemy airdromes and installations as well as attacks on naval and cargo vessels, aided considerably in the recent successes in this theater. … I would like to tell you how genuinely proud I am to have men such as your son in my command, and how gratified I am to know that young Americans with such courage and resourcefulness are fighting our country’s battle against the Japanese aggressors. You, Mr. Altman, have every reason to share that pride and gratification.
BOB BALABAN (actor/producer/director): Bob told a great story. When he was a pilot he wasn’t at all scared when he thought he was going to die. But when he realized he was going to live, he really had to work on it. He was like, “Oh shit, I have a chance. I really better be good now.”
Garrison Keillor, from the Los Angeles memorial for Robert Altman, DGA Theater, March 4, 2007: Nineteen, twenty years old in the Pacific. When you have done that at the age of nineteen or twenty you really have crossed a bridge. You really have left your youth in Kansas City behind you. And that’s how you get the chance to die old and beloved and distinguished in California, is by being extremely lucky when you are nineteen and twenty. He really was a man who believed in his luck. When you’ve flown fifty missions in a B-24 Liberator bomber over the Pacific, what’s the worst they can do to you in the movie business? Nothing. Nothing whatsoever. So that was Bob’s life.
With his parents, in California, in his uniform
* * *
JOHN HOROSCHAK, JR.: After the war, Bob got the plane to fly over the ranch where his mother and father lived, and we were just throwing toilet paper out the plane at the ranch.
ROBERT ALTMAN: When we came back, we were able to get medals, these ribbons. You had a list of things that you had earned—so many service, so many good conduct, this and that. I remember going immediately to a store in Los Angeles that sold those medals. I’m sure I wore those things once or twice, but I got out of that uniform pretty fast.
BARBARA ALTMAN HODES: The first night Bob came home, Joan and I doubled up in the other bedroom. All of a sudden we hear this “HA! HA!” And my God, I’m grabbing Joan. I hear Dad: “You’re all right! You’re all right!” Mother said, “Oh my God!” We went down the hall and Bob’s up on the bed like an ape. He was in a nightmare, you know, and he did that almost every night automatically. He had these horrible, horrible nightmares. Dad would try to wake him up and Mother says, “My God, he’ll kill you!” Bob’s swinging at everything. That was the only change in him after the war—at night. In the daytime he was great, no problem at all. But the nightmares went on for two or three months.
* * *
JERRY WALSH (friend/lawyer/executor): In 1986 or ’87, I read an interesting novel called Paper Doll by a young writer named Jim Shepard about the crew of a B-17 bomber that was bombing Germany from a base in England in 1943 or 1944. Knowing that Bob had flown a heavy bomber during the war, I sent him a copy and suggested he might like it. About a week later, he called me full of enthusiasm about the book: “That kid must have known someone who was there because there are so many things in the book that are exactly what I remember. The way the ten crew members, instead of being buddies and teammates, just hated each other. And the way it felt when all the fifty-caliber machine guns were firing at the same time—you were afraid the plane was going to shake to pieces.”
JIM SHEPARD (author): I had been out walking the dog. A friend of mine was staying with me at the time, and when I got back he said, “Robert Altman called.” I didn’t believe him. There was a callback number, and I called back skeptically and it was, I think, his New York studios. He kept me on the phone for about forty-five minutes. He just rhapsodized about how accurate he thought the book was. He said, “I don’t understand to Christ how you did it.” He talked about how it felt viscerally to have these things flying at you at such speeds, and the balance of invincibility and vulnerability you felt. You felt like you were depending on a large group of people and you felt completely alone, isolated in your little station.
I teased him, naturally, about turning it into a film. He said, “I can’t get something simple off the ground, much less something that requires a thousand-plane raid. Goddammit, if I ever got three or four dollars together I am going to try to make this movie.” The book was published in ’86, so it was probably in early ’87. I kept fantasizing that he would call back after The Player. We never spoke again.
FRANK W. BARHYDT: You couldn’t really drag things out of Bob. If he wanted to talk about something, he’d talk about it, but otherwise you couldn’t really engage him on that subject. The war was like that. He’d never see any of those guys he served with, never went back to meet with them again. But all that he saw and all that he experienced, and how long past the longevity of an average pilot he lived, all that had an effect on him. It had a lot to do with how he lived his life.
ROBERT ALTMAN: If we keep talking about the metaphor of the river, this is the part where a bunch of natives on the edge of the bank are shooting and throwing darts at you. You say, “Well, I’m glad we’re past this part.”