The real-life story of Navy Pilot Spig Wead
adapted for the screen
What begins as a forgiving and happy reunion when Spig returns on leave is the prelude to a tragedy that would change their lives forever. Spig falls down a flight of stairs and suffers back injuries that render him a cripple. Not wanting to burden Min, instead of drawing her to him...he sends her away; determined to fight his way back to some kind of independence. Dan Dailey plays his sidekick who is largely instrumental in motivating Spig in physical rehabilitation, and also encourages his writing. Spig has some moderate success in writing stories and then moves in to become a successful playright and eventually a screenwriter. His background in the Navy gives him fantastic first hand knowledge of storylines and facts. Shortly after Spig sent her away, Min moved away to San Francisco and makes a new life for herself and their daughters. They never divorce but simply go their own way; both still very much in love, but neither willing to bend to their true feelings. Spig is able to send his daughters to college and then realizes he is long overdue in seeking a reconcilliation with his estranged wife. He calls on her. As he stands before her on his crutches, she sees the man she has always loved, and he sees his beautiful Min. After a very dramatic scene Min agrees to return to Spig, and he returns to his home in California, happily preparing for the arrival of his wife, when news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor reaches him. The plans are then changed, and the photo below is the conversation as Spig tells her he must go back to the Navy to help in any way he can.
The plans remain on hold until a Spig finally does return after valiantly serving aboard an aircraft carrier as a military strategist. The movie does not show any further reunion, but we like to feel that Min is there, waiting for him.
is a rare photo, a gift to me from the son of the Navy Photographer
who photographed this famous group. It is not to be copied
for reproduction on any other site with our my express permission)
-MISS NAVAL AVIATION OF 1957-
This is an excerpt from a fan club journal – Spring 1957, Volume 3 - #1. This appears to be a narrative chronicle of some of the promotional appearances Maureen made upon the release of “Wings of Eagles”. Though it had to be quite an experience being shown about Naval ships, it also sounded like an exhausting tour. Another side of some of the promotional duties of being a movie celebrity. In checking through the journal I can find no source for the narrative, so just enjoy, and excuse my typos. It was a rather long epistle.
Maureen O’Hara is a well traveled lady, and also a well titled one.
In February she visited Navy installations and ships to help promote her new picture, “The Wings of Eagles” the life story of Frank Wead, a pioneer of carrier aviation.
Her promotion tour started early in February, when she visited the yearly convention of Naval Aviation Cadet recruiting officers at the Lafayette Hotel in Long Beach, Calif. They named her “Miss Naval Aviation of 1957.” She was honored at a banquet, which concluded the convention of 200 naval aviation cadet procurement officers. The Irish are in the majority, as they should be on St. Patrick’s Day. From Grosse Ile Naval Air Station, Comm. Dwight D. Long, Jr., and Lt. Thomas Kelley flew to Hollywood to decorate Maureen with this honor.
Next, the U.S.S. Lexington welcome aboard their honored guests in the form of Maureen O’Hara, Dan Dailey, Director John Ford, Ward Bond, Eddie Mannix, an MGM studio executive, and pretty Janet Lake, who portrays a nurse in a hospital sequence of the movie. The party was divided in small groups and taken on a tour by officers of the massive ship.
Following the tour, an excellent dinner was served in the wardroom of the Officer’s Mess. Immediately following that, Capt. J.W. Gannon, commanding officer, made the welcoming speech, then introduced George Murphy, of MGM, who presented the various celebrities.
At an invitation from Maureen for “just one seaman to come to the microphone, Charlie Santini, of Yuma Arizona, crawled over his buddies from the middle of a row of seats, and rushed to Maureen’s open arms for what she termed as “an Irish kiss.” It was quite lengthy and ardent and Charlie’s cheeks were as red as Maureen’s hair.
(Editor’s note: Upon transcribing this information I took a chance of checking to see if Charlie Santini was still in Yuma and would you believe he is? I had a lovely chat with the 60-year-old Charlie and he told me again about that special Irish kiss he received from Maureen. He was absolutely delightful, and a little shy about it all even now, but he said it certainly brought him fame among his peers. He was 18 at the time. JB)
Three special guests were Mrs. Lila Berman, daughter of the late Cmdr. Frank W. “Spig” Wead; and her two children, John, 13, and Maria, 12.
Director John Ford (rear admiral, USNR) made brief speech and told of the authentic treatment of “Spig “ Wead’s life and what he meant to the Navy and as a writer of many great naval and aircraft stories for the Hollywood studios.
At the film’s press preview ceremony aboard the carrier Lexington, John Ford received an Admiral’s flag from Adm. William Erdman. Maureen got some help from Cmdr. EEB Seller, Jr. executive officer of the Lexington, in trying on an apron for a short stint at mess cook duty aboard the carrier, while machinist's mate first Sgt. J.C. Jarred and FL Dodge looked on happily. Maureen actually dished out at chow time, and weren't those gobs aboard lucky, he? The sailors enjoyed the film premier but no more than the star Maureen and she were delighted in tall sea stories they spun for her. Her presence there was something for the laddies to write home about. Maureen was moving among them so close that one fellow cracked: "“you could count the freckles on her pretty little nose."” The Navy went along with this ballyhoo because there'’ nothing like a hotshot film to put a young man in the mood to join up with an outfit that appears so glamorous on the screen. It took three days to install the apparatus used for the wide screen used aboard ship which was done for the first time. Only half the crew was able to attend the festivities because the other half had to mind the store. The rest of the crew had their night the following evening when the Lexington anchored in San Diego.
A few days later Maureen was in Atlanta, GA., officiating at the annual conference of Naval Aviation Cadet Procurement and Command Liaison Officers. There, too, she was crowned “Miss Naval Aviation of 1957.” This time by Comdr. Tom Cates and Lt. Comdr. C. G. Hathaway of the Naval Air Station in Atlanta.
Pensacola was the next stop for this red-tressed lovely. And again, she received the “Miss Naval Aviation of 1957 crown.
Shades of Hollywood were seen when Maureen and a bevy of Southern movie critics flew to Pensacola to view a special press-Navy pre-release showing of “The Wings of Eagles.” Accompanying the titian haired film star, Maureen O’Hara, was Adm. John Dale Price, USN(ret). Admiral Price flew at 2:00 PM from Glenview, Ill., where they attended a Navy-press premier. Their next stop would be Norfolk, VA.
Maureen added another title to her string when Cadet Murray presented the redheaded star with a bouquet and named her Miss Valentine of the Aviation Cadet Barracks. The film queen said there was only one way a lady could say thanks for such an honor and prompted planted a kiss on the delighted young cadet’s cheek. She gracefully accepted an arm bouquet of red roses as a momento of her Valentine honor.
Many Southern film critics flew to Pensacola via Navy plane. After their arrival at Sherman Field, the newspaper representatives were taken on a tour of the Naval Station at USS Saipan. Lt. Comdr. Max Moore of Ellyson Field pointed out interesting sights of the station, and aboard the Saipan, they were given a number of facts about the carrier training of naval aviators.
I also recall Maureen mentioning that filming in Pensacola was not an
task because of the frequent noise of the jets taking off from the
base. Quite a contrast to Duke Wayne down on the ground doing a
about trying to take off in a 1920’s model airplane.
Letter from a fan:
I greatly enjoyed your web page on Wings of Eagles. I was a radar officer on the USS Philippine Sea in 1956 when the final scenes of the movie were shot on our ship. It was confusing with all the fake Naval Brass all over the ship. When John Wayne was to be transferred to the destroyer I was on watch in CIC. John Ford thought it wouldn't look like the destroyer was underway unless black smoke was pouring out of its stack. The bridge asked me to tell them to make smoke. They were being chicken because they knew the destroyer would hate it. It would be the last thing a ship would do in a war zone and it is very unseamanlike. Of course I did as I was told, over the CInet, not normally used for steaming instructions. In the movie it looks like they are burning mattresses or old tires.
The hull number of the destroyer is not visible in the movie, which I have. Maybe they were hiding their identity. I would like to know which destroyer it was, name or number. Would you have any idea where I might find out?
By the way, Dan Dailey lived in Topeka for a while for some treatment and attended Washburn University for a class or two. I never met him but have friends who did.
©June Parker Beck, August 1998 (copyright)