CATCH 22 -- BEHIND THE CAMERA

Around the year  1960 - Joseph Heller wrote Catch 22.  I remember that I bought the book while I  was waiting in an air terminal.  I laughed uncontrollably while reading the first half of the book but when reaching the last part I could not follow it as it was drifting back and forth in fantasy dreams and seemed to have no continuity what so ever.  The catch was that Yossarian wanted to get out of the service as he finally figured it out that when he was dropping bombs  he was being shot at.He went to the doctor and told him that he was crazy and wanted a to quit flying.  The doctor told him that he was not crazy because if he asked to be grounded he was not crazy -           "THATs -- CATCH  22"   

Sometime during October, 1967,  I  received a phone call from Tallmantz Aviation, located at the Orange Co. Airport asking me if I would be interested in flying a B-25 during the filming of the movie  “Catch–22” at Guaymas, Mexico.  It did not take me too long to make up my mind as I had accumulated considerable hours of comp. time flying mostly at night while piloting the Forest Service T-29 on test missions for the Infrared detection system which was being designed by the Forest Service.  The IR mapping system allowed mapping of wild fires at night and could see  through smoke which made it a valuable tool in planning the suppression of wild fires.  Evidently Tallmantz had obtained my name from a Forest Service Pilot in southern California.  All of the pilots were assembled the first part of December 1967 and we helped with the preparation of the 16 WWII  B-25 Bombers to be used in the filming.  I helped obtain and install the radio communications equipment which had to be WWII vintage so as the aircraft would be authentic.  We ended up hiding new VHF equipment in the aircraft as the old radios were not reliable.

Finally all of the aircraft and pilots were ready.  We were able to get in a little flying time but no flying as a group.  The aircraft were painted, new decals, etc.  They really looked nice and new.  Our Squadron was a sharp looking outfit.

The “sharpness” was eroded  when we departed the Orange Co. Airport Dec. 31st, 1968.  As a group flying formation we were all over the sky – kind of scary.  We lucked out and made it to Hemosillo, Mexico where we passed through Customs.   

The Mexican Government was really concerned with the invasion of a force that  had the ability to drop bombs and a thorough inspection of the aircraft and personnel was conducted.  We were finally cleared and we proceeded to Guaymas.

 Most of the pilots had flown formation, but a long time ago.  We did look better when we arrived at the Catch 22 airport.  

The Catch 22 airport was constructed from scratch for the movie.  It is located  about 10 miles or so south of Guaymas on the coast.  It was a prime location  Beautiful beaches,  near a small mountain range – a perfect spot for a resort.  I understood that the mayor of Guaymas had purchased the land and was able to benefit considerably.  He probably was a real asset to the studio, helping cut through the red tape etc. which must have been considerable.

The studio had rented all of the rooms in a motel in Guaymas so we had a comfortable place to stay.

 It did not take long to make our presence known to the Guaymas officials.  A Lot of the crew went out and celebrated New Years Eve at the local bars, etc.  I stayed in my room, as my Spanish was not too advanced.  All I knew was “SI”  And I was smart enough to know that was not enough to keep out of trouble in a strange country.

About 0200 there was a knock on my door – it was a young pilot (we will call R) who asked if he could sleep on the floor in my room.  He was all scratched up and looked exhausted.  It seems that he was taking advantage of the services of a “Lady of the night” and he became angry about the arrangements, whereby she summoned the police who were nearby.  She told them that her client had stolen her wallet.  (He would not take the wallet!).   R took off via the rear door followed by the by the law with guns drawn.  He cleared a stonewall that must have been over 8 feet high.  (R was in top physical condition as he was just discharged from the Marine Air Corps.)  Evidently the police fired their weapons in pursuit.   R ran into the fields of brush and really marked himself up. He didn’t want to go to his room as the law might check there. The following day a couple of pilots went to the police station and monetarily took care of the situation with a warning to keep “that” pilot away from “that” section of town.  I don’t think R needed  “that” proclamation as he was adequately schooled in law enforcement procedures in Guaymas.        

 This incident was the first of many episodes that occurred by the flight crews during our over two months filming of Catch-22.  We all took a bus to and from the airport and I laughed so much that my jaws ached from the constant revelations of the flight crew antics, which were daily occurrences.  One of these episodes involved a PBY aircraft brought down by one of the pilots.  While under the condition “Bandera Roja”,  announced over the loud speakers, warning that filming was in progress,  appeared the PBY at about 500’ and one of the pilots jumped out and parachuted in the middle of the set.  This stunt really tested the patients of  Director Mike Nichols.  I was a fan of Mike Nichols – One of my favorite radio shows was “Nichols and May”.   Their type of humor was my kind of humor so I was surprised to hear that he would be the director.  We were very lucky to have him, he allowed cameras on the set,  something that I understood was very unusual in the movie business. 

  I did get in trouble with my camera – I snapped a picture of Paula Prentiss, and was later chastised for photographing her without makeup!

 When we first were bussed to the airport we found crews crawling all over our like new B-25s.  They were using sandpaper all over the new paint and dabbing oil over the surface.  When they were finished the aircraft looked worse then when they were picked up originally for the movie.

 There was a couple of Mexicans going around the aircraft and painting drawings of shapely girls and names on the ships.

My ship was “BOOBY TRAP”.  I was happy with the choice! 

The mess hall at the base was a direct copy of a WWII mess hall.  It really brought back memories of my Air Force career.   (1943 – 1946) The mess hall was authentic with bench type tables and metal trays that the military used.  It was rumored that the mess hall was contracted to a close relative of the Mayor of Guaymas.   The food was good but one got tired of beans every meal.  Steaks were served frequently and the rolls were excellent.  The food that I could not identify was avoided.

On one of my first visits to the mess hall I was looking for a place to sit and a young fellow waved at me to set next to him.  We talked for awhile when he asked what my job was.  I proudly told him I was a pilot.  I asked him and he said he was an actor, so I asked him his name.  “Jon Voight” ……   Later when I found out his importance I figured I had really goofed.  On my next trip to the mess hall Jon saw me and motioned me over to sit.  He was real nice and even obtained and gave me a script that they were using at that time.  A very nice person, Jon. 

The flight crews had sat around for 3 or 4 days and so we decided to take a short flight in order to keep sharp.  Four of the pilots and myself taxied out to the end of the runway and were sitting there waiting for clearance from the tower.   All of them were Forest Service tanker pilots that I had flown with on fires.

I was the lead aircraft in our group and when we were cleared I opened the mike and said,  “Lets all take off at the same time”.  (We usually took off in 10-second intervals)  So we took off in formation.  We flew around in formation and put on a show.  Mass takeoff is not good practice as quite-a-bit of prop wash is generated by an aircraft under full power.  Mike Nichols or somebody must have seen us as they requested that all 16 aircraft take off in formation.  We did, and I was lucky as I was third or fourth at the head of the pack so was able to handle the propwash. 

I guess that it looked great on film – they decided to shoot it again putting about four or five cameras at different angles.  One of the camera positions was on the runway directly behind the aircraft.   We took off and the camera equipment on the runway was blown all over the place.  This time I was about 11th place in the group and it was very difficult to control the aircraft in the turbulence produced by the leading aircraft.   The studio people wanted the view from the rear camera so they constructed a windbreak to place the camera behind.  We again took off in formation and we were very lucky that we could control the aircraft.

We were asked to do a mass takeoff again.  But the pilots refused, including me!  The formation takeoff was very impressive and was used at the start of the movie.   On this last mass takeoff one of the B-25s barely missed the tower, which was set close to the runway. ( See “Dannygram” – end of this blurb.)  The tower was moved farther from the runway!!

    As previously stated,  Mike Nichols was very generous with access to the set.  We were able to move around the set unimpeded.  I was fascinated with movie making, and I spent a lot of time right in the thick of things.   One of the situations that I observed was evident between Mike Nichols and Orsen Wells.   It was rumored that Orsen wanted to direct Catch 22.  I was privy to the verbal dueling between Mike and Orsen.  Orsen would suggest possible ideas, (I remember thinking – Yeh, that sounds good.) Mike would nod, but the picture was shot as Mike directed.  As I recall, the shooting schedule was halted and all of the scenes that Orsen Wells was to be in was moved up and Orsen was released.  Orsen was a domineering figure in any group of 2 or more people, a trait that no doubt greatly added to his phenomenal success.  Orsen added a great deal to the Movie Catch 22 but I understood the acceleration of his participation in the movie.

The scenes shot at the beginning had military personnel running around in the background, vehicles moving around etc.  The movie people had hired a bunch of extras for this purpose, mostly from Tucson and I believe a lot of them were college students.  All of a sudden they just vanished.  It seems that the local law was having difficulty with drug usage and other problems that accompanied this group of hundreds.  I think that the movie benefited with the extras departure.  The base was more ghost like in keeping with the book.

Being able to mill around with the cast provide interesting encounters.  I spent some time with Bob Newhart  (10 or 15 minutes) we carried on an interesting conversation.  After I left him I tried to figure what we talked about and was unable to come up with any thing that made sense.  Bob was a good addition to C-22.

Another interesting character that a group of us talked to was Jack Gilford.  He was fun to be around.  He remembered all the dialog of all the parts He ever played.  We would mention a movie or scene and he would act it out with hand motions and all.  One could tell that he was a very intelligent man and the type that spent time with us “pions”.   

While I was near the runway an Aero Commander circled and landed.  Four or five people exited and one of them was John Wayne!  I took a photo of the group from a discreet distance.  I remember thinking that I wished that I had a telephoto lens.  No one came down to greet the aircraft while I was there. 

The next morning a couple of us, after eating breakfast at the hotel in Guaymas,  ran into John Wayne while he was waiting for transportation in front of the hotel.  He was very friendly and shook our hands.  We did not realize that he was probably with pain at the time.  Later we learned that he was in the hotel bar the night before and got in a scuffle with one of our mechanics (the smallest mechanic in our group) .  He evidently slipped and fell, fracturing a couple ribs.

We got a kick out of reading in the trade magazine, that came every day and seemed to be all over the place, that John Wayne broke a couple of ribs while doing stunts in a movie that he was making down in Mexico. 

Tallmantz should be commended for the quality of maintenance that they provided.  With 16 – 30 year old aircraft, we experienced very few malfunctions.  I did blow a cylinder and had to return to the base.  It was quickly replaced by my mechanic,   Finn, whom I considered the best mechanic of the group.  I was very lucky to have him.

  The Mexican government was present every day checking the serial numbers, engines etc. to see if we were trying anything suspicious.  All the guns were wooden but we were able to drop bombs.  We did drop bombs which were plastic and filled  with sand or water.

The average day on the set consisted of standing around watching the making of a movie.  Some of us spent time playing poker.  We did a lot of talking about old flying experiences and most of the time laughing at the tales told. We averaged about 45 hours flying time during the roughly 10 weeks that we were on location which left a lot of time for extracurricular activities.  

The compensation was adequate so there were not too many complaints.

   As a result of the long period of time involved filming Catch 22 - I understand that 8 divorces occurred among the 16 pilots – yours truly contributed to this statistic.

Jack E. Bivin

If you have comments or questions about Jack's Okinawa story, you can email him at jbivin@theriver.com