Beirne Lay, Jr.: Author, aviation writer, Hollywood screenwriter, and combat veteran of World War II (1909 - 1982) | Biography
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Beirne Lay, Jr.
Author, aviation writer, Hollywood screenwriter, and combat veteran of World War II

Beirne Lay, Jr.

Beirne Lay, Jr.
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro Author, aviation writer, Hollywood screenwriter, and combat veteran of World War II
Was Writer Screenwriter Novelist Autobiographer
From United States of America
Field Film, TV, Stage & Radio Literature
Gender male
Birth 1 September 1909, Berkeley Springs, West Virginia
Death 26 May 1982, Westwood (aged 72 years)
The details (from wikipedia)


Beirne Lay, Jr., (September 1, 1909 - May 26, 1982) was an American author, aviation writer, Hollywood screenwriter, and combat veteran of World War II with the U.S. Army Air Forces. He is best known for his collaboration with Sy Bartlett in authoring the novel Twelve O'Clock High and adapting it into a major film.

Early life

Born September 1, 1909, in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, Lay attended St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, and Yale University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 1931. As an undergraduate he boxed and rowed.

Early military career

Lay enlisted in the United States Army in July 1932 and began pilot training at Randolph Field, Texas. In June 1933 he earned his pilot's wings and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve at Kelly Field, Texas. He was assigned to the 20th Bombardment Squadron at Langley Field, Virginia, flying the Keystone B-6 and Curtiss B-2 Condor bombers. In February and March 1934, he was part of the Army Air Corps unit delivering U.S. mail during the Air Mail scandal, flying the Chicago-to-Nashville route. The operation was unsuccessful, marred by several fatal accidents in which the Air Corps took the brunt of public blame. Upset by what he viewed as the injustice of the criticism, Lay began his writing career while still on active duty by submitting rebuttal articles and pieces on aviation in general, published in The Sportsman Pilot, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, Today, and Harper's. In November 1935 he left active duty but remained a Reserve officer, promoted to 1st lieutenant on August 16, 1936.

Return to civilian life

Lay went to work for The Sportsman Pilot and became its Managing Editor. In 1936 he began writing an autobiographical book about his experiences in pilot training titled I Wanted Wings, published by Harper Brothers in 1937. He was approached by Hollywood producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. to sell the film rights to Paramount Pictures and to write the screenplay for a film adaptation. Lay agreed and worked three years on the project, but the final product was largely the result of re-writes by a team of screenwriters brought into the project. During this time he met and married Philippa Ludwell Lee, and made the acquaintance of Capt. Frank A. Armstrong at Barksdale Field, Louisiana, where Armstrong commanded the 13th Bomb Squadron.

World War II service

Lay returned to active duty at his own request just after the outbreak of World War II in 1939, as a flying instructor in Chino, California. The publication of I Wanted Wings brought Lay to the attention of the staff of Army Air Forces Col. Ira Eaker, chief of the Air Corps Information Division and himself a writer. After meeting Lt. Lay, Eaker arranged his transfer to Headquarters USAAC in Washington, D.C. in early 1940. There, promoted to captain, he worked primarily as a speechwriter for General Henry H. Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Corps.

In January 1942 Eaker was made brigadier general and was deployed to England to create what would become the Eighth Air Force. Lay was made part of Eaker's staff cadre, as Eighth Air Force Historian and Film Unit commander. In the first half of 1943, he commanded Hollywood director William Wyler (then a Major) while Wyler and his team were in England making the promotional movie Memphis Belle. Lay was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and in August 1943 he was granted permission to obtain combat experience in preparation for possible command of a combat unit. During that month he flew five missions with the 100th Bomb Group, a B-17 Flying Fortress unit stationed at RAF Thorpe Abbotts, including the Regensburg portion of the costly Schweinfurt-Regensburg mission, which he flew as a co-pilot. Lay wrote a detailed critique of the mission for Brig. Gen. Curtis LeMay and used much of the content in an article entitled "I Saw Regensburg Destroyed", which appeared in the November 6, 1943, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. The same material also became a chapter in Twelve O'Clock High.

Lay was then returned to the United States, where he was assigned to a B-24 Liberator unit undergoing group training at Salt Lake City, Utah, the 490th Bombardment Group. On February 28, 1944, he was given command of the 487th Bombardment Group at Alamogordo, New Mexico, which he took overseas to Lavenham, England, in April.

On May 11, 1944, Lt.Col. Lay led his group to Troyes, France, on its fourth combat mission. His group encountered heavy flak near Ch√Ęteaudun, the location of a Luftwaffe fighter airfield, and both Lay's B-24 and that of his deputy commander were shot down. Lay parachuted from his aircraft near Coulonges-les-Sablons and was hidden by members of the French Resistance. As news of the Allied approach following D-Day reached Lay, he decided to attempt to join up with the Allied advance units. Lay did this without being shot by his own side and returned successfully to England in August. Lay was prohibited from further combat because of his knowledge of underground activities. From this experience he authored a second book, published by Harper Brothers in 1945, I've Had It: The Survival of a Bomb Group Commander, which was re-issued in 1980 by Dodd, Mead and Company under a new title, Presumed Dead. Lay also wrote an episode for the television series Combat! entitled: "The Milk Run", which would appear to be loosely based on his own experiences.

Second return to civilian life

Lay returned to Hollywood after the war. He was working there in 1946 when he was approached by Sy Bartlett, another Eighth Air Force veteran, to collaborate on the novel-screenplay project which became Twelve O'Clock High, published in 1948 and released in 1949, respectively. Lay continued as a colonel in the Air Force Reserve and with fellow reservist James Stewart approached Paramount with a concept for the film Strategic Air Command.

Lay continued as a screenwriter for movies and television during the 1960s, while in the employ of Networks Electronics Corporation in Chatsworth, California as Vice President. In the mid 1960s, he was joined by Gale Cleven who joined the company as Senior Vice President, and a year later by General Curtis LeMay. He retired in Westwood, Los Angeles, California, where he died on May 26, 1982, of cancer. He was survived by his wife and two daughters, Philippa Ludwell Lay and Frances Custis Lay.

Published works

Screenwriting credits

  • Twelve O'Clock High (1964) (TV Series, episode) screenwriter
  • The Young and The Brave (1963) screenwriter, actor
  • The Gallant Hours (1960) screenwriter
  • Men into Space (1959) (TV Series) screenwriter
  • The Lieutenant (1963) (TV series) 2 episodes
  • The Silent Service (1957) (TV Series, episodes "Tirante Plays a Hunch" and "Two Davids and Goliath") screenwriter
  • Toward the Unknown (1956) screenwriter, associate producer
  • Strategic Air Command (1955) screenwriter
  • Above and Beyond (1952) screenwriter
  • Flying Leathernecks (1951) screenwriter (uncredited)
  • Twelve O'Clock High (1949) screenwriter
  • I Wanted Wings (1941) screenwriter


  • I Wanted Wings (1937)
  • I've Had It - The Survival of a Bomb Group Commander (1945)
  • Twelve O'Clock High (with Sy Bartlett)(1948)
  • Someone Has to Make it Happen - The Inside Story of Tex Thornton, The Man Who Built Litton Industries (1969)
  • Earthbound Astronauts - The Builders of Apollo-Saturn (1971)

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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