This film is used by the U.S. Navy as an example of leadership styles in its Leadership and Management Training School. The Air Force's College for Enlisted Professional Military Education also uses this film as a education aid in its Noncommissioned Officer Academies. The film has also been used for leadership training in civilian non-military seminars.
The B-17 bomber crash landing at the airstrip near the beginning of the movie was no special effect. Stunt pilot Paul Mantz was paid $4,500 to crash-land the bomber. Mantz of course walked away from the wreck. Until the 1970s, that was the largest amount ever paid to a stuntman for a single stunt.
In addition to Gen. Savage (inspired by Gen. Frank Armstrong), many characters in this film were based on real-life people. Maj. Gen. Pat Prichard (played by Millard Mitchell) is based on Maj. Gen. Ira C. Eaker, first commander of the 8th Bomber Command. Col. Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill) is based on Col. Charles B. Overacker, first commander of the 306th Bomb Group. Lt. Jessie Bishop (Robert Patten) is based on Lt. John Morgan, a B-17 co-pilot who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for landing his plane after his pilot was severely wounded during a bombing run. Maj. Joe Cobb (John Kellogg) is based on Maj. (later Col.) Paul Tibbets, who later became famous as the pilot of the B-29 "Enola Gay" which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945 (Tibbets himself served as a technical advisor for this movie). Sgt. McIlhenny (Robert Arthur) is based on Sgt. Donald Bevan, who was shot down over Germany in 1943 and became a POW. Bevan later co-wrote the play Stalag 17 (1953), with fellow POW Edmund Trzcinski, based on their prison camp experiences.
A replica of the 918th Bomb Group's Robin Hood toby mug is in use by the Officer's club at Whiteman AFB, Missouri, home of the 509th Bomber Wing. The real movie prop mug, which was the prized possession of the Frank Armstrong family, fell victim to theft in the early 90s and has not been seen since. The replica mugs are still in production and available from 918thpx.com.
The film's dedication states: "This motion picture is dedicated to those Americans, both living and dead, whose gallant effort made possible daylight precision bombing. They were the only Americans fighting in Europe in the fall of 1942. They stood alone, against the enemy and against doubts from home and abroad. This is their story."
"Twelve O'Clock High" is an example of a pilot's enemy position call. During World War II pilots would call-out the positions of enemy airplanes by referring to their bearings via the use of a pretend face of a clock. In this case, 12 O'Clock meant the enemy was directly ahead, whereas 6 O'Clock would mean directly behind. "High" or "Low" referred to whether the enemy was above or below the airplane respectively. "Even" meant that the enemy was level with the pilot's plane.
The film was delayed in its release because MGM's Command Decision (1948) beat them to the punch. The similarity in content between the two films forced 20th Century Fox to hold back on "Twelve O'Clock High" for a few months.
The 306th Bomb Group, on which the fictional 918th is based, was the first USAAF group to strike Germany during World War II. This occurred on 27 January, 1943. The target was the battleship Admiral Scheer in the harbor of Wilhelmshaven. Colonel Frank Armstrong, on whom the character of General Savage is based, was in the lead plane on that mission. The lead bombardier was Lt. Frank Yaussi.
When General Savage (Peck) gets back from his last mission, the one before he cracks up, he's in his room with Col Davenport (Merrill), Gately (Marlowe) and a drunk Col. Stovall (Jagger). Davenport asks Savage if he knows that the "Old Man" went along on the just finished mission. After Savage tells him he didn't know, Davenport continues "He slipped into Curt May's plane." During the time period when this movie takes place, Major Curtis LeMay (later General) was flying bombing missions as commander of a B-17 Flying Fortress unit, the 305th Bomb Group, which was part of the Eighth Air Force.
The Robin Hood Toby mug prop can be spotted in the background in a scene from the 20th Century Fox movie Valley of the Dolls (1967). It's sitting on a wire-frame shelving unit in one of the "Dolls" apartments.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
While the character of Medal of Honor recipient Lieutenant Jesse Bishop is shot down and presumed to have been killed in action, the real-life Medal of Honor recipient on whom he was based, Lieutenant John C. Morgan, survived being shot down and spent the rest of World War II as a Prisoner of War. After returning to civilian life, he was recalled to active duty during the Korean War.