One hundred years ago today, a son was born to a hardware store owner and his wife in Indiana, Pennsylvania. He was a shy young man who spent much of his spare time working on model airplanes and mechanical drawing, hoping for a career in aviation. That dream was deferred when the father insisted his son attend Princeton, rather than the Naval Academy. He earned an architecture degree in college, but decided to try acting after graduation.
It proved to be a fortuitous choice. The young man was named Jimmy Stewart and the rest, as they say, is history. Well, almost.
Mr. Stewart is rightly remembered as a screen icon—one of the finest actors of Hollywood’s “Golden Age.” By its calculations, the American Film Institute (AFI), determined that Stewart is the “third greatest” male film star of all time, trailing only Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant.
And that ranking is certainly deserved. With masterful performances in such classic films as The Philadelphia Story; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; It’s a Wonderful Life, Rope, The Rear Window, Vertigo, How the West Was Won, Anatomy of a Murder and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Stewart excelled in a variety of genres, ranging from screwball comedies and westerns, to psychological thrillers.
But, on the centennial of his birth, Jimmy Stewart should also be remembered for his “other” career, the one he was reportedly most proud of. Stewart served as a bomber pilot during World War II, and remained in the Air Force Reserve until 1968, retiring as a brigadier general. While Stewart’s military career is certainly well-known, few understand the effort he made to serve his country in uniform.
Initially drafted by the Army Air Corps in 1940, Stewart was rejected for being underweight. When he enlisted as a Private a year later, he faced the same problem. He worked with MGM’s head trainer to add five pounds to his frame, but Air Corps doctors determined he was still below the 148 pound minimum for someone of his height (6’3”). Stewart convinced them to run the weight test again and he barely passed.
With his enlistment in March 1941, Stewart became the first American movie star to enter the U.S. military during World War II, though the attack on Pearl Harbor was still nine months away. Too old for the aviation candidate program, the 32-year-old Stewart still earned his commission as a lieutenant (and pilot’s wings) by early 1942.
Downplaying his extensive experience as a civilian pilot—Stewart earned a commercial pilot rating before entering the military—he feared that the military would put him in a training unit, rather than a combat assignment. And sure enough, the Army did just that, making Stewart a B-17 instructor pilot at a base in New Mexico.
Determined to serve in an operational unit, Stewart finally wrangled a transfer to the 445th Bomb Group, which was equipped with B-24 Liberators. He joined the group in August 1943 and deployed to England in December of that year. By early 1944, Stewart was flying combat missions as commander of the 703rd Bombardment Squadron. Promoted to Major, the film star was received a new assignment: operations officer for the 453rd Bombardment Group, a new B-24 unit that was experiencing operational and morale problems.
To motivate his crews, Stewart volunteered to fly additional missions over enemy territory. The number he flew with the 453rd is unknown; at Stewart’s request, those flights were never counted towards the 35 needed to complete his combat tour. Officially, Stewart is credited with 20 combat missions, all flown with the 445th. As a pilot, reports historian Donald Miller, Stewart never lost a man to hostile fire or mental breakdown. He was widely regarded as one of the best squadron commanders in 8th Air Force, the U.S. heavy bomber command that operated from England during World War II.
Jimmy Stewart’s combat service coincided with some of the most vicious air battles of World War II. His early missions were part of a campaign called The Big Week, aimed at breaking the back of the German Luftwaffe. The Big Week produced some of the heaviest casualties (among bomber crews) since the disasters at Schweinfurt and Ploesti in mid-1943.
It was a brutal introduction to combat, but Stewart and his fellow crew members met the challenge. The 445th won a unit citation for its efforts during a “Big Week” raid, with Stewart receiving the first of two Distinguished Flying Crosses that he would win as a combat pilot. On the first day of the aerial blitz, Stewart managed to hold When the war ended, Stewart was a full Colonel, making him the highest-ranking actor to serve in World War II.
While he would remain active in the reserves for another 20 years, Stewart (with typical modesty) rarely spoke of his wartime exploits, in public or in private. He appeared in one TV documentary to discuss the bloody Schweinfurt raids (listed as James Stewart, Squadron Commander). When journalist Starr Smith wrote a book on the actor’s wartime service, one of Stewart’s children said that she learned a great deal from Smith’s work—because her father never discussed his military career at home.
It was consistent with Stewart’s character. Men who served with him in England described their squadron commander in the same terms as movie-goers: self-effacing, languid and unassuming. He got things done without theatrics, wrote Donald Miller, and the crews respected his leadership and authenticity. “He skipped all the milk runs,” one of his gunners told Miller. “High command didn’t like that.”
All the more reason to admire (and remember) an American hero, on the silver screen, and in the skies over Europe.