During that turbulent time in our past known as World War II, virtually all young Americans of the “greatest generation,” even the famous ones, were infused with a spirit of patriotism. For one man, that spirit was more important than his flourishing Hollywood career. His name was known all over the country, and he had just won an Academy Award. He felt the call of duty and did not wish to remain safe behind the lines. He wanted in the fight, but his celebrity status actually stood in his way. While most Americans remember him for his roles as Jefferson Smith (“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”) and George Bailey (“It’s A Wonderful Life”), it is sometimes forgotten that he had another title — that of Colonel in the United States Army Air Corps. His name was Jimmy Stewart. This is the story of his fight to serve his country.
James Maitland Stewart was born in a small town in western Pennsylvania, raised in a family with a long heritage of serving America and fighting in its wars. From his earliest days Jimmy yearned to fly, paying for his first airplane ride from his own money while in high school and hooked by the flying bug for the rest of his life. He wanted to attend the United States Naval Academy, but his father arranged for him to attend Princeton University instead. At Princeton, Jimmy became involved in acting, a talent that led him first to Broadway and later to Hollywood. Arriving in Hollywood in 1935, he established himself as a folk hero for his starring role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939. The next year he won an Academy Award for his role in The Philadelphia Story. In his time off from filming, Jimmy found time to pursue his dream of flying. This experience came as the war in Europe widened and Hitler’s war machine crushed all resistance. At night, Jimmy often listened to the CBS radio broadcast, “This…is London,” moved by the desperate struggle. British actors with whom he was friends began to take part in the war effort and inspired him to do the same.
America was not yet directly involved in the war, but Jimmy Stewart believed that it was only a matter of time. He would not wait for America in order to decide his own personal course. Like his father and grandfathers before him, Jimmy would do his part to defend American ideals and stop tyranny in its tracks. And why should he not get such an opportunity? After all, he had both a private and commercial pilot’s license with over 300 hours of flying time, more than many pilots in the Army Air Corps. He was soon to discover however that merely wanting to serve his country was not enough. He would be faced with many obstacles both prior to and following his enlistment before he reached the front lines of the war. In effect, Jimmy Stewart had to wage his own personal war to join his comrades in the struggle for freedom.
In 1940, a full year before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Jimmy Stewart committed to enlist in the United States military. It was a personal desire as well as a national responsibility, thanks to the Selective Service Act. Roadblocks began immediately. First, his preparation to register for the draft was not met with approval by the head of MGM Studio. After all, the American press and public alike adored him. MGM did not want to take a chance on losing him. Stewart was offered a number of opportunities including choice roles, contract revisions and even time off to help support the war in a civilian capacity. Nothing could entice Stewart to waiver from his commitment.
As required, he registered for the draft and was called in for his physical exam, but here was his second roadblock. He failed his physical exam when he was found to be ten pounds underweight. His plans for military service might have ended there, as his boss at MGM hoped, but Jimmy would not be deterred. Instead, he immediately chose to appeal his rejection and was ultimately accepted the second time. He was inducted into the Army Air Corps as an enlisted man a little more than eight months before Pearl Harbor, learning the finer skills of KP (kitchen patrol), drill, and guard duty. His greatest hope however was to be actively involved in combat.
After finally being accepted into and finishing his initial flight training and officer examinations, Jimmy Stewart was commissioned a second lieutenant and earned a set of pilot wings. He had taken the first step toward his ultimate goal and was ready to confront the second. He was determined to serve in combat overseas, but he was just as resolved that he would not use his stardom to pull strings. All he wanted was to be treated like any other American serviceman. At first it seemed to be going according to plan as he was assigned to training in the B-17 Flying Fortress. Completing his B-17 course in early 1943, Jimmy awaited his combat assignment, but it was not to be. Lt. Stewart was assigned as an instructor of B-17 pilots in Boise, Idaho, the only pilot in his class to receive those orders. Someone in the chain of command did not want the responsibility if he was shot down and captured or killed, and so his personnel file was given a hold order, meaning he would not be going overseas. It looked like Jimmy would spend the war in Boise.
Despite his disappointment, Jimmy settled into the task of training the new pilots. He intended to earn combat duty with his abilities, not his celebrity status or influence. He performed well in his duties and watched as his students prepared to graduate and go overseas. Jimmy was thirty-six years old, and it still looked like he was going nowhere. Then he heard a rumor that he might be reassigned to selling war bonds or making training films. Captain Jimmy Stewart could no longer passively await his assignment. For the one and only time he would ask for a favor, Jimmy went to see his commanding officer and begged for a transfer to combat duty. Understanding Stewart perfectly, his commanding officer personally arranged for Jimmy’s transfer to the 445th Bomb Group to fly the B-24 Liberator. The hold order on the personnel file was essentially ignored; no one ever discussed the matter. Soon Jimmy Stewart was on his way to England where the 445th became part of the famed Eighth Air Force.
Just as he wanted, Jimmy Stewart was now in active combat against Nazi Germany. As a squadron commander, he flew in many of the early bombing campaigns made on German cities by the 445th Bomb Group. Leading some of the most dangerous missions himself, he became popular with the individual crews and his superiors. He did not give interviews or stand aloof from his fellow warriors. He quietly went about his business. Soon he was promoted to Group operations officer and transferred to the 453rd Bomb Group. In his new position, he briefed the crews prior to each mission and gave them clear and concise instructions regarding the objective targeted for bombing and the associated threats. He would serve as the Group operations officer through the pivotal weeks leading up to and following the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day. Just after that momentous event, Jimmy transferred to the Second Combat Wing Headquarters where he served as executive officer, operations officer, chief of staff, and wing commander. It was his job as wing commander after the war to bring the flyers back to America and oversee their mustering out. He served twenty-two months in the European theatre of operations. It was then his turn to go home.
After the war ended, Jimmy Stewart returned to Hollywood to renew his acting career, beginning with It’s A Wonderful Life. He also continued his military service in the Air Force Reserves, rising to the rank of brigadier general and proudly serving over 27 years. He would occasionally return to England for reunions with his old comrades. Although Jimmy Stewart was one of the most famous of Hollywood actors, he was so much more than that. Much like the modest characters he often portrayed, in real life he was a true American hero — one who prized service to his country so much that he was willing to fight for that privilege.