American Heroes: James Maitland Stewart
Imagine that you are a Hollywood star and have been awarded an Oscar for best actor in a motion picture. The year before the Oscar award you had the lead role in a film that won an Oscar for best picture. You're hot, your star is rising and you are commanding more money per picture than most people will earn in a lifetime of working. Writers are bombarding you with scripts and the world is at your feet, so what is the next step in a promising career such as this?
You take your credentials, which include a college degree from Princeton, and go downtown to enlist as a private in the United States Army.
In 1940, with war raging in Europe and more than a year before the USA would enter the conflict, the beloved actor Jimmy Stewart, at the age of thirty-two, was convinced that the world war would come to America's doorstep and he felt compelled to enter into the service of his country. But he was turned away because he was too skinny. Not to be denied, he went on a daily diet of spaghetti, supplemented with steaks and milkshakes, and months later went back to the recruiter. During his physical exam it was determined that his weight in proportion to his height was still insufficient, but he convinced the examining physician to pad the score a tad. He wanted to serve that badly.
Stewart was accepted into the service and in March 1941 became Private Stewart. His salary at MGM had been $12,000 per week. The U.S. Army inducted him at $21 per month. And because he was a man of his word, he dutifully sent his Hollywood agent the contractual ten percent of his salary: $2.10 of his monthly pay (you gotta love the man for that!).
He completed basic and months later was commissioned as a lieutenant. In 1942 he appeared at the Academy Awards in uniform to present the Best Actor award to Gary Cooper for the war movie Sergeant York (no, he didn't slap anyone).
Stewart had experience flying airplanes (licensed pre-war as a multi-engine commercial pilot) and requested additional flight training. He got his wish, first becoming a flight instructor in Curtiss AT-9s in California, and then getting orders to Kirkland Field (now Kirkland AFB in Albuquerque) where he spent six months in bombardier school; after that he requested flight training at the four-engine bomber school in Hobbs, NM. After completing that he was sent to Boise, ID, where he became a flight instructor for the 29th Bombardment Group on the operations of the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator bombers. But he was bored with flight instructor duties and wanted to get into the war. He got his wish and was sent to Iowa to the 703rd Squadron, 445th Bomber Group. He became to squadron commander and in November 1943 was sent to war.
His squadron traveled to England via Florida, Brazil, Senegal and Morocco (the east coast of Brazil and the west coast of Africa are fairly close, but why that route instead of directly up through Canada? Winter weather. Today's jets fly at altitudes well above the North Atlantic's meteorologic and atmospheric tantrums, but in the 1940s southern routes were the order of the day for wintertime flights to Europe). Assigned to the 8th Air Force squadrons at Tibenham, he flew twenty bombing missions in a B-24 over the next several months. He was a popular officer because he was cool-headed, cared for his men and never asked them to do anything he wasn't willing to do himself. One anecdote entails how a keg of beer went missing on base and he walked into a barracks where it was covered by a blanket with his men around it. He flipped the blanket back, poured himself a beer, told his men that a keg had gone missing and if it was found those responsible would be disciplined, finished his beer and walked out.
He had his downtime. Trips to fellow actor David Niven's house on occasion, sailing when time allowed, or entertaining a dignitary who wanted to meet the famous movie star. But his time and focus were primarily on the mission at hand, the bombing of German factories, and doing his best to get his men back alive each time (my father's brother was a tail gunner on a B-17 and had the greatest admiration and respect for his pilot even decades after the war). Half of the U.S. Army Air Force's casualties in WWII were suffered by the 8th Air Force in England (more than 47,000 casualties, with over 26,000 dead).
After completing twenty bombing missions, Stewart was transferred and made the operations officer of a different squadron in another part of England. When he arrived there piloting a B-24 he reportedly buzzed the tower until the controllers abandoned it in fear for their safety. He also flew eleven more combat missions as a copilot for aircrews who did not have a permanently assigned one. He finished the war as a colonel and returned to Hollywood. He also stayed in the Air Force reserves and eventually retired as a brigadier general.
He refused a lavish welcome home party, stating that thousands of men in uniform did far more meaningful things. He also had a clause in all of his movie contracts that his war record could not be used in any films. In 1966 he made one more combat flight, as a pilot/observer on a B-52 bombing run over North Vietnam. The following year his stepson, a Marine officer, died in an ambush.
Later in life he stated in an interview that he thought about World War Two almost every day, and that it had been the greatest experience of his life. Asked by the interviewer if it had been greater than being in films, he responded, "Much greater."
James Maitland Stewart was a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, multiple Air Medals, and the French Croix de Guerre. He followed a long tradition of family who had served America beginning with the Revolutionary War through the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and World War I.