The Jimmy Stewart Story Hollywood Legend, American Hero

He was a Hollywood icon, made famous by movies such as "Mr Smith Goes to Washington," "Destry Rides Again," and winning an Academy Award for "Philadelphia Story" in 1940. He was handsome, charismatic, single and in the prime of life. He dated all the leading ladies of the day--Ginger Rogers, Olivia de Havilland, Marlene Dietrich and more. By early 1941 he was already a pilot, with a commercial license. Then came war. "It may sound corny," Stewart told his friends. "But what's wrong with wanting to fight for your country? Why are people reluctant to use the word 'patriotism?'"

Jimmy Stewart as a young man. His family owned a hardware store in Indiana, Pennsylvania.

Jimmy's biggest challenge in joining the war effort was one Louis B. Meyer, the head of MGM, who held Stewart's contract. Meyer agreed to give Stewart all the time off he wanted to help the war effort as a civilian, as long as he'd continue making movies. Meyer tried everything--money, choice roles, more money--to keep Stewart out of uniform. Stewart wasn't buying it.

Jimmy Stewart being sworn in as a PFC after being drafted.

The other challenge was a bit different. Jimmy was drafted in late 1940, but failed the physical. The army rejected him because he was 10 pounds underweight. The newspapers had a field day: "Movie Hero Heavy Enough to Knock Out Villian But Too Light for Uncle Sam," screamed one headline. He had two choices: he could go back to making movies, dating hot dames, and cashing big paychecks, or he could appeal the draft board's decision. He appealed. That's right: Jimmy Stewart, Hollywood Superstar, appealed the draft board rejection so he could have a chance to fight in the war.

PFC Jimmy Stewart after his induction. One proud soldier right there.

Stewart was too old to apply for flight cadet training--he was 32--so he applied directly for training as a pilot. He was accepted and began an intense period of training and class work to earn a commission and his wings. His commission came through on January 19, 1942. Colonel Beirne Lay, himself a combat pilot, writer and movie producer, said of Stewart, "Stewart had won his commission not by pulling a string in Washington nor on the strength of civilian prominence, but by the unspectacular method of meeting the official requirements.” Stewart wouldn't have had it any other way. His first assignment was at Moffet Field near San Francisco, and Franklin Roosevelt brought him to Washington to attend balls and the March of Dimes gala in honor of Roosevelt's birthday. Not exactly what Stewart had in mind. He wanted combat duty, and checked out in B-17s at Hobbs Field in New Mexico. He graduated near the top of his class. He was on his way! Well, that's what he thought.

Jimmy Stewart and Capt. Clark Gable on leave at Chasen's restaurant, Hollywood, 1942. Gable had just completed Gunnery School and was preparing to head to Europe to make combat videos.

Stewart headed to Salt Lake and the Air Force Combat Crew Processing Center. From there, he anticipated an assignment to a bomb group. (It was during this time that Stewart first heard the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which he would direct later in his life in the short film "Mr. Kruegar's Christmas.") Stewart's class graduated in February, 1943, and 29 of the 30 pilots received posting to bomb groups heading overseas. The exception was Jimmy Stewart, who was sent to Boise as a B-17 instructor pilot. There, he was classified as "static personnel," which meant no overseas assignment for Stewart.

The crew of the B-17 "Yankee Doodle," who trained at Gowen around the time Stewart was there.

One night in the winter of '43 actress Barbara Stanwyck and her husband Robert Taylor joined Jimmy in Boise for a night of bowling. One of Stewart's fellow instructor pilots wrote in a letter home, "Barbara is quite a chick...and a good bowler, too."

Barbara Stanwyck dances with Jimmy Stewart in 1939. Four years later they'd meet again at a bowling alley in Boise, Idaho where Jimmy was training B-17 pilots.

Jimmy called his time at Boise the "most oppressive, strenuous and confounding time" of his life. It wasn't Boise--it was the fact that others were fighting a war he felt was his to fight. The humble Stewart refused to use his celebrity to wrangle himself a combat slot, preferring instead to do his assigned job to the best of his ability. Then the rumor came that Stewart was to be taken off flying status and relegated to making training films. For Jimmy, that was the last straw. For the only time in his career, and against a personal resolution he'd made never to ask for a favor, Stewart went to his commanding officer, Colonel Pop Arnold, and requested a combat assignment.

Colonel Walter "Pop" Arnold, who granted Jimmy Stewart's request for a combat assignment.

Stewart's request was simple. He'd been working hard, doing a good job, had instructor experience and four engine experience. He desperately wanted a combat assignment. Arnold knew through the grapevine that Colonel Bob Terrill, in the final stages of combat training as CO of the 445th BG at Souix City, Iowa, was looking for a squadron operations officer for his 703rd bomb squadron. He picked up the phone, and within hours Jimmy Stewart was on his way to Souix City and the combat assignment he craved. "If a guy wanted to fight the war that badly, I'd help him," said Arnold, when someone asked why he ignored the no transfer order and sent Stewart overseas. After just 19 days with the 445th, Stewart was promoted to commander of the 703rd squadron.

The 445th BG flew B-24s. Stewart was a B-17 pilot. Time for a quick transition!
Jimmy Stewart (kneeling, far left) on his way to England. The 445th took the southern route: Souix City to Lincoln, Nebraska, to Palm Beach, Florida, Puerto Rico, British Guiana, Brazil, Dakar, French Morocco and finally England.

Stewart and the 445th arrived at Tibenham Air Base in England on November 25th, 1943. Tibenham was one of many bomber bases in East Anglia, centered around the small country town of Norwich. On December 13th the group, including Captain Stewart, flew its first mission, bombing the naval docks at Kiel, Germany. The mission was a success. The second mission came on Christmas Eve, against V-1 rocket sites in France. The mission called for flying at 12,000 feet, about half as high as usual, which made the trip more dangerous. Jimmy conducted the briefing.

Jimmy Stewart prepares to brief aircrews for the December 24, 1943 mission.

“Fellas, I’m going to make this voluntary. That means, anyone who doesn’t want to go on a Christmas Eve mission does not have to go. You can just get up and walk out now. Nobody will hold it against you." He looked around. “But—I’m going. Fellas, you can count on that. I intend to go along.” There was a long silence. No one left the room. Stewart nodded. “Thanks, fellas.”

Here's the report from the English papers about the mission.

“CALAIS RAIDERS TOLD: SMASH SECRET TARGETS AT ANY COST

More than 2,000 Allied airplanes were used on Christmas Eve in a series of daylight operations against “special military installations” in the Calais coastal area of Northern France—believed to be the location of the German “secret weapon” concentration.

These attacks carried the non-stop air offensive from bases in Britain to a new high peak of intensity, and the fifth day of the monster blitz established two new records for the American Eighth Air Force.

It employed the largest force it had ever sent out, and the force of heavy bombers which attacked the chief target was the largest ever used on such an operation. In addition, the whole series of operations, which covered almost all the daylight hours, was carried through without an aircraft loss.”

Jimmy Stewart waits at Tibenham tower for the return of his bombers. Although as a squadron commander Stewart wasn't required to fly missions, he often flew as command pilot with his squadron. "I can't just sit here and send these men to their deaths without knowing what I'm sending them into," he told his squadron operations officer.
Stewart checks a map one more time before takeoff on a mission. Stewart earned a reputation as a lucky pilot who brought his men home. Although he was roughly 12 years older than the men he served with, he earned their respect through his leadership and courage.
Stewart was known as a non-confrontational leader. "He rode his bicycle around the base, just like the rest of us," said William B. Robinson, who was a lieutenant at Tibenham and retired from the Air Force as a colonel. "He was firm and friendly with all of us."
Stewart before taking off on a mission to Brunswick, just before he won his first Distinguished Flying Cross.

Here's the citation for Stewart's first DFC. He earned two. “AWARD OF THE DISTINGUISHED FLYING CROSS

Major James Maitland Stewart, O-433210, Army Air Forces, United States Army. For extraordinary achievement, while serving as Deputy Leader of a Combat Wing formation on a bombing mission over Germany, 20 February, 1944. Having been briefed for instrument bombing with condition that should visual bombing be possible the deputy leader would assume command, the formation proceeded to the target, meeting heavy enemy fighter opposition. When the target was reached, it became apparent that visual bombing was possible and Major Stewart smoothly assumed the lead position.

In spite of aggressive fighter attacks and later heavy, accurate antiaircraft fire, he was able to hold the formation together and direct a bombing run over the target in such a manner that the planes following his were able to release”

Stewart playing the piano during some down time at Norwich near Tibenham.

Stewart flew some of the 445th's most desparate missions--Brunswick, Schweinfurt, and, on March 22nd, Berlin. On April 1, he was promoted to operations officer of the 453rd BG at Attleboro, commonly called Old Buc. Stewart would now be in charge of planning entire missions, determining the fate of 600 men on a daily basis.

Stewart serves Thanksgiving Dinner, Old Buc, 1944
Stewart sweats out another one at Old Buc, 1944.
Debriefing crews after a mission to Berlin.
Stewart pins a Purple Heart on one of his men.
Hamming it up with fellow Hollywood star Edger Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.

Stewart was promoted to Lt. Colonel on June 5th, 1944, just as he was planning the 453rd's four missions over the Normandy beaches for the day. Stewart flew one of them. Later that month he was promoted to executive officer of the Second Combat Wing. He eventually was promoted to command the wing, which consisted of all the B-24s in the 8th Air Force.

Staff of the Second Combat Wing.. Stewart is front row, second from left.
Stewart continued to serve in the Air Force reserve, rising to the rank of Brigadier General.
Jimmy after earning his Mach 2 pin--twice as fast as the speed of sound--in a B-58 Hustler.
Jimmy in a briefing for his last mission, a B-52 raid over Vietnam.
Captain James Maitland Stewart arrives at Tibenham, 1944.
General James Maitland Stewart, near Tibenham, 1983.
James Stewart on the Tibenham runway for the last time, 1983. A penny for your thoughts, Jimmy.

Stewart finished the war with two Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Air Medals, the French Croix de Guerre with palm (that means he won two), and seven battle stars. His film contracts stipulated no mention of his war record could ever be made, and he refused to make war films until friends convinced him to make the film "Strategic Air Command." No one knows for sure how many missions he flew because he refused to log many of them. Estimates range from 18 to 31. He flew a final B-52 mission over Vietnam in 1966 and retired from the Air Force in 1968.

“Fear is an insidious and deadly thing. It can warp judgment, freeze reflexes, breed mistakes. Worse, it’s contagious. I knew that my own fear, if not checked, could infect my crew members...". --Jimmy Stewart

Jimmy Stewart's house on Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills. Someone bought it, tore down Jimmy's house, and built something more pretentious.

The material for this page was taken from the book "Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot," by Starr Smith, who was the PR officer of the 445th at Tibenham. I'm using the images without permission. Buy the book for the whole story and maybe he won't sue me.

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.