The Untold Story Of Jimmy Stewart
“I’d like people to remember me as someone who was good at his job and seemed to mean what he said”
In the spring of 1941, James Maitland Stewart, a tall, lanky aviator who had just turned thirty-three, left home in Indiana, Pennsylvania, to join the Army. He was to be sadly disappointed. When war broke out as German troops rolled into Poland on September 3, 1939, the United States called on all eligible young men to head over to their recruitment center. We were not at war yet, but the outlook was grim. Congress enacted the first Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, also called the ‘draft,’ and Stewart signed on with enthusiasm that came naturally to the boy brought up in old-timey America.
Two things would go wrong.
Stewart‘s 6’3" frame weighed in at 138 pounds. The recruiters didn’t know whether he needed to be fed or fight. He was too thin for combat, that’s for sure. He was rejected and then put himself on a diet of fattening foods. Most of us wish for that punishment, but after eating nothing considered nutritious for months, he returned to the recruiting station and e tipped the scale by one ounce. He was fit to serve.
Then there was another problem.
Stewart wanted to fly combat. The way he saw it, he was a natural as he already had his commercial pilot’s license. Stewart was a college graduate with a degree in architecture from Princeton, and his thesis on airport design was so impressive his professors awarded him a scholarship for graduate school. To better understand the inner workings of an airport, Stewart took flying lessons. Flying in the 1930s was like software coding today, and Stewart was a nerd. He was obsessed with mechanics. The problem was that as he had been rejected for weight the year before, he turned 33 in the meantime, making him too old for Aviation Cadet training — the typical path to becoming an officer. It meant Stewart could not fly.
So he joined the Army as a buck private.
The irony is that Stewart’s passion for flying combat was not because he was down on luck looking for a bit of bronze glory to brighten a resume. He was already one of the most famous men in America. Stewart had graduated from Princeton (his father’s alma mater). He was a rising superstar in a new medium called Hollywood created on the West Coast that affected every aspect of modern life.
After Stewart enlisted, the Pentagon realized that Germany had more pilots than we did in its infinite wisdom. Literally, they did the math, which led them to seek anyone with a pilot’s license regardless of other qualifications. It meant Stewart could get his Air Corps commission as a second lieutenant and head off into the wild blue yonder. To make sure he would be assigned to combat, Stewart begged his commanding officer to make special arrangements (he was worried his movie star status would be used to prevent him from getting into trouble). The next thing he knew, he was off to join up with the 445th Bombardment Group as a B-24 Liberator pilot, a mission as highly decorated as it was dangerous.
Stewart flew 20 combat missions and rose to Chief of Staff of the 2nd Combat wing. He was made a full colonel by 1945. He was also named presiding officer of a court-martial of a pilot who accidentally bombed Zurich. In 1959, Stewart was promoted to brigadier general in the US Air Force Reserve and eventually flew missions in Vietnam, finally retiring in 1968. For bravery, Stewart received the Distinguished Service Medal, Presidential Medal of Freedom, Distinguished Flying Cross, and the French Croix de Guerre.
In 1945, Stewart returned to the United States to resume his old movie career. He rarely spoke of the war or his heroic accomplishments in the years ahead. The one exception was some commentary in Lawrence Olivier’s magisterial 26 episode documentary, World at War. If General Stewart did little else for the rest of his life, his story would have made quite a movie.
Everyone knows how the Jimmy Stewart story ends. The famous actor won two Oscars over the next twenty years cast alongside Donna Reed, Grace Kelly, and Doris Day in films like Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and The Man Who Knew Too Much.
What James Maitland Stewart stumbled on that fateful day in 1941 was not unique. In fact, they were a pattern that repeats itself in the life of great leaders. And although his motives were selfless, as he had nothing to gain in terms of fame or public approval, it was not without purpose or plan.