Saturday, March 20, 2010
JIMMY STEWART – AMERICAN PATRIOT
Brigadier General Jimmy Stewart wearing the star which was a capstone to more than 27 years of devoted service. Stewart died at his home in Beverly Hills July 2nd, 1997 at the age of 89.
He was born James Maitland Stewart, on May 20th, 1908 in a Pennsylvania town with the confusing name of Indiana. Known from the beginning as “Jimmy”, he grew up in small town America, working in the family hardware store, singing in the church choir, and playing the accordion at Sunday evening “family nights” He is fondly remembered – and will long be remembered – as one of Hollywood’s most famous and well-loved actors. Tall, trim, handsome and modest, he projected the very image of the characters he portrayed in such movies as It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, both on and off the stage or the Big Screen. His cadre of close friends included the likes of Henry Fonda, (with whom he shared living quarters in New York, and later in Hollywood), Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Tyrone Power, Ginger Rogers, and other Hollywood luminaries. That is one side of Jimmy Stewart; the side well known to several generations of movie-goers, and those who today, still watch the late-night reruns of hits that never lose their luster.
From an early age, young Jimmy was fascinated by aviation, and while a high school student, he was captivated by his first fifteen minute flight with a barnstorming pilot, in return for the fifteen dollars, (one dollar per minute), he had been saving from odd jobs all summer for the opportunity. Jimmy’s sometimes overbearing father, Alex Stewart gave his permission reluctantly, so worried that his son might be injured that he insisted on bringing along the family doctor, who sat with him in the car with the engine running until his son was back safely on the ground. For Jimmy, his feet never really touched the ground again.
With a Princeton degree in architecture, some acting roles on Broadway, and a contract with MGM in Hollywood behind him, his love for airplanes found some fulfillment when he obtained a pilot’s license, and began accruing flying time, even competing in a coast-to-coast air race as co-pilot. He flew regularly, out of a then-modest airstrip known as Minesfield, now known as LAX; Los Angeles International Airport.
What should have been the best of times for Stewart, who had just starred in The Philadelphia Story, became a time of uneasiness, as the war in Europe took on a new urgency, and as old Hollywood friends, like David Niven, Laurence Olivier and Leslie Howard left to fight for their English homeland. In the face of an isolationist sentiment which dominated America, Jimmy decided that he should not wait until the inevitable happened to join the military. His decision was opposed not only by his ever-concerned father, but his boss at MGM. He tried to explain, “It may sound corny, but what’s wrong with wanting to fight for your country. Why are people reluctant to use the word patriotism ?”
When he tried to enlist, he was rejected as underweight for his height-weight ratio. Only after an appeal to the Army, and an assist from a body-building expert he knew did he become “Private James Stewart” on March 22, 1941. He was 34 years of age and Pearl Harbor was still nine months in the future. The other side of the Jimmy Stewart story was about to begin.
From the start, Stewart never sought to receive special treatment. As an enlisted man, he soldiered right alongside his much younger peers through Army basic training. He applied for flight school, and since he already had both private and commercial pilot’s licenses, and hundreds of hours of flight time, he was assigned to train at Moffet Field near San Francisco. As he progressed through training and an assignment with a strategic bombing squadron flying the B-17 Flying Fortress, he found that the high profile nature of his background played against him, as his superiors sought to “protect” him from a combat role, seeing him as a possible asset in the area of public relations, war bond sales, and recruitment efforts. At a crucial point in his chosen USAAF career, he discovered that a “hold” order in his file was keeping commanders from giving him a combat assignment. In what was the only time Jimmy Stewart ever asked for a favor from anyone, he finally got the “hold” order to disappear.
When he finally joined the Eighth Air Force in England, it was not in B-17s, but in the unlovely B-24 Liberator which he came to love with a pilot’s passion. On November 25th, 1943, Captain Jimmy Stewart brought the 703rd Bomb Squadron he had trained, and now commanded to East Anglia, where they joined the 445th Bomb Group at Tibenham. Jimmy Stewart quickly proved himself, not just as an excellent pilot, but as a leader. Soon, as a major, he was the Group Operations Officer, planning missions for hundreds of 8th Air Force bombers, still later becoming the Group Commander, involved in thousand-plane missions. In each of these positions, he inspired great confidence and trust among those he commanded.
By the summer of 1945, now Colonel Jimmy Stewart commanded the entire 2nd Air Division, where he continued to play an important role in proving the concept of Daylight Precision Bombing in the war against Nazi Germany. Long after he no longer was expected to fly on missions, he continued to show up at take-off time to fly with one of the crews. He made sure these missions did not get added to the official twenty already in his record.
Asked to sum up what those he served with thought of him, one who flew with him said: “James Stewart was one person that if his life ever touched yours, you could never forget him.”
Jimmy Stewart – Broadway actor, movie star, accordion-player, husband and father and one-time Army Private, also made his mark as a leader of others, going on to fly little-known jet combat missions in Viet Nam, retiring from the U.S. Air Force Reserve June 1, 1968 as Brigadier General Jimmy Stewart To quote Jimmy ….”why are people reluctant to use the word patriotism ?”.