Jimmy Stewart, born James Maitland Stewart in Indiana, Pennsylvania on May 20, 1908, was one of the most beloved movie actors of the Twentieth Century. Stewart was a gentle man who also happened to be an excellent piano player. Moreover and unknown to many, he was a combat pilot and military leader of extraordinary aptitude.
Like many, Stewart had a natural interest in aviation. He fostered his desire to fly like others, by building model airplanes in the basement of his parent’s home. His interest in flying, mathematics, and science took him to Princeton where he excelled in architecture. He blended his love of aviation and architecture into his studies; he did so well, he acquired a scholarship to graduate school for further study in the field.
While at Princeton, he started acting. As with his studies, he enjoyed acting and excelled in his efforts. Before long, he was a full blown, bona fide movie star in Hollywood. He also stayed true to his desire to fly and in 1935, acquired his private pilot license. Three years later, he passed his commercial pilot checkride. Many considered Stewart a proficient and serious pilot.
In 1940, the military actually drafted Stewart into service, but he failed the height and weight requirements. He was too light. However, his background and family history obliged him to continue competing for a place in the service. Stewart’s ancestors on both sides fought in the War Between the States and on his father’s side, his family fought in the Revolutionary War. Stewart was more than compelled to serve, to do his part.
In March 1941, he tried again, this time meeting the weight requirements. He became Private James Stewart, movie star-soldier. He was the first of many movie stars to join the military during World War II.
Competing for a flight slot, Stewart finally found himself in flight school. After graduation, he worried the Army would keep him stateside performing instructor duties. Through his single-minded perseverance, he finally won a position in a B-24 combat squadron. In August 1943, he found himself flying across the Atlantic as a member of the 703rd Bombardment Squadron.
He later took command of the 453rd based at Old Buckenham Airfield in England, commonly referred to as “Old Buc.” It was as the commander of the 453rd that Stewart truly shined.
He was a natural born leader. Among his men, he was not Jimmy Stewart, the actor; he was Major James Stewart, and later Lieutenant Colonel James Stewart.
Stewart was not one of those commanding officers who would tell his men to go fly the hard missions. When it was time to fly a difficult run, Stewart was out in the front, in the lead ship.
He was a tireless worker. He knew there was a job to be finished and he was one to work with his men, rather than giving orders for mission accomplishment.
He was not one for working all the time, however, and was capable of pulling off some really impressive practical jokes. As the group operations officer, Stewart and his assistant, Captain Andy Low, needed to get away from the daily grind of their duties. They needed some flight time and decided to get it by going over to Stewart’s previous base and buzzing his former commanding officer.
They got themselves into a little hot water with that one but, in the middle of war, they were able to get away with it. After the chewing out, they probably became better leaders. Each went on to become general officers.
One of my favorite photographs of Jimmy Stewart was shot right after the war. He and his men were returning from England on board the Queen Elizabeth huddled together. Stewart’s men looked tired. They looked as though they had just won a war. There was Stewart in the middle of the men, Colonel Stewart. Not Jimmy Stewart the movie star, it was bomber pilot Stewart, leader and protector of his men.
He was tired. And he looked thankful the war was over.
© 2010 J. Clark