Maj. James Stewart (center) with members of the 453rd Bomb Group who flew the B-24 Liberator, “Male Call,” after a raid. American Air Museum in Britain
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Heroes And Leaders: Jimmy Stewart

March 28, 2024

The Movie Star Turned Bomber Pilot and his Wonderful Life.

Seven days after winning an Academy Award for “The Philadelphia Story” in March 1941, Jimmy Stewart enlisted in the Army, months before the country was at war. He had been turned down on his first try for being 10 pounds underweight.

One of the most famous movie stars in America was now a buck private in the Army, his monthly salary reduced from $6,000 to $21. Stewart really wanted to fly. He had logged more than 300 hours as a private pilot and had his own airplane, but he was close to 33 years old, far older than the 20-something aviation cadets then earning their wings. The Army treated him as a celebrity and refused to let him fly. Transferring to the Army Air Forces, Stewart qualified to fly twin-engine and four-engine aircraft and trained other pilots to fly the B-17, but while others were assigned to bomber crews and sent overseas, he was held back. The Army didn’t want to lose a movie star.

He finally made it to England in November 1943 as a squadron leader in the newly formed 445th Bomb Group. He flew a dozen missions as a B-24 pilot and was officially commended for his good judgment under fire. He flew often and did not cherry-pick the easier missions, saying, “I just can’t sit here and send these fellows to death, without knowing myself what I am sending them into.” Jimmy Stewart became known as a “lucky squadron leader.”

Major Stewart was promoted to Group Operations Officer and sent down the road 9 miles to the 453rd Bomb Group. When Airmen were told they were getting a movie star, they were not impressed. They worried it might be a publicity stunt—a star turn for an actor to fly a few missions and get shipped home pronto. But Stewart was serious, working nights to plan missions for the 453rd, staying in the tower until the last crew had returned. He flew tough missions—more than the commanding officers wanted—and was said to wipe from the board missions he flew so he wouldn’t reach his limit.

Few men really knew him. They saw him in the mess for breakfast and he would show up at the officers’ club, sometimes playing the piano and singing “Ragtime Cowboy Joe.” He’s there in a few posed photos, looking tall, rangy, and smart in uniform, Hollywood handsome.

Stewart refused all publicity. He turned away the Air Force public relations staff who wanted stories. He made his base off limits to the press until they convinced him he was denying his men the chance to be in their hometown newspapers. After that the press was allowed in, but only to write about the men of the 453rd.

He was a “superb briefer,” said Starr Smith. Like any good actor, he rehearsed. Sgt. Walter Matthau used to sneak into the briefings just to see Jimmy Stewart “do his Jimmy Stewart.” At first the men were a little star struck, but soon “he was one of the boys. He was marvelous to watch,” said Matthau. Stewart concluded his briefings, saying, “Well, fellas. This is it. I … uh … I want you all back here safe. That understood? Fine.”

The war aged him. Stewart struggled to eat and sleep. “I was really afraid of what the dawn might bring,” he said once when he was a squadron leader. “I got to imagining what might happen, and I feared the worst. Fear is an insidious and deadly thing. It can warp judgment, freeze reflexes, breed mistakes. And worse, it’s contagious. I felt my own fear and knew that if it wasn’t checked, it could infect my crew members.”

He returned to church for the first time in years and reread the 91st Psalm, which his father had shared in a parting letter: “I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.”

“I tried with all my might to lead and protect them,” he said of his Airmen. “I lost a few men—all my efforts, all my prayers couldn’t stand between them and their fates, and I grieved over them, blamed myself, even. But my father said something wonderful to me when I came home after the war. He said, ‘Shed all blame, shed all guilt, Jim. You know you did your very best, and God and fate, both of which are beyond any human being’s efforts, took care of the rest.’”

Stewart came home a changed man. His parents were upset by how much he had aged. He was thinner; his face looked tighter. The press asked about his gray hair. He said: “It got pretty rough overseas at times.”  

He moved in with his friend, Henry Fonda, home after three years in the Navy. They sat quietly, intensely building model airplanes out of balsa. Stewart didn’t make a movie for a year. He refused to glamorize his war service, refused to make a film: “The Jimmy Stewart Story. “I saw too much suffering. It’s certainly not something to talk about—or celebrate.”

His daughter, Kelly Stewart Harcourt, said, “My father’s experiences during World War II affected him more deeply and permanently than anything else in his life. Yet his children grew up knowing almost nothing about those years. Dad never talked about the war. My siblings and I knew only that he had been a pilot, and that he had won some medals, but that he didn’t see himself as a hero.” 

“It’s a Wonderful Life” was the first movie he made after the war. His anger in the film is raw, edgy, breaking the confines of the sentimental story. In a scene where he breaks down and prays for help—“I’m not a praying man but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope. Show me the way, God.”—he’s overcome, crying in an unscripted moment, surprising the director. “As I said those words,” Stewart said later, “I felt the loneliness, the hopelessness of people who had nowhere to turn, and my eyes filled with tears. I broke down sobbing. That was not planned at all.” His anger and upset surprised audiences, and “It’s a Wonderful Life” failed at the box office. That anger, said one biographer, was Stewart’s PTSD—but that is an overreach. There are no medical records to check. Like many who served, he came home older and exhausted, and he kept his sorrows and remorse to himself. He, too, hid the psychological terrors of the war.

Adapted from the new book, “I Will Tell No War Stories: What Our Fathers Left Unsaid About World War II,” by Howard Mansfield and published by Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot. The book debuts in April 2024.