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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: America’s Real Hero Movie Star

by Tom Morrow

During World War II, dozens of movie luminaries donned military uniforms, but none would equal the service-to-country of James Stewart. He became a B-24 bomber pilot flying more than 25 combat missions while gathering a handful of military honors, including two Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Air Force’s highest honor.

James “Jimmy” Maitland Stewart, who was born May 20, 1908, became a popular film actor, known for his distinctive drawl voice and down-to-earth persona. He starred in dozens of films now considered classics. In films, Stewart portrayed the average American man with everyday struggles.

In October 1940, Stewart was drafted into the U.S. Army, but was rejected because he was under the minimum 148 pounds. Stewart then attempted to enlist in the Army Air Corps, but still couldn’t meet the weight requirement. He persuaded the recruiting officer to tweak the weigh-in, resulting in success.

A college graduate and a licensed commercial pilot, Stewart applied for a pilot commission. At age 33, he was six years beyond the maximum age restriction for cadet training. But in 1942, shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack, Stewart became a 2nd lieutenant. Even though Stewart did not want to be a celebrity trotted out to sell war bonds, his first assignment was a rally in Washington, D.C. He wanted a combat unit rather than be a recruiting symbol. But in early 1942, before his additional training, Stewart made a short recruiting nationwide film, “Winning Your Wings,” resulting in 150,000 new recruits.

Stewart finally was assigned to a combat unit, but he was 35 years old and getting into combat seemed impossible. His 30-year-old commanding officer understood and recommended Stewart to a B-24 Liberator unit. Stewart was assigned to the 445th Bomb Group as operations officer. The group flew its first combat mission on Dec. 13, 1943, bombing the U-boat pens at Kiel, Germany. Later, Stewart was promoted to major and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for actions as deputy group commander. Stewart received a second award of the Distinguished Flying Cross for actions in combat and was awarded France’s Croix de Guerre. He also received the Air Medal. Stewart was promoted to full colonel on March 29, 1945. He became commanding officer of the 2nd Bomb Wing. Stewart was one of the few Americans to rise from private to colonel in four years.

After the War, the iconic actor continued to play a role in the United States Air Force Reserve. Stewart received permanent promotion to colonel in 1953 and served as Air Force Reserve commander of Dobbins Air Reserve Base. In 1959, Stewart was promoted to Brigadier General. During his active duty periods, he remained current as a pilot of the B-36, the B-47 and B-52 intercontinental bombers of the Strategic Air Command. On Feb. 20, 1966, Brig. Gen. Stewart flew as an observer on a B-52 bombing mission during the Vietnam War. He refused any publicity on that flight because he didn’t want it treated as a stunt, but as part of his job as an officer in the Reserve. In 1968, after 27 years of service, Stewart retired from the Air Force. Later he was promoted to major general on the retired list by President Ronald Reagan.

During his long film career, he was nominated five times for an Oscar, winning “Best Actor” for “The Philadelphia Story,” in 1940. James Stewart died on July 2, 1997, at the age of 89.


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