Tuesday, November 11, 2008

James Stewart: A Veterans Day Salute

On this Veterans Day, Hollywood Dreamland, in its own small way, would like to honor the service of all veterans who have served their country. James Stewart was one of the many who answered their country's call.

James Stewart (1908-1997) was already an Oscar-winning actor and had been a pilot of his own plane beginning in the mid-1930s when he enlisted in the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) in March, 1941. He had previously been rejected for service due to his insufficient weight (Stewart was under the 148lb minimum weight requirement) the previous year and gained the weight through a workout program with the help of an MGM trainer, Don Loomis. Stewart joined the USAAF as a private and earned a Second Lieutenant's commission in 1942. After several months of training bombardiers and B-17 pilots in New Mexico, Stewart was finally assigned to a bombing group in 1943.

In 1944, Stewart was assigned to the 454th Bombardment Group, his unit flew the B-24 Liberator in air operations over Germany. By then, he had attained the rank of Major. The number of official missions flown by Stewart’s wing is twenty, but he ordered numerous missions over Nazi Germany kept uncounted. By the end of the war, James Stewart had reached the rank of Colonel, with several decorations including the Distinguished Flying Cross (twice), and the Air Force Medal with Three Oak Leaf Clusters.

He was also admired by his peers. From Citizen Soldiers by Stephen E. Ambrose:

"A special favorite was Maj. James Stewart, the actor already famous for parts in The Philadelphia Story and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Stewart enlisted as a private, made his way into pilot training school, and earned his wings. The Air Force knew he was a good flyer but didn't want to risk him, so he was assigned to the staff. He insisted on flying. He bacame a squadron commander. One of his pilots, Lt. Hal Turrell, said of Stewart: 'He was a wonderful human being and excelled as a command pilot..He never grandstanded by picking missions. If our group led the wing, he flew.'

Stewart would remain involved with the Air Force Reserve and was promoted to Brigadier general in 1959. During the Vietnam War, Stewart flew in a B-52 bomber as an observer. He refused to let the story be reported. James Stewart retired from the Air Force in 1968, after twenty-seven years of service.

It staggers the mind that a man who had everything to lose would ditch his movie career--at its peak--and answer his country's call. I cannot imagine any actor today (NFL player Pat Tillman is the exception) setting his career aside to join the armed forces full time, volunteer for combat duty, and proceed to remain involved with that service for nearly thirty years. Stewart's service, and the other Hollywood legends who worked in some capacity (Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable, and John Ford, to name but a few) never gave it a second thought and enlisted, helping in any way they could. They could have sat out the war and continued to pad their bank accounts and add more Oscars to their shelves, but sacrificed their careers and risked their lives to serve their country.


  1. Stewart was a class act. It's also hard for me to imagine a star today who would leave behind the dollars, cars and fancy bottled water for fox hole, a few pennies and a canteen. Today, actors seem more willing to voice their opinions than stand on the battleground. I'm not saying that if I were in their position I'd do it differently, but like Stewart I'd refuse to have my story reported.

  2. This was a great entry! Thanks for filling in some of the info on Jimmy Stewart's service. My admiration for him just keeps on increasing.

  3. About ten years ago, my friend Scott and I were trying to determine who might qualify as the "quintessential" American, as if there can even be such a thing. After posing the question, there was a long silence and finally Scott said, "Jimmy." And we both knew we had our answer.

  4. I love that LIFE magazine cover...he's so All American, and brave. :)

    In reference to celebrities today: I think maybe if WWIII broke out, people would jump to action just like they did back then...a sense of pride, and protection, etc., might get 'em 'over there'...not all 'em, of course, but surely some would gladly brave it. :)


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