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James Maitland Stewart (May 20, 1908 – July 2, 1997), popularly known as Jimmy Stewart, was an American film and stage actor best known for his self-effacing persona. Over the course of his career, he starred in many films widely considered classics and was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one in competition and receiving one Lifetime Achievement award. He was a major MGM contract star. He also had a noted military career, rising to the rank of Brigadier General in the United States Air Force Reserve.
Throughout his seven decades in Hollywood, Stewart cultivated a versatile career and recognized screen image in such classics as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Philadelphia Story, Harvey, It's a Wonderful Life, Rear Window, Rope and Vertigo. He is also the most represented leading actor on the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time list presented by Entertainment Weekly. As of 2007, 10 of his films have been inducted into the United States National Film Registry.
The Stewart family had deep military roots as both grandfathers had fought in the Civil War, and his father had served during both the Spanish-American War and World War I. Since Stewart considered his father to be the biggest influence on his life, it was not surprising that when another war eventually came, he too served. Unlike his family's previous infantry service, Stewart chose to become a military flyer.
An early interest in flying led Stewart to gain his Private Pilot License in 1935 and Commercial Pilot Certificate in 1938. He often flew cross country to visit his parents in Pennsylvania, navigating by the railroad tracks. Nearly two years before the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Stewart had accumulated over 400 hours of flying time.
Considered a highly proficient pilot, he even entered a cross-country race as a co-pilot in 1939. Along with musician/composer Hoagy Carmichael, seeing the need for trained war pilots, Stewart teamed with other Hollywood celebrities to invest in Thunderbird Field, a pilot training school built and operated by Southwest Airways in Glendale, Arizona. This airfield became part of the United States Army Air Forces training establishment and trained more than 10,000 pilots during WWII, and is now the home of Thunderbird School of Global Management.
Later in 1940, Stewart was drafted into the United States Army but was rejected for failing to meet height and weight requirements for new recruits. Stewart was five pounds under the standard. To get up to 148 pounds he sought out the help of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's muscle man, Don Loomis, who was legendary for his ability to add or subtract pounds in his studio gymnasium. Stewart subsequently attempted to enlist in the Army Air Corps but still came in under the weight requirement although he persuaded the AAC enlistment officer to run new tests, this time passing the weigh-in, with the result that Stewart successfully enlisted in the Army in March 1941. He became the first major American movie star to wear a military uniform in World War II.
Stewart enlisted as a private and began pilot training in the USAAF. During this time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, bringing the US into direct involvement in the war. Stewart continued his military training and earned a commission as a second lieutenant in January, 1942. He was posted to Moffett Field and then Mather Field as an instructor pilot in single- and twin-engine aircraft.
Public appearances by Stewart were limited engagements scheduled by the Army Air Forces. "Stewart appeared several times on network radio with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, he performed with Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, Walter Huston and Lionel Barrymore in an all-network radio program called We Hold These Truths, dedicated to the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights." In early 1942, Stewart was asked to appear in a propaganda film to help recruit the anticipated 100,000 airmen the USAAF would need to win the war. The USAAF's First Motion Picture Unit shot scenes of Lieutenant Stewart in his pilot's flight suit and recorded his voice for narration. The short film, Winning Your Wings, appeared nationwide beginning in late May and was very successful, resulting in 150,000 new recruits.
Stewart was concerned that his expertise and celebrity status would relegate him to instructor duties "behind the lines." His fears were confirmed when he was stationed for six months at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico to train bombardiers. He was transferred to Hobbs AAF to become an instructor pilot for the four-engined B-17 Flying Fortress. He trained B-17 pilots for nine months at Gowen Field.
"Still, the war was moving on. For the 36-year-old Stewart, combat duty seemed far away and unreachable and he had no clear plans for the future. But then a rumor that Stewart would be taken off flying status and assigned to making training films or selling bonds called for his immediate and decisive action, because what he dreaded most was the hope-shattering spectre of a dead end." Stewart appealed to his commander, a pre-war aviator, who understood the situation and reassigned him to a unit going overseas.
In August 1943 he was finally assigned to the 445th Bombardment Group at Sioux City AAB, Iowa, first as Operations Officer of the 703rd Bombardment Squadron and then as its commander, at the rank of Captain. In December, the 445th Bombardment Group flew its B-24 Liberator bombers to RAF Tibenham, England and immediately began combat operations. While flying missions over Germany, Stewart was promoted to Major. In March 1944, he was transferred as group operations officer to the 453rd Bombardment Group, a new B-24 unit that had been experiencing difficulties. As a means to inspire his new group, Stewart flew as command pilot in the lead B-24 on numerous missions deep into Nazi-occupied Europe. These missions went uncounted at Stewart's orders. His "official" total is listed as 20 and is limited to those with the 445th. In 1944, he twice received the Distinguished Flying Cross for actions in combat and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. He also received the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. In July 1944, after flying 20 combat missions, Stewart was made Chief of Staff of the 2nd Combat Bombardment Wing of the Eighth Air Force. Before the war ended, he was promoted to colonel, one of very few Americans to rise from private to colonel in four years.
At the beginning of June 1945, Stewart was the presiding officer of the court-martial of a pilot and navigator who were charged with dereliction of duty when they accidentally bombed the Swiss city of Zurich the previous March – the first instance of U.S. personnel being tried over an attack on a neutral country. The Court acquitted the accused.
Stewart continued to play an active role in the United States Air Force Reserve after the war, achieving the rank of Brigadier General on July 23, 1959. Stewart did not often talk of his wartime service, perhaps due to his desire to be seen as a regular soldier doing his duty instead of as a celebrity. He did appear on the TV series, The World At War to discuss the October 14, 1943, bombing mission to Schweinfurt, which was the center of the German ball bearing manufacturing industry. This mission is known in USAF history as Black Thursday due to the high casualties it sustained; in total, 60 aircraft were lost out of 291 dispatched, as the raid consisting entirely of B-17s was unescorted all the way to Schweinfurt and back due to the contemporary escort aircraft available lacking the range. Fittingly, he was identified only as "James Stewart, Squadron Commander" in the documentary.
He served as Air Force Reserve commander of Dobbins Air Reserve Base in the early 1950s. In 1966, Brigadier General James Stewart flew as a non-duty observer in a B-52 on a bombing mission during the Vietnam conflict. At the time of his B-52 flight, he refused the release of any publicity regarding his participation as he did not want it treated as a stunt, but as part of his job as an officer in the Air Force Reserve. After 27 years of service, Stewart retired from the Air Force on May 31, 1968