When Colonel Samuel Jackson returned home to Apollo, Pennsylvania after fighting for the Union in the Civil War, he settled down to become a leading citizen in the community. His daughter Elizabeth married a man who owned a hardware store in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and whose father had also served in the Civil War. The hardware store owner, Alex Stewart, was a veteran of both the Spanish-American War and World War I. Maybe that’s where America’s Everyman, James Maitland Stewart, better known as Jimmy, inherited the patriotic streak that inspired him in 1941, at the age of 32, to give up the silver screen and the Hollywood scene to try to enlist. He had been called to appear before the Draft Board, but the 138 pounds he carried on his 6’3” frame meant that he was five pounds under the army’s required minimum weight.
Stewart had the training. He had actually wanted to attend the U.S. Naval Academy, but his father was a Princeton man who wanted his only son to follow in his academic footsteps. Stewart already had taken flying lessons in 1935, and that same year, he earned his license and bought his first airplane, going on to log 400 hours of flying time by the time he appeared before the Draft Board. Stewart had already perceived that trained war pilots were going to be needed as he, along with the rest of the world, heard the dogs of war barking ever louder. He, along with other Hollywood backers, had even invested in a pilot training school in Arizona that was operated by Southwest Airlines; that airfield would eventually become part of the United States Army Air Force training center, training more 10,000 World War II pilots.
What Stewart lacked wasn’t the will, and it wasn’t the skill—it was the weight. So after he was rejected by the Draft Board, he returned home and bulked up on as much high-calorie food as he could pack onto his lanky frame. He also made use of his Hollywood connections, calling upon Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s physical trainer Don Loomis, whose work helping the stars gain or lose pounds made him the obvious person to get Jimmy Stewart to reach what the Army considered as his fighting weight.
He convinced the enlistment officer to do the tests again, and this time, he passed, at just one ounce over the required minimum weight. He was inducted into the Army on March 22, 1941, the first A-list American film star to don the uniform in World War II. But there were more hurdles. Stewart already had taken flying lessons in 1935, and that same year, he earned his license and bought his first airplane, going on to log 400 hours of flying time by the time he appeared before the Draft Board. But when he was told that he needed more flying hours in order to comply with the Air Corps regulations, Stewart paid for them out of his own pocket before passing the proficiency exam.
But what the military didn’t realize was that Stewart didn’t want to play soldier, he wanted to be a soldier. His first assignment was appearing at a rally in Washington D.C. but finally Stewart prevailed upon the brass and he was sent to serve as an instructor in single- and twin-engine aircraft. He served in that capacity for two years, but finally his wishes were granted and his commanding officers sent him to war. In August, 1943, he was assigned as the operations officer of the 703d Bombardment Squadron. Three weeks later, he was the commander and by October, the crew was sent overseas, arriving in Norfolk by way of Florida, South America and Africa. On December 13, 1943, the crew’s mission was over Kiel, Germany, where their first combat mission was to bomb the U-boat facilities, followed by a second mission over Bremen. In both missions, Stewart was the leader. He was promoted to the rank of major early in 1944 and soon after that, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. In March, he became the group operations officer of a new B-24 unit that had just suffered the loss of its commander and operations officer. He didn’t allow his status as a celebrity to hold him back as he flew several missions into the dangerous territory of Europe that was under Nazi occupation. His assignment to the 453rd Bombardment Group meant that he wasn’t subject to meeting a quota of missions, but that safety net wasn’t going to work for Stewart, who assigned himself as a combat crewman. The air wasn’t a safe zone for Stewart, who also endured a crash landing that was nearly fatal. After flying twenty sorties, he was named chief of staff of the Second Combat Bombardment Wing of the Eighth Air Force, a promotion which kept him out of direct combat.
By the time the Allies had won the war, Stewart had proven that he was a real soldier, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross twice, the Croix de Guerre of France, and the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters.
In 1947, back to his regular day job, Jimmy Stewart played George Bailey in the Frank Capra film, It’s A Wonderful Life, the story of an ordinary man who comes to realize how important his life has been to the people around him. He comes to this realization with the help of an angel named Clarence, who earns his wings as a result of his success. Jimmy Stewart was an actor who, thanks to his patriotism and everyday American values, earned his wings in World War II.
Stewart continued to be active in the Army Air Forces Reserve until his retirement from the Air Force in 1968.