Hollywood legend Jimmy Stewart flew twenty combat missions over Germany and France as a B-24 pilot, an experience that shaped the rest of his life. Robert Matzen, author of Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, and Janie McKirgan, President-Executive Director at The Jimmy Stewart Museum, talk with us about Stewart’s military service in World War II.
It wasn’t easy initially for Stewart to get into combat.
Drafted in 1940, Stewart, a licensed pilot, failed the physical for being underweight. He then applied to the Air Corps, even though, at age 33, he was too old to fly. He squeaked in with the rank of private, eventually earning a commission directly from corporal to 2nd lieutenant.
He desperately fought for combat duty, but, as a Hollywood star, was relegated to making promotional films, which he saw as a dead end. Finally, he made it to Europe, where several close calls almost claimed his life.
He served as a Squadron Commander, which took its emotional and physical toll as his crews began to die in the air. He got transferred to desk duties. Word spread that Air Corps brass didn’t want him to be killed. It is also seems he suffered from battle fatigue.
Jimmy Stewart came home a changed man and starred in his first postwar picture, It’s a Wonderful Life. Among the medals, he was awarded were two Distinguished Flying Crosses and the Croix de Guerre. For the next half century, Stewart refused to discuss his combat experiences.
It took an author, Robert Matzen, who joins VBC Greatest Generation Live, to recover Jimmy Stewart’s lost war record.
Matzen sifted through thousands of Air Force combat reports and the Stewart personnel files; interviewed surviving aviators who flew with Stewart; visited the James Stewart Papers at Brigham Young University; flew in the cockpits of the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator; and walked the earth of air bases in England used by Stewart in his combat missions of 1943-45.
Matzen’s book, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, presents the first in-depth look at Stewart’s life as a Squadron Commander in the skies over Germany, from takeoff to landing and every key moment in between.