American Icon

This was 22 years ago. We were sitting around an upscale living room in  Plano, Texas. The local school district was suffering under a board member who wanted to include the creationist book Of Pandas And People in the science curriculum. We were discussing the sorry state of affairs and how the community could resist. Victor Morales was there. He was planning on running for the Senate. His opponent would be Phil Gramm. Morales was a populist who had defeated tree seasoned candidates in the primary, and now he was going up against one of the most powerful politicians in the country. I advised Morales he needed to watch the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, starring Jimmy Stewart. He said he knew of the movie but had never seen it. I offered to lend him a tape.

The movie, which came out before either one of us were born, garnered actor James Maitland Stewart the Academy Award nomination for best actor of 1940. The following year Jimmy Stewart won for best actor for his role in The Philadelphia Story. Then he went off to war.

I didn’t begin to watch Jimmy Stewart movies until the early 1950s. About the first I recall was Winchester 73. But it was as the intense photographer who watches a murder plot unfold from across a Greenwich Village courtyard that really caught my attention in  Rear Window. It didn’t hurt to have the seductive Grace Kelly slinking about the plot. And much more.

But the center of Robert Matzen’s book Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe is Jimmy Stewart’s wartime career. It was more than 75 years ago that Americans shouldered the job at hand and went off to fight the rampages of Europe and East Asia. At the time many of our privileged few suited up and made the sacrifice. Members of Congress, sons of presidents, the fabulously wealthy, star athletes, and Hollywood celebrities suited up. And some died. Possibly none survived more famously than Jimmy Stewart.

He was bound to go. Soldiering was a family tradition and a matter of honor in the family, dating back to the days of the American Revolution:

Jim had grown up on war, beginning when Fergus Moorhead, his great-great-great grandfather on his father’s side, served in the Cumberland County Militia in the American Revolution. A counterpart on his mother’s side also fought in the Revolution.

Matzen, Robert. Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe (p. 8). Paladin Communications. Kindle Edition.

And he had the yen to  fly. He finagled a ride with a barnstorming pilot who visited his home town of Indiana, Pennsylvania, shortly after conclusion of the War To End All Wars. And he never looked back. But first there was college, acting, and Hollywood fame.

He caught the acting bug early in life and played roles while attending college at Princeton before easing into life as a struggling actor in New York. There he bunked in West Central Park with Henry Fonda, Joshua Logan, Myron McCormick, and sometimes Burgess Meridith. It was Fonda who eventually lured Jim to Hollywood and a steady climb to  success. His climb to success and his natural good nature enabled him to accumulate many notches on his gun, including some of the flashiest Hollywood flesh of the day. How he ever  packed in time to learn to fly we can only imagine.

It all came to a crashing to an end on 22 March 1941. He became a private in the United States Army.

Suitcase in hand, wearing a suit and tie, fedora, and raincoat, Jim eased up to a nervous-looking collection of men and their luggage surrounding Army Sgt. James J. Smith. Stewart said to the gathering, “It’s a little early in the morning,” then, to the sergeant he gave his name. Smith checked Stewart’s name off his list on a clipboard. Jim looked around him at the crowded corner and a near riot.

Matzen, Robert. Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe (p. 79). Paladin Communications. Kindle Edition.

He had overcome the resistance of the studio bosses, who could have engineered him a cushy wartime assignment, but in the end Louis B. Mayer threw him a grand going away at MGM, and he carried into battle a handkerchief smeared with paint from some of the most glamorous lips that ever graced the screen.

What pull he held, due to his fame, he exploited to get himself into the Air Corps, This was not an easy task, considering he was 33 at a time when airmen averaged out ten years younger. Eventually his skill, work ethic, and amazing leadership qualities had him leaving for battle in November 1943 as the commander of a flight of B-24s that hopscotched from “Florida to Puerto Rico to British Guiana to Brazil to Ascension Island to Ghana to Senegal to Marrakech to Casablanca to Southampton to Tibenham” in East Anglia, England. Immediately across the North Sea from their muddy flying field was the European Continent and an enemy Stewart and his men  would face and defeat over the next 17 months. The flight over had been a taste of what was to come. Out of Puerto Rico:

Suddenly, a Mayday call broke radio silence and Jim shot to alertness. A Mayday? Now, in blue skies over turquoise waters? Jim gathered his thoughts and ordered all ships to report in. One by one they did, except for Sunflower Sue. She had sent just one Mayday and then, nothing—a very bad sign.

Matzen, Robert. Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe (p. 123). Paladin Communications. Kindle Edition.

As squadron leader, Stewart did not fly every mission, but by the time air operations for his unit stopped in April 1945 he had flown combat 20 times. By all accounts he rolled the dice again and again before finally coming home. In the interval he experienced enough for a lifetime. Excerpts of battle experiences are all too typical of the times:

Conley pointed and Jim could see a yellow 190 at twelve o’clock low and a mile out closing fast, heading straight for their ship. As Conley and Stewart watched, its wing guns started flashing fire, aiming for the flight deck—a new German strategy they had been briefed on. Soon they could hear Steinhauer’s machine gun answering from the nose below. Stewart waited for bullets to punch through the windshield and hit him. It was in God’s hands now. The German plane zipped past so close over the top of the cockpit that Jim could count the rivets in her belly. He knew the Lady had been hit; no way that damn pilot could have missed. A moment later Rankin said the glass in the front turret had been punched through, but he and Steinhauer were all right.

Matzen, Robert. Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe (p. 166). Paladin Communications. Kindle Edition.

A little later, standing in the midst of so many shot-up planes, Jim was heard to murmur, “Somebody sure could get hurt in one of these damned things.”

Matzen, Robert. Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe (p. 250). Paladin Communications. Kindle Edition.

Other times were grim, tragic:

Jim watched a German fighter stray too close to a Lib and catch hell. Suddenly, it careened left, spewing smoke, and fell straight toward earth from 20,000, nose first. On went the fray with enemy aircraft all over the 389th. Another B-24 got hit and sank below the others, and from that moment the wounded ship was as good as dead, carrion for the Bf 109s and Fw 190s that buzzed about taking potshots until, to Stewart’s horror, the Liberator exploded.

Matzen, Robert. Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe (pp. 194-195). Paladin Communications. Kindle Edition.

The sliver of circumstance that separated glory and oblivion is exemplified by one incident, among others:

Flak came up again and boomed to the right and left. All at once a loud bang sounded in the flight deck and rocked them so hard that only their safety harnesses kept them in their seats. Then came an explosion right under them. It lifted the ship, lifted the pilots. Johnson and Stewart took a moment to realize—an .88mm shell had punched up into the bottom of the ship and detonated. They felt frozen air blast straight up into the cockpit from the hole beneath them. The flight deck cleared of smoke. As it did, Jim looked down to his left and inches from his boot sat a jagged, gaping hole nearly two feet across. He could look down through the fuselage straight to Germany.

Matzen, Robert. Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe (p. 246). Paladin Communications. Kindle Edition.

And then one day it was all over. In the spring of 1944 people began to experience “invasionitis.” England was weighted down with invasion troops, and it was apparent to all, including the Germans, that invasion was coming. Then the word came in stages. Leaves canceled. Bases sealed off. Communication prohibited. On 5 June the word arrived. It was Normandy, and the crews received their target lists. They were to support the invasion by attacking first beach defenses, then German communication routes. The missile factories and launch sites that were menacing England (and later Belgium and France) were also designated.

Airmen continued to die, but the war wound down. The German war machine was collapsing:

Hitler called in General Galland for a consultation at Wolfsschanze to have the American bomber threat explained. The boldness of daylight raids perplexed the Führer, and Galland leveled with him: To combat the Allied air raids into Germany from the Baltic to Italy to Russia, the number of German fighters would have to increase dramatically. Hitler wanted to know how dramatically. Galland said he would need three or four fighters for every American bomber to bring the bombing campaign to a stop. But, said Galland, there was another variable in the equation. If the Four Motors brought fighter escorts with them, he would need even more planes. Many more planes.

Matzen, Robert. Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe (pp. 134-135). Paladin Communications. Kindle Edition.

What had the Eighth Air Force accomplished in Operation Argument as its formations were mauled by German fighters over six February days? Had all those boys lost from the 445th died in vain? Hardly. Argument and its Big Week hit aviation facilities all over Germany, true, but the bloodbath over Gotha and other engagements that week had cost Galland’s Luftwaffe eighteen percent of its remaining pilots. For the month of February, Oberkommando der Luftwaffe noted the loss of 456 fighter planes trying to beat back the American bomber stream. For every American aircraft downed, the Germans lost ten. The manufacture of German fighter aircraft would go on at a record pace, but who would fly them? They were running out of pilots.

Matzen, Robert. Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe (p. 255). Paladin Communications. Kindle Edition.

In April 1945 the 8th Air Force ran out of targets. Jimmy Stewart’s war was finished. On 6 and 9 August Army B-29 bombers unleashed atomic bombs on Japanese cities, and the Empire capitulated. On 31 August Jim arrived in New York City aboard the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth,  and shortly to be unemployed.

There were many who did not come back. Matzen tells the stories of some of them. One is Clem Leone, a kid from Baltimore and a B-24 radioman in Jim’s squadron. An early check ride in England ended in disaster when engine problems developed. All bailed out except the pilot, who died. Clem’s war ended when his plane was set ablaze by anti-aircraft fire:

He got up so far, head and shoulders out, and was wedged tight with his chute below the hatch, the winds pounding him. He couldn’t breathe. He put both gloved hands in front of him on the hatch and pushed until he got his chute over the frame. In the slip-stream he had nothing to grab onto but the twin gun barrels of the top turret. He hugged them tight, marveling he had made it this far. His legs dangled out in the open air. Now what? Let go and fly straight back into the twin vertical stabilizers? That would be the end of him, bouncing off those stout columns at such speeds. The boy from Baltimore who wanted to fly was really getting his wish now.

He hung there considering his options, a man alone three miles up, with his buddies below dead or dying, these men he had trained with and grown up with. Then, under him came the answer. Not an option; a certainty. The flames found the wing tanks and the ship exploded. Tech. Sgt. Clement Leone had reached the end of his worries.

Matzen, Robert. Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe (p. 238). Paladin Communications. Kindle Edition.

The plane was over The Netherlands, occupied by German troops since 1940, and his survival was far from sure. First he had to avoid landing in a pond and drowning. Then he pulled his service pistol as civilians approached. They announced they were Dutch and took him to a house and fed him. Then a German home guard with a Mauser rifle stormed in and led him toward a wire enclosure. But the Dutch followed close behind, and they suddenly, in fractured Dutch and English, shouted for Clem to run. As he did so he saw the Dutch civilians swarming the German, killing him.

The underground resistance passed Clem from one cell to another on a route that would have taken him to neutral Spain, except that in Belgium one of the couriers turned out to be a Nazi, who handed him and others over to the Luftwaffe. Clem endured the agony and deprivation of captivity, finally being force marched in the winter of 1944-1945 to avoid advancing Russians until one morning in April 1945 the prisoners woke up in a Belgian field encampment to discover their guards had deserted. British troops arrived in trucks to take them away.

Jimmy Stewart had entered the Army as a private, and he left as a Colonel. Back in Hollywood with Fonda, who had done a stint in the Navy, he looked for work. His magnificent pre-war career was gone. Completely evaporated. He was a war hero, but that did not mean squat to the studio bottom line. Younger talent had risen in place of the older men who had gone off to war, and Stewart cast about for a vehicle to showcase his older, more mature persona. He found it teaming with Frank Capra, in a similar situation. $3 million bankrolled a fantasy story about a man who stayed home from the war while his younger brother went off to war and returned with a Medal of Honor.

George Bailey married, had children, and managed the local “Building and Loan,” which kept his small New England community afloat. As the business teeters on failure and scandal claws at his family, he despairs and proclaims he wishes he had never been born. An Angel Second Class is sent from Heaven to redeem George Baily, and the story rights itself. It was It’s a Wonderful Life.

Portraying an American survivor on the ragged edge of catastrophe, Stewart turned in an outstanding performance, earning another Academy Award nomination. Frederick March got the win that year for his role in The Best Years of Our Lives, a drama about servicemen returning to civilian life.

The movie’s break-even  box office was pegged at $6 million, but it only drew $3 million, making it a money-loser. It has since become an American cinema icon, much as has Jimmy Stewart.

Stewart’s teaming with Alfred Hitchcock produced four outstanding performances, my favorite being Rear Window. His role as an Upper Peninsula trial lawyer in Anatomy of a Murder is a jewel of a story and a grand showcase of pure Stewart. The last production of Stewart’s I saw was The Shootist, where he played a doctor treating and advising a dying gunfighter, played by John Wayne in his last movie.

Jimmy Stewart stayed in the Air Force Reserve, rising to the rank of Brigadier General and making another Air Force film, titled Strategic Air Command. He flew a combat mission in Vietnam.

James Stewart died 20 years ago this month.

Jimmy Stewart’s military awards (from Wikipedia)

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About John Blanton

I'm a retired engineer living in San Antonio, Texas. I have served in the Navy, raced motorcycles, taken scads of photos and am usually a nice guy. I have political and religious opinions, and these opinions tend to be driven by an excess of observed stupidity. Gross stupidity is the supposed target of many of my posts.
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