Jimmy Stewart, America’s beloved boy-next-door movie star, died 20 years ago today on July 2, 1997. Fifty-six years earlier, this same Jimmy Stewart happily left behind an Academy Award career in Hollywood to join the United States Army. He did this nine months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. After four and a half years of service, including 18 months overseas, Stewart returned home a changed man. He would never speak about his experiences in combat, and when he died 20 years ago, he took the story of his service straight to the grave.
With Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe [GoodKnight Books], acclaimed historian and bestselling biographer Robert Matzen reveals, for the first time, the incredible scope of service of America’s most beloved cinematic icon and star of It’s a Wonderful Life. Mission covers Stewart’s formidable lineage (both his grandfathers were Civil War heroes), and provides a blow-by-blow, mission-by-mission account of his 20 trips over enemy airspace as a B-24 Liberator flight commander to hit German manufacturing centers, aircraft bases (including jet bases), and the “Big B” itself, Berlin.
While conducting research to write Mission, Matzen flew in the heavy bombers Stewart piloted during the war, combed through thousands of pages of official federal government archives, interviewed man who flew with him, and traveled to the sites in Europe where Stewart and his squadron fought.
Here, in an exclusive excerpt from Mission, Matzen reveals one of the most harrowing moments of Major Stewart’s career in the air, as a group air commander in February 1944. The mission to Fürth, Germany was part of Big Week, a set of operations by B-17s and B-24s to knock out the German aircraft injury and cripple the Luftwaffe, which would make the invasion of Europe possible.
As they approached the I.P., Jim put on his flak vest and steel pot and spelled Vandagriff in the right seat. By the time they hit the initial point, everyone was alert. The briefing came sharply into focus: assembly plant with an airfield. Surely, there would be finished fighters sitting there, and however many there were, all must be destroyed. Johnson ordered window to be tossed out to confuse the radar, and goddammit they had better toss out more because the flak hit suddenly! They flew straight into a storm of black flak that knocked the ship around. Ahead they could see smoke from the previous attacks rising around Fürth, their target. They flew toward a clot of buildings a little to the north and east of Fürth, buildings already afire. Below, even at this height, Stewart could see an airfield with rows of brand-new fighters on the ground, factory fresh and untouched.
Johnson had turned over control of the ship to bombardier Robinson. They flew a straight, true course in Big Week kind of weather with no obstructions of any kind. The black smoke of the Messerschmitt plant reached almost to their altitude of 18,500 as they passed over it. The energy from the smoke kissed the belly of their plane, and they felt the turbulence.
“Bombs away,” said Robinson. The ship lightened of its load of fragmentation bombs, and they got the “bombs clear” from aft. Johnson switched control back from the nose and banked away. Stewart saw out the right window other bombs falling from their altitude, the bombs of many ships, and then the bombs started to hit, the effect shattering; he could see the concussions of the blasts slamming buildings and the airfield, a whirlwind of destruction that ripped into those new airplanes and blew them to flaming dust.
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.
“Hydraulics are damaged,” said Johnson.
The three punch-drunk men on the flight deck, Johnson, Vandagriff, and Stewart, glanced out the left and right windows to see if propellers continued to spin. All four did, and the ship somehow managed to keep up with those around them.
“Wright to ship 447,” they heard in their ears. “Skipper, are you OK?” Wright was just below them in the formation and must have seen what had happened, but radio silence must be maintained and Stewart didn’t answer. Just then he realized his map case and parachute were missing; they’d been blown out of the ship and were on their way to Germany. Jim ordered a visual signal to be shot to Wright.
“Fighters, six o’clock high!” Their ship rattled to life with machine guns blazing. Oh no, was this yesterday all over again? “Where are our damn fighters?” said Johnson into his now-dead oxygen mask. Fighters swarmed about them, Focke-Wulf 190s according to the chatter from the gunners.
The ship convulsed, struck by something, no telling what. “Damn!” said the pilot. “Where are our fighters!”
“Oh, my God!” gasped one of the gunners into the interphone.
“Oh, my God.” He was watching something out his gun port.
“The wing’s off that ship! Bail out! Bail out!” Stewart looked; saw the awful sight of a Liberator coming apart. One man had emerged from the crumpling fuselage and his chute opened and caught the air. But one only. How fast they plunged when mortally wounded, these Liberators that had no right to fly in the first place, so ungainly they were.
“No! No!” Another voice. Another 24 hit and careering to earth. Jim didn’t see this one, but he knew from the sound of the observer’s voice how terrible it was.
Johnson banked hard right again, and the ship responded. They were heading west toward the coast in the frozen air of a compromised cockpit. Jim glanced out his window and saw a ship right beside him hit—Nine Yanks and a Jerk. Jim could have sworn an .88 shell had just gone right through her at the cockpit. But that just couldn’t be. Nine Yanks pitched and yawed but kept flying; at first Jim thought they were done for. In an instant he no longer worried. That was Mack Williams and he must still be alive.
Below him, Stewart saw the entire target area, buildings aflame with black smoke belching into the sky. To the north, a large building bellowed an angry volcano of smoke thousands of feet in the air. Beyond the buildings sat crumpled, mutilated German fighters that wouldn’t fly again. All of a sudden, the airfield’s oil tanks caught and erupted in a magnificent explosion so far below Stewart that it might as well have been on a movie screen. A mushroom cloud shot skyward as the target passed out of his view.
The flak kept at them, jostling Dixie Flyer. “Crap!” spat Neil Johnson in the pilot’s seat. They hung on, hoping for better moments to come.
Excerpt from Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe © Robert Matzen, 2016. All rights reserved.