Every year when the Christmas season rolls around, the classic film of a Banker who wishes he had never been born and an angel who makes it come true, hits the screens almost daily. “It’s a Wonderful Life” has become a Christmas classic and pivotal performance by long-time movie star Jimmy Stewart.
Those in the 1940’s would be familiar with Jimmy Stewart’s Hollywood status as he appeared in multiple films in the 1930’s and won an Academy Award for the 1940 film Philadelphia Story co-starring Audrey Hepburn.
However, when the clouds of war gathered over America, if anyone wanted to catch a glimpse of movie star Jimmy Stewart, their best bet would have been to stare up at the Berlin sky while this gifted actor reigned down destruction.
A Family of Military Tradition
Jimmy Stewart came from a family steeped in military tradition. His grandfathers had both served in the Civil War, and his father had served in the Spanish-American War as well as WW1.
Before his initial draft into the Army in 1940, Jimmy picked up a hobby that came in quite handy for his military service. He achieved his Private Pilots license in 1935 and then his Commercial certificate in 1938. He had a passion for flying, and by the time the war broke out, he had over 400 hours of logged flying time.
However, it was hard for Stewart to get into combat. When drafted in 1940, he was initially rejected due to his failure to meet the height and weight requirements being of a tall skinny build. He enlisted the help of some Hollywood trainers to get him up to standard.
He was later accepted into the Army in 1941 as a Private and immediately applied to the Air Corps. Despite being six years past the cut-off age for pilot training at 32, he was eventually granted a pilot rating, and it appeared that Stewart’s desire to take to the skies of enemy lands was a little closer.
But then his celebrity status created a roadblock as the Army saw him as more of a Public Relation tool rather than a pilot.
He was initially assigned to making public appearances on behalf of the war effort, as were many celebrity veterans of his day. It did not sit well with Stewart, and he continually sought a transfer to an operational unit. In his PR role, he did, however, film the call to action entitled Winning Your Wings, which helped enlist over 100,000 new pilots in support of the war effort.
The affable Jimmy Stewart in his bomber jacket took to the screen and appeared as only he could for men to rise to the calling. Stewart belonged in the skies, and he was not going to let his riches or fame deny him a role in the global war.
Getting into the Action
Appealing to his younger commanding officer, Stewart was eventually recommended to be the commander of the 445th Bombardment group. He made his way to Europe and finally got his chance to join the fight. Once in Europe, Stewart continued to train with his crew until they were given their first bombing mission in December of 1943.
Assigned to bomb the U-boat facilities in Kiel, Germany, Stewart led the formation in, what would become, a common practice for him to inspire his men to action.
Stewart would later take on targets deeper into Germany before being promoted to Major and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for action in combat. By early 1944, he had flown his 12th sortie into combat and helped lead an attack on Berlin itself.
His success in battle led him to be assigned to various staff positions with different air groups, and Stewart racked up 20 official sorties into enemy territory.
The most notable, though, are the ones never officially recognized as Stewart threw himself into the mix as a Staff Officer and participated in various uncredited missions as he saw fit.
By March of 1945, the movie star who just four years before had been a private was promoted to full Colonel in March of 1945 and was awarded a second Distinguished Flying Cross along with a French Croix de Guerre. Not too bad of a resume for the celebrity initially rejected for military service.
The Actor Who Became a General
Jimmy Stewart not only continued his acting career to include the 1946 classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life” but also continued to serve in the newly formed US Air Force as a reserve officer. He eventually rose to the rank of Brigadier General before retiring from the Air Force in 1968 after 27 years of service.
It remains to be seen why some men with an easy out from the horrors of combat choose battle while others select comfort. However, it became apparent from early on that Jimmy Stewart was a person who desired the action and service to his country.
While many people in America might know him as the man from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the Nazis of Hitler’s Germany knew him only as the lead bomber in the formation bringing victory to the Allied cause.
Jimmy Stewart was nominated for multiple awards as an actor, but he is the one who intentionally left the easy life behind to earn other awards, along with the men of the US Army Air Corps.
So you can watch the holiday classic the same as you do each year, or you can stare at the acting of a young Jimmy Stewart realizing just two years prior, those eyes were dropping bombs at the heart of the Third Reich.