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 that so hits the screens almost daily. It’s a Wonder 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.
But when the clouds of war gathered over America, if you wanted to catch a glimpse of movie star Jimmy Stewart, your best bet would be staring up at the Berlin sky while this gifted actor reigned down destruction upon you.
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 World War 1. But before his initial draft into the Army in 1940, Jimmy picked up a hobby that would come in quite handy for his military service. He achieved his Private Pilot certificate in 1935 and then his Commercial certificate in 1938. He had a passion for flying and by the time the war would break out, he would have over 400 hours of logged flying time.
But it was harder for Stewart to get into combat than one might think. When drafted in 1940, he was initially rejected due to failing to meet the height and weight requirements as a man with a tall skinny build. He would then enlist the help of some Hollywood trainers who would 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 6 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 road block as the Army saw him as more of a Public Relation’s tool rather than a pilot.
He would initially be assigned to making public appearances on behalf of the war effort that as were many celebrity veterans of his day. This didn’t 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 titled 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. But Stewart belonged in the skies, and he wouldn’t let his riches or fame deny him his role in this global war.
Getting into the Action
Appealing to his younger commanding officer, Stewart was eventually recommended to be the commander for the 445th Bombardment group. Here, he would make his way to Europe and finally get his chance to join the fight. Once in Europe, Stewart would continue to fly with his crews in training 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 actions in combat. By early 1944, he had flown his 12th sortie into combat and helped lead an attack on Berlin itself.
And while his success in battle would lead him to be assigned to various staff positions with various air groups, Stewart would rack up 20 official sorties into enemy territory.
But the most notable are the ones never officially recognized as Stewart would throw himself into the mix as a Staff Officer and participated in various uncredited missions as he saw fit.
By March of 1945, this movie star who just 4 years ago was a private was promoted to full Colonel in March of 1945 and would be awarded a second Distinguished Flying Cross along with a French Croix de Guerre. Not too bad of a resume for the celebrity initially rejected from military service.
The Actor Who Became a General
Jimmy Stewart would not only continue his acting career to include the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life, but he would continue to serve in the newly formed United States Air Force as a reserve officer. He would eventually rise 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 choose comfort. However, it became apparent from early on that Jimmy Stewart would be one who desired the action and service to one’s country.
And while many 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 would only know him as the lead bomber in the formation bringing victory to the Allied cause.
Yes, Jimmy Stewart was nominated for multiple awards as an actor, but he is the one who intentionally left that behind to earn other awards besides the men of the United States 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.