James Stewart, Air Force Hero and Hollywood Star

James Stewart
Colonel James Stewart. He enlisted as a Private in 1940, but before the end of WWII, he was a Colonel.

During the golden age of Hollywood, James Stewart was one of the greatest actors on the silver screen. He represented the everyman, playing unassuming characters such as Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. During World War II, he exemplified himself as a bomber squadron commander who consistently put his men first. Eventually a Brigadier General in the Air Force, he went on to be the highest-ranking veteran in Hollywood. May 20, would be his 113th birthday.

James Stewart in Mr Smith Goes to Washington
James Stewart was nominated for an Academy Award for the role of Jefferson Smith an idealistic man appointed to a US Senate seat who battles the corruption in media and DC politics

James Stewart, First Hollywood A-Lister to Enlist

In World War II, American men and women filled recruitment offices. Men from every walk of life wanted to defend their country. Many dreaded the mark of shame that came with the “4-F” stamp. Audie Murphy was too young and underweight, Calvin Graham was just 12 years old, and they defied the odds and enlisted. Athletes like Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio, and Patty Berg and celebrities like Marlene Dietrich and Henry Fonda all left their successful careers to serve their country. James Stewart was too old and too skinny, but that did not stop him.

By the time the US entered the war, James Stewart had been a leading man in Hollywood for three years. He made headlines as the first major Hollywood star to leave the silver screen for the call of duty. He was denied on his first attempt to enlist for being underweight in 1940 but approved in March 1941. Already an accomplished pilot, he wanted to fly for the Army Air Forces. At 32, he was considered too old to be a combat pilot. Nevertheless, he entered the USAAF as a Private.

Through the war, many celebrities joined with a fighting spirit. Because they were a liability for morale, most were relegated to Special Services to entertain the troops. But the early days of the war were a time of necessity. So when the veteran pilot with 400 hours in the sky joined the ranks, the Army granted his request for a commission, sent him through flight and bombardier schools, and made him an instructor.

James Stewart in Philadelphia Story
James Stewart (2nd from right) won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1940 for Philadelphia Story. Co-star John Howard (far right) was a highly decorated Navy officer, Cary Grant (2nd from left) never served but volunteered for Special Services tours in the Pacific.

Combat Pilot and Squadron Commander

In 1943, Jimmy Stewart received his first leadership role as the Commanding Officer of the 703rd Bomb Squadron, flying B-24 Liberators. He made waves with senior leadership for his tenacity. CO’s were required to take 20% of their squadron’s missions and expected to take low-threat flights. But he gave himself no special treatment.

The Army, concerned of the morale effect and troubles with the press if a Hollywood A-lister were killed in Europe in 1943, reassigned him to a desk. He was made the Operations Officer for the 453rd Bomb Group, and then Chief of Staff of the 2nd Combat wing, 2nd Air Division of the 8th Air Force. An aide once recalled that Stewart once hijacked a bomber and buzzed the control tower in protest to the boredom.

Find us an airplane and let’s shoot some landings…My former group commander has a nap about now. Let’s go wake him up.

James Stewart on pulling a stunt in protest over being grounded from combat missions. He would later describe the stunt as “stupid.”

As the US and the western Allies were pushing through Italy, Jimmy Stewart was back in the skies flying bombing runs over Germany. Pilots who served with him recalled that he was fearless in combat flights, always kept his cool.

Struggles with PTSD

On a return flight from Bremen, Germany, with bombers from the 389th, Captain Stewart noted the lead plane from the 389th was 30 degrees off course. He attempted to radio in a course correction, but the plane did not make the change. He ordered his unit to press on in formation even though they were headed into German-held Paris. Over Paris, German fighters ambushed them, but the Liberators from Stewart’s squadron fought them off.

“By risking his neck to protect an erring teammate, he had probably saved the 389th from annihilation.”

Colonel Beirne Lay Jr. referring to Captain Stewart’s actions during a mission in 1943

Major Jimmy Stewart struggled with one painful reality of combat flights: many pilots do not come home. In early 1944, a bombing mission unexpectedly turned into a battle for survival. His squadron lost 13 aircraft and the 389th lost 7. Of 32, just 12 planes returned. Eight were riddled with bullets. Stewart did not fly this mission. Instead, he watched their return. Men witnessed him physically and mentally struggle with the sight of an empty mess hall that evening. The next day he flew a mission on the same route and made a successful bombing run over Nuremberg.

Jimmy Stewart consistently imparted a consideration with all his missions: airmen first. If foul weather prevented the crews from making effective formations, he called off missions. To him, there was no sense in flying bad formations over enemy territory and losing men for it. His prowess as a lead pilot got him promoted to Colonel by 1945.

Before and After of James Stewart in WWII
Known as the “before and after,” this side-by-side of James Stewart actually compared him as a 2nd Lt in 1941 and Major in 1943. He was haunted by the physical toll the had taken on him.

When he lost good men on missions, he continued to suffer a mental toll. He recalled struggling to eat and sustaining himself on ice cream and peanut butter. Those were the only foods he could stomach. PTSD eventually had him grounded from February to August 1945.

Return to Acting

After the war, Jimmy Stewart still struggled with PTSD. He returned home to Pennsylvania broken and worked at his family’s hardware store for a few weeks. His father, a veteran of the Spanish-American and First World Wars understood his son’s suffering. He helped urge him back into acting by claiming that men like Cary Grant and Gregory Peck were picking up roles that belonged to James.

Upon James’ return to Hollywood, he moved in with Henry Fonda. Fonda, a Navy veteran and friend of Stewart’s, was also suffering from PTSD after extensive combat in the Pacific Theater. Their time living together immediately following the war was a way of coping with their trauma.

His first movie was in 1946, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. In many ways, the character George Bailey reflected the self-sacrificing and good nature of Jimmy Stewart. But one scene in the movie was a true reflection of the burden he carried. As the world collapses around George Bailey, he walks around his house, acting cruelly toward his children and weeping before storming off to the bar with the intent of suicide.

Stewart later admitted that channeling his war experience for acting brought forward the traumas he otherwise bottled up. He lost control of his emotions while filming multiple scenes in the movie. Frank Capra filmed these cathartic moments and immortalized Stewart’s bitter emotions in that movie.

James Stewart copes with PTSD as George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life
This famous scene in It’s a Wonderful Life took a whole new light as James Stewart channeled his trauma to evoke emotion and nearly had a mental breakdown over it.

Legacy in Service and Acting

Jimmy Stewart went on to have an extraordinary career during Hollywood’s golden age. He starred in such classics as Harvey, Anatomy of a Murder, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and even the 1991 cartoon classic An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.

During the war, he was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, four Air Medals, and the French Croix de Guerre, among other medals. During WWII, he flew 20 combat flights. After the war, He remained in the reserves and eventually transitioned to the newly-formed US Air Force Reserve in 1947. In 1959, he was promoted to Brigadier General and qualified to fly the B-47 and B-52. Never forgetting his airmen, he was one of the founding members of the Air Force Association in 1946.

Brigadier General James Stewart
Between 1940 and 1945, James Stewart rose from Private to Colonel. In 1959, he was selected to Brigadier General, making him the highest-ranking veteran-actor in Hollywood history’s history.

Brigadier General Stewart deployed one last time to Vietnam. He flew as an observer on B-52s during Operation Arc Light in 1966. Upon reaching the age limit of 60, he retired from the Air Force Reserve and received the Distinguished Service Medal. In 1985, Ronald Reagan promoted him to Major General from the retired rolls and awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Featured photo: Colonel James Stewart. He enlisted as a Private in 1940, but before the end of WWII, he was a Colonel.

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