A Profile from the Greatest Generation: James Maitland Stewart (1908-1997)

ImageThe real-life George Bailey didn’t stay home and fight the Battle of Bedford Falls.

Both of James Stewart’s grandfathers had fought in the Civil War. His father was in the Spanish-American War and World War I. James was eager to serve his country when World War II broke out, and he wanted to do so as a military flier. He had been a licensed pilot since 1935. Several times he’d flown cross-country from Hollywood to visit his parents in Pennsylvania, navigating by railroad tracks.

It wasn’t easy for him, either to get into the service in the first place or to get assigned to combat duty. He was already an established film star – “You Can’t Take It With You,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “The Philadelphia Story” and others – when he was drafted in 1940. He did not meet the height and weight requirement and was rejected. He sought out the MGM muscle man Don Lewis, bulked up, and was initially rejected again before persuading the enlistment officer to run new tests. He finally got into the Army in 1941.

Stewart enlisted as a private, but as a college graduate (Princeton 1932) and a licensed commercial pilot he applied for an Air Corps commission. Though he was almost 33, six years beyond the maximum age restriction for aviation cadet training, Stewart received his commission as a second lieutenant on January 19, 1942, His first assignment was an appearance at a March of Dimes rally in Washington, D.C., but he wanted to go to war rather than be just a recruiting symbol. He applied for and was granted advanced training in multi-engine aircraft.

His show business background still was needed and useful to the nation as well. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, he performed with Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, Walter Huston and Lionel Barrymore in an all-network radio program called “We Hold These Truths,” dedicated to the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. In 1942, he starred in “Winning Your Wings,” a film that helped bring in 150,000 new recruits.

Until well into 1943, he stayed stateside in various training capacities. After rumors that he would be taken off flying status and go out to sell war bonds, the 35-year old Stewart appealed to his commander, 30-year-old Lt. Col. Walter Arnold. His commander recommended Stewart to the commander of the 445th Bombardment Group, a B-24 Liberator unit then undergoing final training in Iowa.

Stewart started out as operations officer but soon became the group’s commander. They flew to England and had their first combat mission on December 13, 1943, bombing U-boat facilities at Kiel, Germany. After missions to Bremen and Ludwigshafen, Stewart was promoted from group commander to squadron commander. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for actions as deputy commander of the 2nd Combat Bombardment Wing in February. In March, in his 12th combat mission, Stewart led the 2nd Bomb Wing in an attack on Berlin.

In all, Stewart flew on 20 official missions and on several others that were uncredited because he, as a staff officer, could assign himself as a combat crewman. He received a second Distinguished Flying Cross, the Croix de Guerre, and the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. He was promoted full colonel in 1945, making him one of a very few Americans to rise from private to colonel in four years.

After the war Stewart stayed with the Air Force Reserve and reached the rank of Brigadier General in 1959. He was one of 12 founders and a charter member of the Air Force Association. In 1966, he flew as a non-duty observer in a B-52 on an Arc Light bombing mission during the Vietnam War. He refused the release of any publicity regarding his participation, as he did not want it treated as a stunt, but as part of his job as an officer in the Air Force Reserve.

After 27 years of service, Stewart retired from the Air Force on May 31, 1968. But he kept working for democracy and human rights through the American Spirit Foundation, which he co-founded. He collaborated with Russian president President Boris Yeltsin to have a special print of “It’s a Wonderful Life” translated, and in January 1992, on the first free Russian Orthodox Christmas Day, Russian TV broadcast that film to 200 million Russians.

In tandem with politicians and celebrities such as President Ronald Reagan, Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, California Governor George Deukmejian, Bob Hope and Charlton Heston, Stewart also worked from 1987 to 1993 on projects that enhanced public appreciation and understanding of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

If giving is what makes you rich, then James Stewart’s long life of service and giving of himself to his country undoubtedly made the real-life George Bailey the Richest Man in Town.

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