Smith, Starr, Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot, by Starr Smith. Zenith Press, St. Paul, MN, 2005, pp. 287, $21.95.
The defining era of actor Jimmy Stewart's life was his service in the U.S. Air Force, according to his biographer Starr Smith who served with him in the Eighth Air Force during World War II. This biography deals mainly with that period of Stewart's life and only in passing to his movie career. The theme of the story is how a young man approaching middle age joined the armed forces at the lowest grade possible, private, and in almost exactly four years rose to the rank of bird colonel. This accomplishment was carried out, not through favoritism but through hard work, technical competence, and leadership. Indeed it could serve as a manual of leadership for all of the service academies and the ROTC.
An acclaimed screen star at the beginning of 1941, actor Jimmy Stewart was about to take on the biggest challenge of his life: flying bombers in the then-U.S. Army Air Corps. James Maitland Stewart was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, of mainly Scots-Irish ancestry on May 20, 1908, the only son of Alexander and Elizabeth Stewart. At an early age he developed an interest in aviation that was to stick with him all his life and to reach its peak in England and the skies over Germany in 1943 to 1945. His father was not keen on such a dangerous pursuit but did nothing to block it. An excellent student, he matriculated to his father's old school, Princeton University, although he first sought an appointment to the Naval Academy. His father, Alex, dissuaded him and insisted he go to Princeton where he majored in architecture, a field in which he never worked. Instead, he became an actor after a stint in a Princeton drama club. Moving to Hollywood in 1935, he went on to star in such movies as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "The Philadelphia Story" while dating such glamorous women as Ginger Rogers, Norma Shearer, Yvonne de Carlo, and Olivia de Havilland. He also took up flying, acquiring both a private and a commercial license and a Stinson 105 two-seater.
When France fell to the Nazis in 1940 and Britain was battling for her life, Stewart concluded that the United States could not avoid the conflict. His draft notice arrived in late 1940 and he reported for the physical exam. He failed it-he was underweight for his well-over six foot frame. Persevering, he was able to qualify on the next attempt and was sworn in as a private in March, 1941. Stewart asked no favors and did KP just like the other draftees. However, being an accomplished pilot, he applied for flight training and was accepted. After commissioning in January, 1942, Second Lieutenant Stewart reported to Moffett Field, California, for training and received his silver wings later that year. Because of his movie career, he was in demand for public relations events in support of the war effort. These activities conflicted with his determination to join a combat unit.
Stewart trained in B-17s at Hobbs Field, New Mexico, and seemed to be on his way to combat action. However, someone in the air service put a hold on him and he was transferred to a base in Idaho to train B-17 bomber crews. He was not happy! Nevertheless, he turned in an outstanding performance, so much so, that some of his superiors risked reprimand by ignoring the hold order and got him assigned to a B-24 squadron slated for transfer to the 8th Air Force then training at a base in Iowa. Again he excelled, so much so that he, as a captain, was appointed squadron commander, then a major's job. As a squadron commander Stewart was highly respected not only by his superiors but by his enlisted crews as well. Despite being assigned wing operations officer, he still managed to fly twenty missions, many of them in hotly contested air space. When the war in Europe ended he was a wing commander whose job then became one of deactivating the wing and bringing his men home. When they debarked from the troop ship, he shook hands and bade farewell to every member of the wing. Earlier he had gained the confidence and admiration of all hands by not leaving the control tower until all planes had returned or were otherwise accounted for.
Stewart remained in the reserves after the war, keeping his colonel's eagles insignia and eventually attaining the rank of brigadier general in 1959. He was one of Hollywood's most eligible bachelors when he entered the army and following the war he decided it was time to marry, which he did to the beautiful divorcee Gloria Hatrick McLean in 1949. She brought to the marriage two sons, one of whom was killed while serving as a Marine lieutenant in Vietnam. They had two daughters. Returning to the screen, Stewart made numerous movies, among them "Winchester 73," "Shenandoah," "A Wonderful Life," and "Strategic Air Command." The last was as close as he ever came to making a war movie.
There are a few minor quibbles that an editor would have caught. The early chapter on Eisenhower seems unnecessary to this reviewer. And much of the material at the end that deals with the careers of some of Stewart's fellow Air Force officers also seems to detract from the story. Nevertheless, this is an important book that should be on the reading list of all officers, senior non-commissioned officers, and cadets or midshipmen in all of the armed services.
--Robert C. Whitten