This Day in History: Brigadier General Jimmy Stewart
On this day in 1941, Jimmy Stewart enlists in the U.S. Army. The Academy Award-winning movie star didn’t have to join the military. He’d been drafted, but he’d promptly flunked the physical exam because he was 10 pounds underweight.
Stewart did not like that! Not one little bit. He promptly appealed the Army’s decision. His family had a history of military service, and he intended to serve.
“It may sound corny,” he said as he left Hollywood behind, “but what’s wrong with wanting to fight for your country? Why are people reluctant to use the word patriotism?”
Maybe you won’t be surprised to hear that Stewart made the weight cut on his second try. “Stewart once told me, with a slight grin, that he had a friend operating the scales for the second weigh-in,” his biographer and fellow Army officer Starr Smith explained.
Other reports say he filled up on bananas when he was weighed for the second time.
Stewart was already a civilian pilot, which made him a natural fit for the Army Air Corps, then the Army Air Forces. He wanted to be in combat, fighting for his country, but he found himself stuck in domestic assignments. “[A]pparently nobody wanted to take the responsibility of sending a famous movie star into combat when, if shot down, he could become a valuable hostage for the enemy,” Smith concludes.
Stewart had been laying low, trying not to use his star status to get his way. But then he heard rumors that he was about to be deployed to help sell war bonds. He’d had enough and made an appeal to his commanding officer. He wanted to serve overseas like anyone else.
The plea was enough. Stewart would finally be sent overseas. As he left, his dad gave him a copy of Psalm 91, and Stewart kept it in his pocket. Have you read the Psalm lately?
“I will say of the LORD, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’ . . . You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. . . . no harm will befall you . . . .”
Stewart’s service in the years that followed demonstrated that he was more than just a movie star who donned a uniform. He was a legitimate war hero.
He served with the Eighth Air Force in England as Commander of a combat bomber wing. He flew 20 missions, including a pivotal one over Berlin. On one notable occasion, the enemy blew a hole in the floor of his bomber. He precariously flew home, watching the landscape go by underneath his feet. He came home from war with decorations including the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, and the French Croix de Guerre.
After the war, he remained in the Reserves. By the time he retired in 1968, he was a Brigadier General.
The war had changed Stewart. Afterwards, he struggled with what modern Americans would recognize as PTSD, and he felt guilty about every life lost under his command. He poured some of that guilt and distress into his job.
The first movie he made after the war was “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Reportedly, the anguish of George Bailey mirrored the real-life anguish of Stewart in those years. Bailey desperately prays to God on a bridge: “I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope.”
The tears streaming down Stewart’s face were real—not just acting—as he later acknowledged.
As it turns out, Jimmy Stewart was more than just a famous face. He was another member of the Greatest Generation, loving his country and giving all he had to give.
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Brig. Gen. James M. Stewart (National Museum of the United States Air Force)
Jimmy Stewart Biography (Jimmy Stewart Museum)
Michael Munn, Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend (2016)
Rachael Scott, How World War II shaped ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (CNN; Dec. 25, 2021)
Sam McGowan, Jimmy Stewart’s rise from Private to Colonel (WWII History Magazine; July 2012)
Starr Smith, Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot (2005)