Jimmy Stewart receiving a medal


The late actor, Jimmy Stewart, gave us some very memorable characters during his time in Hollywood – many very funny; others endearing; and still others dark and villainous. Perhaps Stewart’s most dramatic role was the one that not many people know about, but that molded his life and his psyche – not to mention his acting – for most of his career: fighter pilot in World War II. We talk to an author who delved into Stewart’s war service about how flying missions over Europe and seeing his comrades die affected the actor and his choice of roles and acting style for the rest of his life.

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  • Robert Matzen, author of Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the fight for Europe.

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The Jimmy Stewart You Never Knew

Gary Price: At this holiday time of year, families are looking forward to sitting down in front of the television to watch the film It’s a Wonderful Life starring Jimmy Stewart. The actor is beloved by audiences around the world, and what’s not to like? He’s the troubled but dedicated family man in that film; the naive but idealistic U.S. senator, Mr. Smith, who went to Washington to win the day; Dr. Ben McKenna as The Man Who Knew Too Much in Hitchcock’s thriller; and the hero, Charles Lindbergh who flew the Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic. However, Robert Matzen found a different side to Stewart while researching his new book, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the fight for Europe. He says that the actor was a passionate flier and military man whose family’s dedication to the army and their country could be traced back generations.

Robert Matzen: Jim came from a long line of soldiers that went all the way back to the America Revolution. Both of his grandfathers served in the U.S. Civil War. One, his maternal grandfather, was a general in the Union Army and a hero of the second day’s battle at Gettysburg. If your history buffs out there know the Wheatfield and the Valley of Death, that’s where he was. Jim’s other grandfather was a sergeant in the Signal Corps and served in the Shenandoah Valley under Phil Sheridan. And it was under Custer, Jim’s paternal grandfather who lived into the 1930s was at Appomattox. He was at several battles including New Market, but he was at Appomattox and Jim could learn about what war was really like on the knee of his grandfather, the elder J.M. Stewart.

Price: Before he became a soldier, Matzen says that Stewart attended Princeton University and found his way to acting in plays there and on Broadway. It’s hard to believe today, but when a talent scout brought him to MGM in Hollywood, filmmakers really didn’t know what to do with him.

Matzen: They just know they had this really charming, talented guy, certainly not a leading man because he was 6-foot-4 and weighed 140 pounds. He was a ridiculous-looking specimen. His nickname in school had been “Slats” because he was so tall and thin. He was in a starring picture with Eleanor Powell called Born to Dance in 1936, and that’s really where he got his big break where he was seen, “Maybe he could be a leading man, because look how charming he is. He can even dance, he can sing if you force him to.” But it was more like in the later 30s with Vivacious Lady with Ginger Rogers, and then You Can’t Take It With You was his first Capra picture, and it was a hit. But Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939 with his second Capra picture was the big one. You know, that was the one that put him on the map. He should have won the Academy Award. He didn’t. But that cemented his reputation as one of the most popular leading men in Hollywood.

Price: He and his lifelong friend, Henry Fonda, lived together and made the most of their Hollywood experience. They partied, went to clubs and were always surrounded by beautiful starlets. Matzen says that Fonda was frustrated because all of his dates seemed to want to be with Stewart, and even told him to stop stealing his girlfriends. Jimmy had something — despite his long and lanky appearance — that appealed to Hollywood stars like Norma Shearer, Ginger Rogers and Margaret Sullavan.

Matzen: He just had this “gee whiz” quality about him and he had this killer sense of humor and it just attracted women like a magnet. Did you mention Loretta Young? Did you mention Marlene Dietrich, of all people, was crazy about him and wanted to marry him. I mean that’s the kind of A-list he kept. I’ve been dinged for going so heavily into that aspect of him but I just think it shows how badly he needed affirmation. That he wasn’t just the big goofball, you know, that he was a serious person. “These women take me seriously.” And it’s the very same kind of validation that drove him to war, drove him to succeed, because he needed to prove himself there too.

Price: When World War II broke out, Stewart wanted to be a part of the action. He received a deferment for being underweight and, despite his efforts to bulk up, he couldn’t make the grade. Stewart, who was a civilian pilot, finally managed to get into the Army Air Corps but was stuck stateside making recruiting films and training pilots who went overseas. Matzen says that a sympathetic staff officer finally gave him a combat assignment and Stewart was in.

Matzen: I still don’t quite understand how he pulled this off, because the War Department did not want him overseas. But he managed to get a combat assignment and, if you will, fly under the radar, and go to Sioux City and it was there that he became a squadron commander on this bomb group, the 445th that was training to go overseas – just training, training, training. He slid in there, he established himself and all of a sudden that bomb group was assigned to England and off he went.

Price: In England, Stewart flew a B-24 plane called “The Liberator” which, according to Matzen, was a piece of machinery that was as dangerous as the bombs the pilots were dropping into enemy territory.

Matzen: It was known for its fuel leaks and Liberators would just blow up, and without a trace. One of the planes in his group, one of his pilots, Earl Metcalf, took off one morning on a mission, disappeared, was never found and it was determined that his plane probably blew up as it was ascending into formation. These were just big crates. I’ve flown in B-24s and it’s like riding in the back of a Mack truck over a bumpy road. That’s what it was like. Unpressurized cabins at 20,000 feet in European winter, 30-below-0, 40-below-0. If your heated flying suit failed, you would go unconscious. If your oxygen supply got cut off, you would go unconscious. It was a very rough enterprise that he was in the middle of.

Price: Matzen says that Stewart flew his missions as best he could, but the combat took its toll on the actor.

Matzen: He flew 20 and he flew about a dozen just in the first few months that he was there. And then he cracked up, as so many of them did just because the stress was enormous. And then he didn’t fly as much but he did complete his 20 missions and they were serious missions. There were very few what they would call “milk runs” where you would just go over, drop your bombs without any fighters or flak and come back.

Price: One assignment called “Operation Argument” was designed to bomb the German aircraft operations to cripple Hitler’s Luftwaffe for good.

Matzen: So they undertook this one-week bombing campaign in February of 1944 to hit all these targets. And it turned out to be a bloodbath. Jim flew the first mission of “Big Week” – they called it “Big Week” because it was a big week – in the Allied effort. He flew the first mission, that was okay. The second mission he did not fly was to the German city of Gotha and it wrecked the 445th Bomb Group. There were 25 of their planes that went up that day, 13 got shot down, 12 came back and the survivors that came back told horrifying stories of how many hundreds of German fighters swarming around them. It was the most vicious air battle he could have ever even imagined hearing of. And he was in all the debriefings so he heard about it. And guess what? He had to lead the mission the next day to go back to the same target. And that was the mission that proved to be just one too many.

Price: Matzen says that it was a miracle that Stewart returned from that mission in one piece. What affected the actor more than flying those dangerous missions was losing men under his command.

Matzen: The best I can tell you is that was what really put him over the edge. The stress of making all the right decisions for a perfectionist like Jim was was just overwhelming, unbearable. You have 25 crews behind you on some missions, a hundred crews behind you on other missions and you can’t bring everybody home alive under the kind of conditions they were under. Whether planes blew up themselves before they got over the target, or whether it was flak, or whether it was fighters. He internalized every man, every crew that he lost out of his squadron or out of his formation. When he lost fliers, he would write the letters home, you know, “Dear Mom…” “Dear Dad, I want you to know your son was lost over the target…” I mean he wrote those letters. He took that on himself. I mean it was just, it all just added and added to him and pretty soon he looked, he had aged years. There’s a picture in the book, a “before” and an “after” of him in 1942 and him in 1944 and you wouldn’t believe it. He looked like his own father after a couple of years.

Price: After the war, Stewart came home a different man. Matzen says that he was haunted by nightmares of his time as a bomber pilot, seeing all of the death and destruction around him. He used it, though, as a motivation for some of his most famous characters in the films he made after the war

Matzen: When he came back from the war he had this edge, he had this dark side. When he got married his wife said, “Boy, does this guy have a temper! He has a blinding temper that’ll come out of nowhere.” And he didn’t have that before the war. So he would channel it, he would look for roles that were challenging to him and he would channel it that way. And the first time you see it is in It’s a Wonderful Life. You know, he’s at the end of his rope, the money is missing, he screams on the telephone at his kid’s teacher and then he breaks up his living room, he throws things, he terrifies his family and that’s him letting out that rage and doing it safely, and doing it as part of the job. If you look at his roles, you know there are a lot of those outbursts. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance he has one, a couple. Winchester ‘73 he has some. The Naked Spur, you know these pictures where he played these characters with a dark side.

Price: There are plenty of Hollywood stories about Jimmy Stewart and his colleagues in the book, as well as stories about the missions the actor ran over Europe as a fighter pilot, and the camaraderie and bravery of the men who fought there. What does Matzen want readers to come away with after reading his book?

Matzen: I would like readers to understand what these young guys did, and it’s not just Jim. If you read the book you see how much attention I give to the men that were under his command, that he flew with every day and they were heroes. And that’s what he said, “I’m not a hero. Those guys, those are the heroes.” And I would like people to just stop and think about not the Hollywood version of what that war was like, but what the real flesh and blood version of that war was and what men sacrificed for and what they gave up – they gave up their lives. And Jim gave up his youth. And there are millions of stories like that and that’s what I would like people to remember.

Price: You can read all about those brave men who fought alongside actor Jimmy Stewart during his service in the Army Air Corps in World War II, in Robert Matzen’s book, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the fight for Europe, available now. The author also invites listeners to visit his website at RobertMatzen – that’s m-a-t-z-e-n — .com. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there, and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.