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The Stewart family had deep military roots as both grandfathers had fought in the Civil War, and his father had served during both the Spanish-American War and World War I. Since Stewart considered his father to be the biggest influence on his life, it was not surprising that when another war eventually came, he too served. Unlike his family’s previous infantry service, Stewart chose to become a military flyer.
Nearly two years before the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Stewart had become a private pilot and had accumulated over 300 hours of flying time. Considered a highly proficient pilot, he even entered a cross-country race as a co-pilot in 1939. Along with musician/composer Hoagy Carmichael, seeing the need for trained war pilots, Stewart teamed with other Hollywood moguls and put their own money into creating a flying school in Glendale, Arizona which they named Thunderbird Field. This airfield trained more than 200,000 pilots during the War, became the origin of the Flying Thunderbirds, and is now the home of Thunderbird School of Global Management.
Later in 1940, Stewart was drafted into the Army Air Corps but was rejected due to a weight problem. The USAAC had strict height and weight requirements for new recruits and Stewart was five pounds under the standard. To get up to 148 pounds he sought out the help of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s muscle man, Don Loomis, who was legendary for his ability to add or subtract pounds in his studio gymnasium. Stewart subsequently attempted to enlist in the United States Army Air Corps but still came in under the weight requirement although he persuaded the AAF enlistment officer to run new tests, this time passing the weigh-in, with the result that Stewart successfully enlisted in the Army in March 1941. He became the first major American movie star to wear a military uniform in World War II.
Since the United States had yet to declare war on Germany and because of the Army’s unwillingness to put celebrities on the front, Stewart was held back from combat duty, though he did earn a commission as a Second Lieutenant and completed pilot training. He was later stationed in Albuquerque, NM, becoming an instructor pilot for the B-17 Flying Fortress.
The only public appearances after he went into flight school were limited engagements scheduled by the Air Corps. “Stewart appeared several times on network radio with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. 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. But mostly, Stewart’s days and nights were spent preparing for his upcoming flight tests, ground school and academic examinations for his commission.”
“Still, the war was moving on. For the thirty-six-year-old Stewart, combat duty seemed far away and unreachable, and he had no clear plans for the future. But then a rumor that Stewart would be taken off flying status and assigned to making training films or selling bonds called for his immediate and decisive action, because what he dreaded most was the hope-shattering spector of a dead end.” So he appealed to his commander, a pre-war aviator, who understood the situation and reassigned him to a unit going overseas.
In August 1943 he was finally assigned to the 445th Bombardment Group in Sioux City, Iowa, first as Operations Officer of the 703rd Bombardment Squadron and then its commander. In December, the 445th Bombardment Group flew its B-24 Liberator bombers to RAF Tibenham, England and immediately began combat operations. While flying missions over Germany, Stewart was promoted to Major. In March 1944, he was transferred as group operations officer to the 453rd Bombardment Group, a new B-24 outfit that had been experiencing difficulties. As a means to inspire his new group, Stewart flew as command pilot in the lead B-24 on numerous missions deep into Nazi-occupied Europe. These missions went uncounted at Stewart’s orders. His “official” total is listed as 20 and are limited to those with the 445th. In 1944, he twice received the Distinguished Flying Cross for actions in combat and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. He also received the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. In July 1944, after flying 20 combat missions, Stewart was made chief of staff of the 2nd Combat Bombardment Wing of the Eighth Air Force. Before the war ended, he was promoted to colonel, one of only a few Americans to rise from private to colonel in four years.
At the beginning of June 1945, Stewart was the presiding officer of the Court-Martial of a pilot and navigator who were charged with dereliction of duty when they accidentally bombed the Swiss city of Zurich the previous March – the first instance of US personnel being tried over an attack on a neutral country. The Court acquitted the accused.
Stewart continued to play an active role in the United States Air Force Reserve after the war, achieving the rank of Brigadier General on 23 July 1959. Stewart did not often talk of his wartime service, perhaps due to his desire to be seen as a regular soldier doing his duty instead of as a celebrity. He did appear on the TV series, The World At War to discuss the 14 October 1943, bombing mission to Schweinfurt, which was the centre of the German ball bearing manufacturing industry. This mission is known in USAF history as Black Thursday due to the incredibly high casualties it sustained; in total 60 aircraft were lost out of 291 dispatched, as the raid consisting entirely of B17s was unescorted all the way to Schweinfurt and back due to the current escort aircraft available lacking the range. Fittingly, he was identified only as “James Stewart, Squadron Commander” in the documentary.
In 1966, Brigadier General James Stewart rode along as an observer on a B-52 Stratofortress bombing run during the Vietnam War; he also flew combat duty missions during that conflict. At the time of his B-52 mission, 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. He served as Air Force Reserve commander of Dobbins Air Reserve Base in the early 1950s and after 27 years of service, Stewart retired from the Air Force on 31 May 1968.