Most only know him as a famous actor who played roles as a military officer, a cowboy, a famous band leader, a
businessman and a politician. But few seem to know the true story behind the fascinating military career of one of
this country's greatest actors. Jimmy Stewart led a very successful career as a bomber pilot and command level
officer during WWII. This page is dedicated to the memory of Jimmy Stewart, his military career, and those who
served with him during WWII in the skies above Europe.
This is one of the few pages on my site which does not show something from my collection. It is simply a tribute to a
great American actor, a distinguished veteran and an All-American role model.
While establishing his reputation as an actor, the rest of the world was about to go to war.
German occupation in numerous countries in the early part of 1940 led Congress on
September 16, 1940 to pass the Selective Service Bill, “the draft.” This bill called for 900,000
men between the ages of 20 and 36 to be drafted each year. Stewart’s draft number was 310.
When his number was called and he appeared at Draft Board No. 245 in West Los Angeles in
February 1941, the 6’3” Stewart weighed only 138 pounds, 5 pounds under the acceptable
weight level. He was turned down for service. Stewart wanted to fly and serve his country but
by May of 1941 he would have been too old to get into flight school.
He went home ate everything he could that was fattening and went back and enlisted in the
Army Air Corps, he passed the physical with an ounce to spare and began his military service
as a private. While others tried to avoid the draft, he actually wanted to serve in the military and
was the first Hollywood star to enter military service prior or during WWII.
Interested in aviation as a child, he had taken his first flight while still in Indiana from one of the
barnstorming pilots that used to travel the Midwest. As a successful actor in 1935 Jimmy was
able to afford flying lessons. He received his civilian pilot’s license in 1935, and bought his first
airplane. In 1938 he obtained his commercial pilot’s license. He often flew cross country to
visit his parents in Pennsylvania, navigating by the railroad tracks.
In the military, he was to make extensive use of his civilian pilot’s training. In March 1941 at age
32, he reported for duty as Private James Stewart at Fort McArthur and was assigned to the
Army Air Corps at Moffett Field. To comply with the regulations of the Air Corps proficiency
board, Stewart required additional 100 flying hours and bought them at a nearby field, at his
own expense. He then took and passed a very stiff proficiency board examination.
In January 1942 Stewart was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant. He was then sent to Mather
Field in California as a four engine instructor, this included both the B-17 and B-24 heavy
bombers. Much to his dismay, Stewart stayed stateside for almost two years working as a flight
instructor, until commanding officers finally yielded to his request to be sent overseas.
In November 1943, now a Captain and Operations Officer for the 703rd Bomb Squadron, 445th
Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force, he arrived in Tibenham, England. In March of
1944 he was transferred to the 453rd Bombardment Group at Old Buckenham (Old Buc).
Throughout his combat career, Stewart flew as lead pilot in B-24 Liberators.
Stewart’s war record included 20 combat missions as command pilot over enemy territory,
including raids deep into Germany to Berlin. He didn't fly the milk runs, and his missions
included bombing raids to Berlin, Brunswick, Bremen, Frankfurt, and Schweinfurt. His most
memorable mission, Stewart served as the flight leader of a 1000 plain raid to Berlin. He was
awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters, the Air Medal with three
Oak Leaf Clusters, and the French Croix de Guerre with Palm.
By the end of the war he had risen to the rank of Colonel. After the war he remained with the
US Air Force Reserves and was eventually promoted to Brigadier General in 1959. In 1966, he
participated in a bombing strike in Vietnam, as an observer on a B-52 bomber. He retired from
the Air Force in 1968 and received the Distinguished Service Medal and ultimately, the
Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Upon returning to Hollywood, Stewart took a brief vacation, spending time in his home town
with his parents. He then returned to Hollywood and made his first post-war movie, "It's a
Wonderful Life" in 1946.
In August 1943 he was finally assigned to the 445th Bombardment Group at Sioux City AAB, Iowa, first as Operations Officer of the 703rd Bombardment Squadron and then as its commander, at the rank of Captain. 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 unit 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 is 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 very few Americans to rise from private to colonel in four years.