When we hear James Stewart's name, we often think of his acting career; we particularly think of his role in
It's a Wonderful Life. I mean, who doesn't love that movie? But did you know that he was the first Hollywood star to wear a military uniform during World War II?
James Stewart is one of my all-time favorite actors, and he's one of the most memorable ones in the business. He also came from a family with military ties all the way back to the Civil War and was a trained pilot during WWII himself.
Early Interest in Aviation
As a child, Stewart was very active in school and was part of a slew of sports and clubs. Most of his time after school was spent in the basement where he often worked on model airplanes.
His interest in aviation started at an early age, where he avidly tracked Charles Lindberg's progress in his historic flight across the Atlantic. However, rather than enlist in the U.S. Naval Academy, he attended Princeton.
This is where he discovered acting and he joined the University Players. His career path took a shift towards acting for a while, but an upcoming draft would provide another shift for Stewart, and he would have a chance to live out his dream.
Because of his acting success, he was able to buy his own plane. He had taken flying lessons during his time in Indiana and often flew home to visit his PA family, using rail roads as his navigation.
Career in the Sky
James Stewart already had a commercial pilots license-which he earned after privately flying for a while-at the time of the WWII draft.
As a private pilot, he had logged over 400 hours of flight and was considered a highly proficient pilot. He was drafted about 8 months before Pearl Harbor but was turned away because he didn't meet the weight requirement. This didn't stop him though. He changed his diet but still didn't meet the requirement. But he was persistent-some believe that he talked with the doctors-and was finally let in.
Stewart was trained at Moffett Field in California where his fans swarmed to catch a glimpse of him. But his commanding officer worked to keep them at bay so he could train, and Stewart was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant on January 18, 1942.
Once he was enrolled, however, he was still held back a bit. During that time, it was hard for celebrities to serve on the front lines. He served as a pilot trainer, teaching others how to fly the B-17 Flying Fortress.
Things got better for his military career in 1943 when he was assigned as a Captain and Operations Officer for the 703rd Bomb Squadron, 445th Bombardment Group in Sioux City, Iowa—the same group who flew theory B-24 Liberator bombers to RAF Tibenham, England and began combat missions. He was finally serving overseas and, during that time, was promoted to Major. He later flew as command pilot in missions into Nazi-occupied Europe. These missions are not counted in his overall missions, at his request.
He served overseas for 21 months and was awarded six battle stars. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 1968 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985. Other medals he was awarded are:
- Air Medal with 3 Oak Leaf Clusters
- American Defense Service Medal
- Armed Forces Reserve Medal
- Army Commendation Medal
- Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster
- European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with 3 Service Stars
- French Croix de Guerre with Palm
- World War II Victory Medal
Stewart co-created a flying school named Thunderbird Field. Located in Arizona, their school trained over 200,000 pilots during the war. Today, it is the location of
Thunderbird School of Global Management.
Flying as a command pilot in B-24 Liberators, Stewart flew over 20 missions as a command pilot. He was rather quiet about his time serving our country, but what we do know is impressive.
His connection to acting and aviation is directly seen in The Spirit of At. Louis, where he played Charles Lindbergh in a film about the pilot's historic solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean.
I think, with that movie and his other military films, his life came full-circle for him. He was passionate about all that he did, and that shows in his films, and his determination to be enlisted and serve our country.