- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 18, 2006


By Starr Smith

Zenith, $24.95, 287 pags, illus.


When World War II came to the United States, the American film industry was quick and generous in urging film actors to do their part. No one heard the call more quickly or clearly than James Stewart, who in fact had already enlisted in the Air Corps when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. At the actual time of the raid on Pearl Harbor, Jimmy Stewart was doing guard duty at Moffit Field, south of San Francisco.

Jimmy Stewart was an actor who appeared in some 80 films during a great career, and went on to become a celebrated, highly-decorated pilot of American Liberator bombers before returning to the movies.

In “Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot,” Starr Smith charts the last half of this truly extraordinary and unforgettable man’s life.

Mr. Smith, an Associated Press reporter, spent long hours over a long period of time working on Jimmy Stewart’s career. He gives us the actor who portrayed characters as diverse as Charles Lindberg and Glenn Miller. He also reminds us that it was Jimmy Stewart who starred in the now Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” (which wasn’t all that well-liked when it came out) and in other memorable films such as “Winchester 73,” “Anatomy of a Murder” and “Strategic Air Command” (a subject about which his wartime experience gave him a great deal of knowledge).

James Stewart, who grew up in smalltown Pennsylvania, was a devoted family man and a patriot, deeply committed to the United States. When he separated himself from MGM and Hollywood to go to war, he said, “It may sound corny, but what’s wrong with wanting to fight for your country? Why are people reluctant to use the word, ‘Patriotism?’” He was a close friend of Ronald Reagan and in later years campaigned for him when he ran for president.

Stewart married only once, unusual by Hollywood standards. Gloria McLean was the love of his life, and he was devastated when she died of cancer at age 75. She had two sons from a previous marriage, one of whom was killed in Vietnam.

The actor, famous for playing opposite greats like Katherine Hepburn, entered the Air Corps before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Already a licensed pilot, and used his own two-seater Stinson to fly back and forth to Hollywood or his hometown in Pennsylvania. But the fllyer in him longed for bigger aircraft, and eventually that’s exactly what he flew during the war — primarily the B-24 Liberator Bomber. This was a magnificent aircraft, with four 1200-horsepower engines, 2700 gallons of fuel, 88,000 pounds of bombs, 10 500-calibre machine guns, 11 movable gun turrets plus two in the ship’s waist.

Was he good at flying this kind of monster? Yes, and more than a little of his skill came from the fact that he enjoyed piloting the big planes so much.

Fifty years later he was asked what he thought of his life in the military. It was one of the great experiences of his life, he said. “Greater than being in the movies?” was the next question. “Much greater,” he answered. “Much greater.”

Stewart flew 20 missions in enemy skies and was on combat duty with the 8th Air Force, commanding bomber crews. He logged thousands of hours in the air, and never lost a plane he was flying.

For his valor, he received the Distinguished Fly Cross, the Flying Cross, the Air Medal, all with clusters. He also received the Croix de Guerre from France.

By the war’s end, he had served four years in uniform. In 1959, President Eisenhower appointed him brigadier general. President Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985.

Starr Smith turned it all into an outstanding book — a book filled with splendid photographs, including pictures from late in his life, especially when he walked alone down the long wartime airport runway in England over which he had directed so many planes into the air. James Stewart died at the age of 89 at his home in Beverly Hills. Queen Elizabeth referred to him as, “The Quiet American who flew B-24s.”

Ambassador Robert M. Smalley (Ret.) was appointed by President Ronald Reagan.

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