What do a giant Rabbit called Harvey, and a World War Two B24 Liberator Bomber have in common? Some of you may have guessed the answer, but for those of you that are still trying to make the leap in associations, let me save you some head scratching – the answer is Jimmy Stewart, the famous actor.
This year we celebrate the one hundred and twelth anniversary of the birth of James Maitland Stewart, who achieved fame as both an actor and a pilot. I believe that he was a man deserving of great respect, and that his story should be told.
James Stewart was born of Scottish/Irish stock on May 20th 1908, in the small town of Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his Father ran the local hardware store. As a young man, Jimmy never took an acting lesson, preferring instead to serve with the Boy Scouting movement.
Within four years of joining his local Scout pack, Stewart had achieved the rank of Scout second class, and had appeared in a series of commercials promoting the scouting movement – probably his very first movie appearances! He also served as a volunteer with the Orange County and Los Angeles Scout Councils, and received the Silver Beaver award, the highest award for adults in the Boy Scout movement.
Always an intelligent and thoughtful man, Jimmy studied at Princeton University, and graduated in 1932 with a degree in architecture.
Young Jimmy Stewart was also a very keen actor, and had previously attended acting camps with many other embryonic stars, including the late Henry Fonda.
A quiet adventurer, he had already learned to fly by 1935, and had quickly bought his first aeroplane . Frequently flying from the Los Angeles area to see his parents in Pennsylvania, he regularly used the most basic of navigational aids – following roads, railways and rivers to make the trip both there and back. In 1938, after much effort, he was awarded his commercial pilot licence.
By February 1941, World War Two was up and running, and the thirty-three year old Stewart was called up under draft number 310. He had already decided that he wanted to fly for the military.
Surprisingly, at the time of his attempted enlistment at Draft Board No. 245, the six foot three inch (1.90m) Jimmy weighed only 138 pounds (62.5kg) – a BMI of just 17! He was uniquely refused service on the grounds of being underweight!
Desperately keen to fly, he returned home, and commenced a weight gain programme that had one basic instruction – eat everything! This was made all the more important, as by May of that year, he would have been too old to muster as aircrew.
As soon as he felt able, he re-presented himself for the selection board, and was passed as fit for aircrew duties.
To this day, there are still muttered and whispered allegations that he was underweight at the time of his second medical assessment and that he used his acting abilities to persuade the medicos to be “flexible” in their assessments!
The newly-minted Private James Stewart initially reported to Fort McArthur near San Pedro, California, and was then assigned for aircrew training to the Army Air Corps at Moffett Field a large airbase located just north west of San Jose in Northern California.
Originally commissioned for the US Navy to accommodate airships, this huge base was given to the US Army Air Force during WWII, but is now the home of the NASA Ames Research Laboratories.
Needing an extra one hundred hours of flying time in order to qualify as a military pilot, Jimmy bought them from a local flying club at his personal expense, and soon had the necessary experience to progress further.
By January 1942, 2nd Lieutenant Stewart passed out through the gates of Moffet Field, and was posted to Mather Field Sacramento, California, where he was to become a multi-engine airplane instructor, primarily teaching students to fly on the B17 (Flying Fortress) and the B25 (Mitchell) bombers.
Whilst this was worthy work, Lieutenant Stewart pestered his superiors to be posted overseas to a war theatre, and was finally successful in late 1943. Conceding defeat, his CO finally promoted Jimmy to the rank of Captain, and sent him to join the 703rd Squadron of the 445th Bombardment Group of the 8th Air Force.
So it was, that in November 1943, Jimmy Stewart, arrived in the gloomy, damp fens of Norfolk, specifically to Tibenham airfield, (now the home of the Norfolk Gliding Club). His new post was that of Operations Officer. At the time the squadron was equipped with B24 Liberator bombers.
Only staying a short time with the 445th, Stewart was transferred to the 453rd Bombardment Group, as Group Operations Officer, joining them at the nearby Old Buckenham Aerodrome on the 30th March 1944 as a newly promoted Major.
Advancement within an active service Bomber Group in wartime England was rapid due to high casualties and the need for experienced men to lead – and by early July 1944, James Stewart was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel, and moved to Wing Headquarters, where he continued to serve until the end of the war.
It is interesting to see that Jimmy Stewart achieved the highest military rank of any actor in modern history; during the second world war he rose to the rank of full colonel, and post-war he remained in the US Air Force Reserve, rising to the rank of Brigadier-General.
Only two other celebrities outranked him – President Ronald Reagan – and therefore Commander-in-Chief of all US Forces (Captain US Army Air Force 1937 – 1945), and John Ford the movie director (Commander, US Navy, and retired as Rear Admiral US Navy Reserve).
This delightfully unassuming man was also a highly decorated officer, being awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross (with Oak Leaf Cluster) Air Medal (Three Oak Leaf Clusters) The Army Commendation Medal, The French Croix de Guerre, American Defence Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
It is typical of James Stewart that he rarely spoke of his part in the war, and was deeply affected by the deaths of his friends in service, and found the aerial bombing campaigns traumatic. This is somewhat reflected in the nature of the rôles he took after the war. He is also reputed to have had a dislike for Hollywood war films, on the grounds of their lack of accuracy.
This probably accounts for the fact that he only ever starred in two combat films after the war, “Strategic Air Command” and “The Mountain Road”.
He remained, however totally committed to aviation, and keenly pursued the studios to portray Charles Lindbergh in the film “Spirit of St. Louis” despite the producers feeling that he was a bit too old to play the part. His enthusiasm for the part was simply because he greatly admired Lindbergh.
The 1965 film The Flight of the Phoenix, saw Jimmy playing yet another pilot – this time as Captain Frank Towns, the commander of a Fairchild C-82 airplane which crashes in a remote part of the Sahara desert.
The twin engine aircraft is built with twin booms to support the tailplane, and a central fuselage containing the flight deck, cabin, and cargo hold.
When the crash occurs, the aircraft is severely damaged on landing, but with the help of a passenger who is an aircraft designer, they create a composite aeroplane out of the remains of one engine and tail boom, and sections of the wing, with which to build a single engine aeroplane to fly out of the desert.
In reality, a company called Tallmantz Aviation purpose-built the Phoenix P-1, designed by Otto Timm. Measuring 45 feet long, and with a wingspan of 42 feet, it was quite a large aircraft. The power was provided by a virtually new Pratt and Whitney R-1340 nine-cylinder radial engine, which was removed from a T6 Texan military trainer, as were some of the undercarriage components, and other associated parts. The wings were taken from a Beechcraft 18, and the rest of the airframe was made of plywood panels over a wooden frame.
In the film, the structure is given dummy “bracing” wires, and to give the desired “home-made” effect, washing line and linen was used with the specific intention to make the whole airframe look flimsy.
As the aircraft was truly intended to get airborne, it was considered too dangerous to allow Jimmy to fly, so Paul Mantz a famous stunt pilot, was commissioned to pilot it for the film.
It was considered by the director and crew to do repeated take offs, so it was decided that a low pass would be made for filming, and the aircraft would touch down, perform a longer landing roll, and then take off again. This would enable both the take-off and landing sequences to be made from one shoot.
Sadly, on the second take, the aircraft crashed, tragically killing Paul Mantz.
In 1966, Jimmy was given permission to fly one last military operation – he flew as a non-duty observer on a B-52 strategic bomber during a combat mission over North Vietnam. Two years later, he retired from the US Air Force, to spend time with his wife.
Jimmy never truly recovered from the shock of his wife’s death in 1997, and made no further public appearances after her funeral.
James Stewart, Pilot, War Hero Architect, and Actor, died of cardiac arrest on the morning of 2nd July 1997, at the age of 89.
And that giant rabbit called Harvey? Well, Jimmy made a film in 1950, where his character, the eccentric Elmer P Dowd meets a 6 foot three white rabbit that only he can see, and who accompanies him wherever he goes. Now you know.
I wrote this after visiting the WW1 graves at Ypres, and West Flanders. Having looked at the names and ages on the simple white headstones, following the Battle of Passchendaele. There were numerous graves of 16 year olds. I also attended the Last Post at the Menin Gate. It was one of the most moving military ceremonies I have ever seen. When I looked around, virtually everyone, men, women, children, me. We all had tears on our faces.
I hope I’ve done these men justice in the following words.
Don’t tell em I’m only sixteen, Mum,
Or they won’t let me go the the front,
I’ve been issued a Lewis machine gun,
Which I clean as I sit on my bunk
I’ve heard there’s a big push tomorrow,
The barrage is starting at dawn,
The sky’s grey and dark with Gods sorrow,
The Poppy’s stand limp and forlorn
We stand in the mud of the gloomy old trench,
Waiting silent for daybreak to come,
Backing us up are Belgians and French,
All shaking from fear of the Hun
Some lonely boy in a dugout, is playing a gramophone now,
A sweet image of crisp sheets and home,
With my girl at the Theatre, to see Chu Chin Chow,
Surrounded by men in a close crowded trench, I’m alone
Don’t tell ’em I’m only sixteen Mum,
Or they won’t let me go over the top
I’m no longer a schoolboy, so,I must go and battle the Hun,
I’ll make you proud, Mum, and I promise I won’t get the chop
The Suns golden fingers, are now probing the top of my trench,
A whistle is blown, the ground starts to shake, my ears filled with brimstone and noise,
Dawn’s freshness corrupt, by explosions, the smoke with a cordite stench,
A shout, and the smell of fresh mud hits my face, as I climb up the steps with the boys
The barbed wire fence is in tatters, like a snakes skin just freshly sloughed,
The whipcrack of bullets buzz by my head, like like so many furious bees,
We slowly move into the maelstrom, friends falling like rain from the clouds
Away to my left is Sid from the village, chest Crimson, he sinks to his knees
Through the smoke I see a small crump hole, half filled with my comrades, and mud
I look back to the trench that was home, about fifty yards I would guess
I crouch and hobble to safety, and see Charlie, who’s covered in blood,
I held his hand as he died in the green slimy mud, I cry, “My God, what a mess”
Don’t tell them I’m only sixteen Mum, I’m really just doing my bit,
If the Captain finds out that I’m under age, they’ll send me home in disgrace,
It’s just that I’m so very scared Mum, that on the next push, I’ll get hit,
Then it’s back to the factory, white feathers, and old ladies who spit in my face