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 too dangerous 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.
Lounging on the sagging brown leather sofa in the Petersfield branch of Costa Coffee, I take a swig of my coffee. Not my normal velvety creamy latte, but a black coffee. Dark and with no sweetener. Not anywhere near as satisfying, but under my new weight loss regime, essential.
A middle-aged woman walked briskly past the window, a stark contrast to the overcast day; bright floral trousers, baby-pink quilted jacket, a lurid multi coloured beanie hat, and electric blue plastic clogs.
Her flamboyant outfit sent my mind rocketing back 4 decades, to the mid 1960s.
The summer of 1967 was sunny and warm. I was eight years old, and loving my school holidays. To my boyish eyes, all of the local women were fabulously gorgeous, and there was an excitable buzz everywhere.
In the USA, the Summer of Love was happening, with over 100,000 young hippies assembling in Haight-Ashbury, a San Francisco suburb, preaching peace, happiness, self-determination, and rebellion against repression and materialism.
These flower children were hopeful and idealistic, as we all are when we are young, and want to see change.
I started to ponder things. The hippie dream was one of love and peace, with multi-ethnic communes striving to live with minimum impact on the environment – an ethos that was strong in 1967. I wondered how much of that dream has survived the intervening 52 years?
The hippie motto of “turn on, tune in and drop out” was a rallying call to disengage from contemporary middle-class values and materialism, and concentrate on expanding the mind – albeit propped up with the use of Psychedelic drugs and living in harmony – not just with each other but with the environment.
Pop culture drove some of this, with icons such as the Beatles promoting eastern religious teachings, and whilst vegetarianism had always been an option, it never had the wide promotion and uptake that it enjoyed with the hippie generation.
Hippies were generally aligned to “Make Love not War” and many thousands protested at the US’s involvement in the Vietnam war, including two demonstrations in London, leading to a number of injuries caused during confrontations with the Police.
The Hippie counter-culture was influenced by a number of global events. In January of 1968, Alexander Dubček, the First Secretary of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party introduced a series of reforms intended to give more democratic freedom and civil rights to its citizens. By August of 1968, the Soviet Union aided by other Warsaw Pact countries invaded and ruthlessly supressed the “Prague Spring.”
At about the same time, in Vietnam, the Tet Offensive began, leading to the US military commander General Westmoreland announcing that the Viet Cong could only be defeated by drafting another 200,000 men, and activating the reserves.
This not only unsettled middle-class America, but also further affected the Hippie psyche. Draft-dodging became recognised as acceptable conduct amongst the disaffected young; In my part of the globe, England, I well remember the protests in London, and seeing in later years the student riots in France, as the idealist young rebelled against the old world order.
The increasing public awareness that there could be a better way led to the normalisation of the emergent ecologic movement, and that man should go back to living in harmony with the planet.
Music of the time reflected the changing values. Donovan sang “Universal Soldier” as a protest about the Vietnam War. Barry McGuire released “Eve of Destruction” as a protest against the broken civil rights system, war, the worsening situation in the Middle East and the assassination of John F Kennedy.
At the time, this angry protest was deemed so inflammatory that several radio stations in the USA banned it, as did Radio Scotland. Even dear old Auntie Beeb placed it on a restricted playlist, meaning that it couldn’t be broadcast on general entertainment shows.
So, what of the Hippie dream now?
Well, it may not exist in quite the same form, but be under no illusions, there are still plenty of idealistic people out there.
Greenpeace still upholds ecological ideals and frequently protests robustly. More recently in the UK we have seen Extinction Rebellion protesting against the lack of state action on the climate emergency.
Highly organised and connected via social media they advocate peaceful protest against inaction by the government.
Their website suggests that protests should be occupying relevant and significant buildings, chanting at meetings, and gluing themselves to doors and infrastructure. Not quite so radical as French students setting cars ablaze, but still quite effective.
I think that pretty much everyone has heard of Greta Thunberg, the schoolgirl who protested climate change outside the Swedish parliament every Friday. Now an internationally recognised figure, and a speaker at global climate change conferences, she has captured the younger generation’s consciousness and has catalysed a global movement.
In the UK in 2019, School and University students called a strike to highlight climate change, as did youth from across the globe, from Australia to India, and the USA to Sweden. The events were co-ordinated using social media under the banner of Fridays for Future.
However, there are other equally able and motivated young people here in the UK, who don’t appear to be as well known.
Take, for example, Bella Lack. She is now 17 and has been an activist against climate change. She has over 150,000 followers on social media, and as a result of her activities, she is Youth Ambassador for the Born Free Foundation, The RSPCA, The Save the Asian Elephant and The Ivory Alliance.
Amy and Ella Meek, sisters who formed Kids Against Plastic, an organisation that is dedicated to reducing single use plastics, and educating young people in the environmental issues facing us, and highlighting the fact that young people have a voice, and can make a difference.
I believe that the Hippie Dream is still alive and kicking. Its face may have changed, but its spirit lives on in the likes of Greta, Amy, Ella and Bella.
These are the new Hippies – caring, thoughtful, and motivated to make the world a better place for all of us.
Maybe their music isn’t as good as that churned out in the 60s Summer of Love, and maybe we don’t have Woodstock or Flower Power…
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
I wrote this after wasting a day at a little grass airfield in Southern England, waiting for the grey overcast, and the heavy rain and showers to blow through. – typical cold front weather. The airfield – Popham in Hampshire was, and still is the home of the Spitfire flying club, and on that morning it was pretty atmospheric, and I just got to thinking. This is the result.
For those unfamiliar with the UK flying licences, the reference in the poem to the IMC is the Instrument Meteorological Conditions Rating, held by pilots who are qualified to fly on instruments, in cloud.
No Flying Today – Ops Scrubbed
The weather at the airfield, was gloomy wet, and grey,
The rains lashed down, the clouds whipped past, a dreary, soggy day,
I mooched about the clubhouse, and heaved a mighty sigh,
And cursed the fickle gods above, who wouldn’t let me fly.
So I sat there glum, dejected, and sipped my tepid tea,
When a rheumy eyed old warbird, plonked down next to me,
And as he sat, I glanced around, and there I chanced to see,
Proud but faded, on his chest, a single DFC.
I turned away, and sipped my tea, which I add, was weak,
I made to go, and drained my cup, and then I heard him speak
“Don’t feel cheated old chap, this weather will soon pass by,
And if you fly this morning, then you will surely die”
“What makes you so sure?” I asked, “Why should it be me?”
“I have flown in cloud before, I have my IMC”
He chuckled quietly, and then, before he spoke,
He looked at me, and politely cleared his throat
Alone, inside the club house, with the rain still crashing down,
I noticed that my new companion’s face was creased up in a frown,
He grasped my arm, leaned forwards, and peered closely at my face,
His voice was low, insistent, then he rushed on a-pace
“It was on a ropy day like this, in the summer, of ’43,
When I scrambled in my Spitfire, to patrol the cold North Sea,
I was supposed to track a warship, the best the Hun had got,
Then pass my observations to the Navy, for them to make a plot.
Once airborne, I was soon enveloped in solid looking cloud,
Which as I discovered later was to be my burial shroud,
I stared upon my gauges, nailed airspeed and AI
And then I saw some green above, where I should have seen the sky
It took a few eternities, before it all sunk in,
I was fully inverted, sir, and also in a spin,
I pushed the stick, I kicked the bars, and pulled every stunt I knew,
But nothing could recover it, there was nothing I could do
The next thing I remember, is sitting on my arse,
watching as my kite burned out, scorching, black, the grass,
It was just then that I noticed, with a feeling of sick dread,
That the pilot was in the cockpit, and he was surely dead
So, old son, take note from me, advice that you should heed,
Don’t trust to luck, or the instincts of your breed,
Instruments, like people, sometimes fail, or lie,
and if you blindly follow them, then, like me, you’ll surely die.
So, One pilot to another, I say to you, old chap,
Don’t bugger about in clouds, watch the landscape, and your maps,
Only fly when birds do, don’t take needless chances,
don’t fly in bad weather, or in iffy circumstances
I considered all his comments, and thought perhaps he’s right,
I turned to thank him for his guidance, and he’d disappeared from sight,
I looked around, but he was gone, or was he there at all?
Then I saw his young and carefree face, staring from the photo on the wall
I read the caption, inscribed upon the frame, and this is what it said
Pilot Officer Jim Smithers, DFC
Killed in Action 1943, aged 19
And, I realised he Was Dead
He lies slumped in his chair, a young lad in his teens,
With an accent that comes from the Bronx, or from Queens,
Far away from the town and the Girl he adores,
Stuck on our little island, with its grim war-torn shores
There are many more like him, that Uncle Sam sends,
All scattered round bases in the barren cold fens,
They’re miserable, homesick, and longing for home,
Hundreds together, but each one alone
They play ball, horse around, all acting the fool,
Looking for sure like they all just left school,
Off to the village to a dance, and some fun,
To be stopped in the street, by kids wanting gum
A kiss from a girl, and some warm frothy beer,
Games of darts with the yokels, in the snug, for some cheer,
The wail of the sirens, A torch lit by some moron,
“Put that light out you fool, don’t you know there’s a war on”?
The debaggings and silly pranks done for a lark,
The boozy walk back to the camp in the dark,
The glances at aircraft, all standing forlorn,
By the shelters and bomb dumps, just waiting for dawn
By dawns early light, with their cigarettes lit,
They wander to briefing, fully dressed in their kit,
Their laughter is brittle, their voices too high,
Their stress is the demon that waits in the sky
In the briefing the officers outline the attack,
An innocent ribbon of red on the map,
Just dodge the fighters, ignore all the Flak,
A picnic to Schweinfurt, just out there and back.
So, this is the big one, no ten cent rehearsal,
And in clattering buses, they lurch to dispersal,
Where Miss Sally Jones, is now stealing the scene,
A Lumbering, ponderous B Seventeen
With catcalls and insults, the crews climb aboard,
Each doing his best to look casual and bored,
With banter, and laughter, they face the attack,
Each knowing that some will not make it back
So, into the sky, with its sun dappled light,
A wonderful, frightening, soul-numbing sight,
They form up overhead, two hundred or more,
And rip up the silence with their Wright Cyclone roar
Then as one mass, they head off to the East,
Once more to rain bombs on the head of the beast,
Face up to hells cauldron, a sky of hot lead,
These schoolboys who laugh, and make fun of their dread
At the coast they are joined, by their “little friends”,
Whose sleek Mustang fighters are there to defend,
The terrible cargo they take to the foe,
Who’s fighting for life in the country below,
“Bombs gone” is the cry they’ve been longing to hear,
So they can head back to the base, and to a well deserved beer,
Some trailing smoke, with gear hanging down,
They make like the baddies, and “Get outta town”
Limping back, battling hard against enemy fighters,
They are met by the Spitfires, who take care of the blighters,
Over the hedge – chop the power, plonk it down fast,
And abandon the wreckage, where it stops on the grass
Savouring the thrill of still being alive,
With sad epitaphs for those who didn’t survive,
They wander back to their home on the fen
The cream of the crop, they’re Uncle Sam’s Men