Happy Birthday Jimmy Stewart! Hollywood's biggest 2 Star

Phil Briggs
May 20, 2019 - 2:58 pm

USAF

If the greatest veterans of all time had a day officially named for them, May 20 would likely be "Jimmy Stewart Day."

Born James Maitland Stewart (May 20, 1908 – July 2, 1997) most Americans are familiar with at least one of his iconic performances. Films like "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "The Philadelphia Story" and "The Shop Around the Corner" made him a huge celebrity before WWII.  His legendary role as George Bailey in "It’s a Wonderful Life" remains one of the greatest Christmas movies ever made.

Library of Congress

But although the Academy Award-winning actor was a household name at the start of WWII, he would step away from Hollywood fame, fly combat missions over Germany and eventually earn the rank of brigadier general and be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

As a young man, Stewart passed on attending the Naval Academy and attended Princeton University instead. He found an interest in the theater where he performed in a troupe with Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullivan.

Stewart eventually would also discover a love of flying, earning his pilot’s license and becoming an accomplished pilot during his early film career. Years before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Stewart accumulated over 400 hours of flying time.

Smithsonian

Despite having already won an Academy Award for his performance in "The Philadelphia Story," by October of 1940, Stewart felt compelled to join the Army. Initially rejected for being underweight, (he was 5 pounds too light) he eventually made weight and enlisted in the Army Air Corps on March 22, 1941, becoming the first American movie star to wear the military uniform.

He would initially serve as a service pilot and fly support missions and other non-combat flights, and star in one of the Air Force’s first recruitment films, “Winning Your Wings”.

But after Pearl Harbor, WWII intensified and Stewart pleaded for an assignment to a combat squadron. After several weeks of training missions, Stewart flew his first combat mission on December 13, 1943, to bomb German locations including U-boat facilities. He would later fly more dangerous missions bombing other German facilities, eventually being promoted to major and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

US Army Air Corps / USAF

After the war, Stewart returned to acting but he continued to play a role in the Army Air Forces Reserve and the new United States Air Force Reserve after the official establishment of the Air Force in 1947.

As the decades passed, Stewart maintained his pilot status and was able to assist in recruiting through movie roles and appearances on popular TV shows like "My Three Sons" in 1963. 

He further supported U.S. war efforts in Vietnam and stood behind political candidates who were staunch supporters of the military like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bob Dole.

Stewart died at 89 at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., on July 2, 1997. President Bill Clinton commented that America had lost a "national treasure ... a great actor, a gentleman and a patriot".

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