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Letter From Aviation History - March 2011

Originally published on Published Online: January 14, 2011 
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Hollywood Hero

No, that's not necessarily an oxymoron. In the case of legendary Hollywood star Jimmy Stewart, it applied in real life as much as on the silver screen.

As Richard L. Hayes recounts in "Mr. Stewart Goes to War," the Oscar-winning actor went out of his way to enlist as a private in the Army Air Corps, and pushed for a combat assignment when he could have easily stayed Stateside making training films and morale-boosting appearances. Placed in command of the 703rd Squadron, 445th Bomb Group, then-Captain Stewart led his B-24H Liberators to England on November 11, 1943. He subsequently flew 20 combat missions as a command pilot in B-24s (plus nearly a dozen in B-17s that he insisted not be counted) over occupied Europe and Germany, attaining the rank of colonel before returning home in August 1945.

Stewart's parents had met him in Sioux City, Iowa, for a farewell visit before he left for Europe. As Jimmy prepared to board his B-24, his father, Alex, a veteran of the Spanish-American War and World War I, handed him a letter and asked him to open it later. Once airborne, Stewart, serving as copilot, read it; as documented by Starr Smith in Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot, it read in part: "My dear Jim boy, Soon after you read this letter, you will be on your way to the worst sort of danger. I have had this in mind for a long time and I am very much concerned….But Jim, I am banking on the enclosed copy of the 91st Psalm. The thing that takes the place of fear and worry is the promise in these words. I am staking my faith in these words. I feel sure that God will lead you through this mad experience….God bless you and keep you. I love you more than I can tell you. Dad."

Stewart kept that increasingly tattered copy of the 91st Psalm with him on all his missions, and the promise his father had banked on—that "A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee"—held up. Despite some close calls, Jimmy made it through the war without a scratch. Unfortunately, the same couldn't be said for some 30,000 American airmen killed or wounded in the European Theater of Operations.

Asked later why he had decided to enlist, Stewart said simply, "It may sound corny, but what's wrong with wanting to fight for your country? Why are people reluctant to use the word 'patriotism'?" It's difficult to imagine a Hollywood actor making that statement today, but then times have changed.

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