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James Stewart was one of the most popular and respected film actors of the 20th century, appearing in 91 films over five decades, from the mid- 1930s to the mid-1980s. Yet for all his fame and popularity there was another side to him, an aspect about which most of the moviegoing public knew nothing. Many people well versed in military and aviation history are aware that Stewart served in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, but the full extent of his activities has never been fully described until now. Starr Smith’s new book Jimmy Stewart, Bomber Pilot recounts for the first time the movie star’s extraordinary military career, from his enlistment as an Army private to his retirement from the U.S. Air Force Reserve in 1968, with the rank of brigadier general.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, brought out a high level of patriotic fervor in Americans in all walks of life, including many film actors who rushed out to volunteer for the armed services. Stewart, however, had already given up his successful movie career for the Army in March 1941, nine months before Pearl Harbor.

World War II War Bonds Poster
A World War II war bonds poster, featuring famous Hollywood faces including Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, and Ronald Reagan. (LMPC/Getty Images)

Stewart did not have to go. Initially rejected by the draft for being 10 pounds underweight, he appealed the board’s decision and managed to enlist in the Army as a private. A licensed pilot since the 1930s, he volunteered for flight training and earned his wings. The 33-year-old Stewart was then assigned as a flight instructor, where he once again found himself in a position from which he could have sat out the war in relative safety. Instead, he volunteered for combat service.

Stewart spent 22 months with the Eighth Air Force in Britain. Assigned to command a squadron of Consolidated B-24 Liberators, he flew a total of 20 bombing sorties, including some over Berlin. Not content simply to fly missions, however, Stewart also planned and led them. During the course of the war, he earned promotions to group operations officer, wing chief of staff, and eventually command of the 2nd Bomb Wing. He left the Army Air Forces in October 1945, having risen from private to full colonel in a mere 4 1/2 years.

Colonel Jimmy Stewart leaves Southampton on board the liner Queen Elizabeth, bound for home. With him are 16,000 US servicemen returning to America after World War II. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Always a modest man, Stewart avoided publicity during the war and rarely alluded to his wartime experiences afterward. Journalist Starr Smith, who served as operations officer for one of the Eighth Air Force’s bomber squadrons, is the ideal choice to document this little-known chapter of World War II, as well as Stewart’s long postwar career in the U.S. Air Force and Air Force Reserve. The book is based largely on service records and interviews with officers and enlisted men, which most of the public has not seen before. As one of Stewart’s crewmen remarked, “Hollywood supported the war effort. Jimmy Stewart was the war effort.”

Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Military History.