As we drift into the rapids of Christmas season, joy abounds – including Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, in Frank Capra’s Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Saved by Clarence, an unlikely guardian angel, Stewart’s character reminds us how precious life is, and how small things make an enormous difference in the lives of others.
Stewart’s real life story is even more riveting – especially in this season. Exactly 73 years ago today, on December 13, 1943, Jimmy Stewart took off in a B-24 Liberator on a bombing mission over Nazi Germany. Twice found too skinny, he had to fight for his commission. This was Stewart’s first combat mission of World War II. That said, he had already trained as a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot. He would eventually fly B-36 Peacemakers, B-47 Stratojets and B-52 Stratofortresses, all Strategic Air Command intercontinental bombers.
On that cold day in December 1943, at the heart of World War II’s “Battle of the Atlantic,” Stewart was airborne on a specific combat mission, Commander of the 703rd Bombardment Squadron, 445th Bomb Group. His crew’s goal was taking out a U-boat facility in Kiel, Germany. German U-boats had destroyed Allied shipping, and hunted in so-called “wolf packs,” including up and down the U.S. Coastline. Stewart’s raid was successful.
On December 15, 1943, two days later, he led another B-24 bombing raid, this one over Bremen, Germany. By January 1944, he was leading a squadron over Ludwigshafen, Germany. In March, 1944, he focused on Berlin, a dozen combat missions under his belt. By month’s end, Stewart was leading a different B-24 squadron, one which had lost its commanding and operations officers in combat. In order to raise their morale, Stewart flew the lead B-24 – not on once, but in numerous missions “deep into Nazi-occupied Europe.”
For his consistently daring leadership in World War II, Stewart received a number of medals, none more important that the Distinguished Flying Cross (twice). He flew missions with the 2nd, 20th, and 389th Combat Bomber Wings. He was given the “Croix de Guerre” by the French, and then Air Medal with Three Oak Leaf Clusters by America.All this happened before the end of 1945. In time, he would become a Brigadier General, and fly (observer status) on B-52 Arc Light bombing missions over Vietnam. He insisted on no publicity related to these missions.
For the rest of his life, Stewart made little of his military service. Yet he was the first in the Hollywood to go, and set a poignant example. Clark Gable later flew B-17 combat missions, Henry Fonda served on a Navy destroyer, and Ronald Reagan was in the Army reserve. Reagan petitioned for combat duty, but was denied. Despite those two Distinguished Flying Crosses and General rank, when a later documentary was made of Stewart’s service, he downplayed his role, focusing on the combat crew. He remains the highest ranking actor in American military history – all real.
So, after the war, despite his father’s urgings to marry a hometown girl, Stewart instead married Gloria – not the hometown girl. Gloria became the love of his life, from 1949 until her death in 1994. He adopted her two children, had two with her, and raised them all while making movies, traveling the world and even composing verse during their 45-year marriage.
Hardly uneducated either – and another contrast with lovable George Baily. Stewart graduated from Princeton pre-war, thinking he was going to become an architect. Then life whipsawed him. The whirlwind included not only frontline military service, but starring roles in films from Philadelphia Story to The Spirit of St. Louis, from You Can’t Take it With You to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
All that said, the movie for which he would become best known, the one we watch each Christmas and from which we draw immeasurable joy, a happy sigh, and life’s best lessons, is the timeless classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. There is no movie like it. Stewart plays opposite Donna Reed, who incidentally got the part only after four stars turned it down, including Ginger Rogers and Olivia de Havilland. But what a story.
Here’s the kicker, as you watch that film this year. Stewart made the classic in 1946, after World War II had ended. The film’s climax is a small town’s love of faithful George Bailey, the principled, loyal and earnest protector of all and homebody. The war hero is George’s fictional brother, Harry. But in real life – the wartime hero, principled, loyal and earnest protector of all; the one who really did save countless lives on daring missions over war-torn Europe to stop U-boats from blowing up Allied ships, who soon got married and saw the world, was not Harry – but Jimmy.
Irony is that, for all we love Jimmy Stewart’s screen character and should – the greater love must be reserved for Jimmy Stewart himself, a man who walked the walk, flew the wild blue for me and you. On this anniversary of Stewart’s first combat mission, and in memory of those like him who really did make our day possible, just smile and say it aloud – yes – “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Thank you, Jimmy for reminding us, again this year.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State for George W. Bush, former Naval Intelligence Officer and litigator, served in the Reagan and Bush 41 White Houses.