Jimmy Stewart Remembered
To tell the Bradley war story, one must tell the story of the 453rd Bombardment Group (H) and recognize the men who were in positions of leadership in it, Writing of the time that Bradley was with the 453rd, the names of three officers come to mind: Colonel Ramsay D. Potts, the Commanding Officer; Lt Colonel James Maitland Stewart, Group Operations Officer; and Captain Andrew S. Low, Jr., who succeeded Stewart as Operations Officer. Of these three, Stewart is the one most widely known and best remembered. He is remembered by the men who knew him then because of his leadership role and the manner in which he played it. He is remembered now, more than a half-century later, by those men and all of his countrymen as a war hero, as a great actor and a gentleman. For these reasons it is appropriate to write of him here.
James Maitland Stewart, actor, was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, May 20, 1908. He married Gloria McLean in 1949. They had four children. He graduated with a BS in Architecture from Princeton University in 1932. His acting career began in New York City in 1932. His motion pictures include "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," 1939; "The Philadelphia Story," 1940; and, after the war, "It's a Wonderful Life," 1946; "Rear Window," 1954; "Strategic Air Command," 1955, and many, many great motion picture films in the years to 1983 that followed. He received the Academy "Oscar" award for his performance in "The Philadelphia Story," 1940.
It was with this movie background and popularity as an actor that Jimmy Stewart entered military service. From In Search of Peace, Lt Michael D. Benarcik's great account of the 453rd, edited in 1989 by Major General Andrew S. Low, Jr.(USAF, Ret), it can be said that Jimmy registered for the military draft in March 1941. He was six feet three and weighed 138 pounds--slightly underweight by Air Force standards. By January 1942 he had joined the Air Force and qualified as a heavy bomber pilot. In November 1943 he was assigned as Squadron CO, 445th Bombardment Group (H), flew the southern route to England and was based at Tibenham, England. As Benarcik wrote of him, "He was calm under pressure, reserved and well-mannered. His popularity in the movies was never an issue." Colonel Potts may have been instrumental in having Stewart transferred to the 453rd. He arrived at Old Buckenham o/a March 30, 1944 as Group Operations Officer. Major Curtis H. Cofield, his predecessor, had been lost on the March 27 mission to Pau in southeastern France--a mission that Bradley flew.
Stewart was with the 453rd at the same time Bradley was there. Bradley left in July 1944 and in that month Stewart was transferred to 2nd Combat Wing Headquarters. He remained with the Eighth Air Force and in August 1945, then a Colonel, he returned home with the troops on the U.S.S. Queen Elizabeth.
In Benarcik's In Search of Peace, it is written that in September 1945. "the war had ended and he returned to his profession. Frank Capra, great film director, asked Stewart what picture he had in mind. Stewart replied, 'Write it' And so, 'It's a Wonderful Life' was born." And Benarcik said of Jimmy in this movie, "He questioned the Angel named 'Clarence' that couldn't swim; he did agree that Clarence did have wings."
Stewart was Colonel, Air Force, U.S. Army, in World War II and Brigadier
General, United States Air Force Reserve, 1959.
Bradley and Jones have many memories of incidents that occurred while they were at Old Buckenham that involved Jimmy Stewart. The first was that conditions at the base improved rapidly upon his arrival. Stewart was credited with the improvements made in food service in the Combat Officers' Mess Hall. Example: fresh fried eggs were served, rather than the distasteful powdered eggs. But this was just one of the reasons the pilots and crews came to love the guy.
Bradley remembered a number of his contacts with Stewart. When walking to the Eight Line to watch planes returning from a mission one evening, Stewart came along in his Jeep. He stopped for Bradley and gave him a lift. As Operations Officer, he often escorted his pilots to their planes and met them when they returned from a raid. On another occasion Bradley was in the library at the Officers' Club, writing a letter to his wife, Cynthia. Stewart came in. He had come there to write a letter to his father. Bradley said, "Jimmy was always reserved, even slightly aloof, but on that occasion we had a pleasant conversation."
Don Jones told the writer a great Jimmy Stewart story. He said, "Sometimes the Group would be put on 'stand-down.' That meant it would not be flying the next day--the entire Group would have the day off. When that happened the bar at the Officers' Club would be permitted to serve hard liquor--whiskey. That wasn't done on any night before a mission. Also, when there was 'stand-down' they would usually run a truck into the nearby town with a sign on it reading 'stand-down at 453rd.' That would bring the girls running! They'd climb into those 6x6s--ready for a party--dancing, etc.
"Well, our Group Commander, Col. Ramsay Potts and Lt Col. Jimmy Stewart, Operations Officer, would come over to the club--usually after things got going good. They always seemed to be enjoying themselves--that is, until some wiseguy, some 'blabbermouth' trying to impress his English 'date', would say to her: 'Hey, that's Jimmy Stewart, the American movie star!' Well, that was enough to turn attention on him, a thing he didn't want, and that ruined the evening for him. He'd usually leave.
"One night Jimmy had had quite a few beers and the girls had gone." Jones actually said,". . . had gone back to town or to the Nissen huts--I don't know which! Lou Bernstein, the First Sergeant of our 733rd Squadron, would come into the club and play the piano for us. I remember one evening seeing Jimmy leaning up against this old upright piano--a mug of beer in hand--and he'd tell Lou: 'Play "Can't Get Started," Lou--play "Can't Get Started".' Hearing that song, a tear would run down his cheek and drop into his beer. Jimmy was a sentimental guy and we loved him! The song was his favorite at that time, as played by Bunny Berrigan, the guy that later joined Bob Hope on his tours. I will never forget that about Jimmy Stewart. The guy died in 1997, you know."
And thanks to Don Jones and friends who helped locate it, here are the words of the song that brought tears to Jimmy's eyes during that time when his wartime duties kept him far from home and the people he loved:
Can't Get Started--played by Bunny Berrigan
I've flown around the world in a plane,
I've settled revolutions in Spain,
And the North Pole I have charted,
Still I can't get started with you.
And on the golf course I'm under par,
And Metro--Goldwyn wants me to star,
I've got a house--a showplace,
Still I can't get no place with you.
'Cause you're so supreme,
Lyrics I write of you and I scheme,
Even then I love you--dream--
Just the sight of you--but--
I've been consulted by Franklin D.
And Greta Garbo's had me to tea,
Still I'm broken--hearted
'Cause I can't get started with you!
Was Jimmy thinking of Gloria, the woman he married after the war?
Jimmy Stewart, the movie idol, was a good leader and the men of the 453rd loved him. In his movies he generally played the role of the typical American "good guy" with down--to--earth values--the kind worth having. Lt. Colonel James Stewart, the real war hero, was loyal and courageous, loved his country and served it well. In the years after the war he maintained his interest in the 453rd and participated in its reunions. Bradley and his wife, Cynthia, attended reunions at which Jimmy and his wife, Gloria, were present. They have photos of these meetings. They had previously met the Stewarts in Oklahoma City when Jimmy was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame. Cynthia recalls that when she met the actor on that occasion she asked him, "Did you bring Harvey?" Jimmy replied in the typical Stewart voice, "No, Harvey has a cold!" Those who remember Stewart's movie, "Harvey", will understand and appreciate Cynthia's question and his reply!
Jimmy Stewart died July 2, 1997 at age 89 years.
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