Back in 1946, James Stewart starred as the suicidal protagonist in It’s A Wonderful Life, a movie that would go on to become a beloved classic. But in reality, the star had a troubled backstory of his own. Five years previously, he had signed up to fight for the United States Army in World War II. Charming and loyal, he rose through the ranks quickly – but returned home a changed man who would never speak of the horrors that he had seen.
In September 1940, with the threat of war growing ever closer, the United States began drafting young men into the armed forces. And over in Hollywood, the popular actor Stewart was keen to do his part. Coming from a long line of military men – and with a passion for aviation – he looked set to play one of the biggest roles of his life.
After bulking up his skinny physique, Stewart enlisted with the U.S. Army Air Corps in March 1941. And although his fame made him a novelty at first, he soon proved himself an asset both on and off the battlefield. But by the time that the war was over, the actor-turned-bomber-pilot had witnessed so many tragedies that his life forever took a darker turn.
Born in the Pennsylvania town of Indiana on May 20, 1908, Stewart was the eldest child of Alexander, who ran a hardware store, and his wife Elizabeth. The century before, his grandfather had fought against the South in the American Civil War, while other family members had taken up arms during the Revolutionary War. However, music – rather than the military – was Stewart’s first love.
As a child, Stewart also developed a passion for aviation, spending hours making model airplanes and practicing chemistry after school. But then, in prep school, he was bitten by the acting bug. And when he ultimately graduated from Princeton in 1932, he chose to take to the stage rather than pursue an academic career.
After spending a summer performing in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Stewart relocated with a group of fellow actors to New York City. And there he acted in a number of plays as well as his first movie role, a brief appearance in the 1934 comedy Art Trouble. By this time, the up-and-coming star had received several rave reviews.
Eventually, in 1935 Stewart was offered a contract with the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio. And that same year he appeared in his first Hollywood role, alongside Spencer Tracy in The Murder Man. However, it wasn’t until his 1936 star turn in Next Time We Love that the critics really began to pay attention.
For the next two years, Stewart appeared in a number of movies, both with MGM and while on loan to other studios. But it wasn’t until 1938 that he starred in his breakout role, in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You. Apparently, the director had been looking for a leading man with something unique to offer – and Stewart’s boyish charm fitted the bill.
Ultimately, Capra’s movie won the Oscar for Best Picture and secured Stewart a place among the big guns of Hollywood. And the following year, he worked with the director again on the comedy drama Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This time, the part would go down in history as one of his most popular and critically acclaimed roles.
With an award from the New York Film Critics Circle and an Oscar nomination for Best Actor under his belt, Stewart’s career went from strength to strength. Then in 1940 he appeared in another iconic role, starring opposite Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. And this time, the Academy finally paid attention.
On February 27, 1941, Stewart was awarded the Oscar for Best Actor in a star-studded ceremony in Los Angeles, CA. But by that time, the up-and-coming actor had developed a different passion. Months earlier, the United States had called upon young men to enlist – and he intended to fulfill his duty.
In fact, Stewart had first attempted to enlist back in November 1940. However, he was initially turned away on account of his slim build. According to reports, the movie star turned to a diet of milkshakes, spaghetti and beefsteaks to pile on the pounds. And eventually, he persuaded the doctors to approve his application.
Up until this point, Stewart had been pursuing his passion for aviation in his spare time, eventually earning a license to operate as a commercial pilot. So when the opportunity came to join the Army, he was a natural candidate for the Air Corps. However, he started his military career as a private in a training camp, like countless other young men across America.
For the popular movie star, it was quite the change, and his monthly earnings dropped from around $12,000 to just $21. However, Stewart found himself unable to leave his Hollywood reputation behind. And even as he worked his way through training, hordes of adoring fans turned up to gawk at the star.
But as Stewart’s superiors puzzled over how to deal with this unique distraction, the course of history changed. On December 7, 1940, Japanese forces mounted a surprise attack against the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and the U.S. entered the war. Just one month later, the Hollywood star was called up to join the fight.
At first, Army officials attempted to cash in on Stewart’s fame, using the star to lend an air of glamour to their recruitment drives. However, the actor did not want to rest on his laurels and began pestering his superiors to let him take to the skies. Before long, they found him a role as a flight instructor, training others to tackle the combat that he so desperately sought.
Eventually, however, Stewart got his wish. In March 1943 he was assigned to the 703rd Squadron of the 445th Bomb Group, a squad of B-24 bombers based in Sioux City, Idaho. And just three weeks later, he was promoted to the role of commander. According to Robert Matzen, who wrote about the star’s wartime adventures in a 2016 biography, it was the realization of a long-term goal.
“He wanted to prove he was responsible enough, that’s the key with him,” Matzen told the Mail Online in 2016. “He wanted to prove he was responsible enough to be an officer, that he could handle this, he could make his dad proud of him.” Before long, Stewart and his squadron found themselves deployed to the English region of East Anglia, where they were tasked with bombing German territories.
According to those who fought alongside him, it seems that Stewart’s charm was not limited to the silver screen. In fact, he soon developed a reputation as a respectable officer and a man who truly cared about his men. At one point, the story goes, he was offered a promotion, but refused to accept it unless his juniors were also extended the same honor.
Looking back, the stories of Stewart’s military career could have come from the script of one of his blockbuster hits. On one occasion, he followed a lost squadron directly into the line of enemy fire, saving numerous lives. And on another, his crew survived a miraculous landing in a plane torn apart by anti-aircraft fire.
As the war progressed, however, Stewart struggled to cope with the trauma of combat. Close to his men, the officer was hit particularly hard when some of them did not make it home. In an interview with the Mail Online, Matzen explained, “He was a perfectionist and he was so hard on himself… It just got to him and it got to him pretty fast.”
On one particularly tragic occasion, Stewart’s squadron took part in a raid over the German city of Gotha. This time, the officer was not flying alongside his men – and 13 of his planes went down. Another time, he was assigned to drop bombs on a rocket-making facility in northern France, but the operation went drastically wrong.
Apparently, Stewart’s navigation equipment failed, causing his squadron to bomb the wrong location – with disastrous consequences for the city of Tonnerre. And even though his men tried to shift the blame from their commanding officer, the actor was forever haunted by the civilians who died that day. Despite this trauma, however, he was promoted to the position of colonel in April 1945.
In that role, Stewart was forced to remain at base and wait for his men to return home, a challenge that allegedly turned his hair gray with stress. However, he did not have to test his nerve for long. The next month, the Axis powers surrendered, and World War II finally came to a close.
In September 1945 Stewart arrived back in America, where Hollywood attempted to welcome him with open arms. However, he turned down the offer of an extravagant party to mark his return. “Thousands of men in uniform did far more important things,” the star is reported to have said at the time.
Aged, weary and battle-worn, Stewart attempted to return to his normal life. However, the horrors of war had forever changed the formerly boyish leading man. In fact, according to Matzen, the actor’s own parents were horrified by the sight of their son, who appeared to have aged decades during his time away.
While some Hollywood producers might have sought to capitalize on Stewart’s war-hero status, the actor soon put a stop to any such notions. From that point onwards, his movie contracts included a certain clause: that there would be no mention of his combat career. In fact, it’s said that the actor kept quiet about his experiences on the battlefield for the rest of his life.
But at a time when the world was glorifying the heroes of World War II, why would a Hollywood actor choose to keep quiet? According to Matzen, it was because the actor was suffering from what we know today as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. At the time, however, little was known about this complex condition.
In his book Mission: Jimmy Stewart And The Fight For Europe, Matzen recounts a conversation with a man who had flown in the actor’s squadron during the war. Apparently, he described his superior as having gone “flak happy”: a term for mental illness named after the fire from anti-aircraft guns.
Moreover, Matzen also claimed that the pilot had told him Stewart had been sent to the “flak farm” – presumably to receive treatment for his condition. And while the details of this incident are not known, it is clear that the actor returned from the war a changed man. In fact, it’s said that even his own father sometimes felt uneasy in the presence of his haunted son.
For a man who had built his career on wholesome good looks and charm, it was a disastrous development. Still only in his late 30s, he had taken on the appearance of a much older man – an unlikely choice for any director’s leading star. Moreover, Hollywood itself had changed, making it even more difficult for the actor to find work.
Adrift in Hollywood, Stewart even considered returning to his family home in Pennsylvania. However, he was offered a life-changing opportunity by Capra, who invited him to take the lead role in It’s a Wonderful Life. In troubled protagonist George Bailey, the actor found an outlet for his trauma – and a role that would come to define him.
Compared to Stewart’s previous roles, Bailey, who considers killing himself on Christmas Eve, represented a far darker turn. In one scene in particular, the character experiences a mental breakdown as his family looks on. And according to Matzen, it was the actor’s wartime experiences that allowed him to channel those emotions of sadness and rage.
“I don’t think he had that capacity before the war,” Matzen told the Mail Online. “It enabled him to be ferocious and to have that raw emotion.” Ultimately, whatever Stewart was going through in front of the camera translated into a stellar performance. And even today, It’s a Wonderful Life is still considered among the best movies ever made.
“Jim came back from hell on Earth and groped around for a movie to make, and his only offer he had was for what would become the most beloved picture in all American culture” Matzen explained. And with that, Stewart secured his place in Hollywood once more. However, some believe that his past traumas continued to affect his choice of roles for years to come.
“You see it time and time again,” Matzen explained. “I think he would look for scripts where he could demonstrate that rage. I think that was the side of him that was in there all the time and that’s how he would let it out.” From his appearance as a troubled cowboy in Winchester ’73 to his turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, darker roles characterized Stewart’s later career.
But although this new, damaged Stewart was eventually welcomed back into Hollywood, he did not completely turn his back on his military career. In fact, he remained a member of the Air Force until May 1968. And two years before his retirement, he went back into service as a pilot in the Vietnam War.
Unfortunately, tragedy was never far away for Stewart, and although he survived his second war his adopted son was killed in combat. Interestingly, this did not color the actor’s perception of the military, and he remained a staunch supporter of the Vietnam War. When he eventually retired, the former pilot received a Distinguished Service Medal in recognition of his services.
Meanwhile, Stewart’s Hollywood career continued. In fact, the years after World War II marked some of his most critically acclaimed performances. And today he is perhaps better remembered for his roles in movies such as Rear Window and Harvey than he is for his earlier parts.
By the time that Stewart died in July 1997, he had some 80 movie appearances under his belt. But according to Matzen, the star remained haunted by what he had seen and experienced during World War II. While he would never escape his trauma, however, he did manage to channel it into becoming one of the greatest American actors of all time.