MISSION. JIMMY STEWART AND THE FIGHT FOR EUROPE
GoodKnight Books, an imprint of Paladin Communications
pp. i-xvii, 1-356, uncorrected proof
Courtesy, Smith Publicity, Inc.
Robert Matzen honed his considerable skills as a writer of popular history during a ten-year career at the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA). There he wrote and made films for the Agency at the Kennedy Space Center, the Johnson Space Center, and other similar facilities. Prior to his NASA career, Matzen wrote Research Made Easy. A Guide for Students and Authors for Bantam Books.
Matzen’s breakthrough work was Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3, in which he described the circumstances surrounding the untimely death of the famous Hollywood star and wife of Clark Gable. In Mission. Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, Matzen continues his focus on the personalities of Hollywood’s golden age, in this instance considering the life and wartime experiences of Jimmy Stewart.
Mission is a biography in two parts. In the first, the author tells the story of Jimmy Stewart’s early youth, his maturation as a man, actor and Hollywood film star, and the development of his devotion to flying. In the the second part of his work Matzen describes his subject’s wartime experiences and their fundamental significance for the rest of his life.
In conveying the meaning of Jimmy Stewart’s life, Matzen utilizes an interesting convention, juxtaposing the actor’s real life experiences with those of his fictional self as the principal character in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Mission begins and ends with Stewart, attired in heavy clothing and wearing a woolen scarf, running through drifts of manufactured snow toward Bedford Falls.
There is much to commend in Matzen’s identification of Jimmy Stewart with George Bailey, his alter ego in It’s A Wonderful Life. George, it will be recalled, spent the Second World War at home, because his deafness in one ear disqualified him from military service. George’s deafness, in turn, had directly resulted from a selfless act of heroism in which George saved his younger brother Harry from drowning in an icy farm pond.
As Robert Matzen demonstrates, the trajectory of Jimmy Stewart’s life represented a conflation of the fictional lives of both George and Harry Bailey. While George stayed home to fight for the survival of his family’s savings and loan, the drowning survivor became a sailor and received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for heroism in combat. In Jimmy Stewart’s life the characters of George and Harry Bailey became temporally reversed. Stewart sustained the life of a genuine war hero, volunteering for duty as a pilot following Pearl Harbor, and serving with distinction as a bomber pilot in the European theater of the Second World War. And when the war was successfully concluded in 1945, Jimmy Stewart settled down to a career as a husband and father, with a sideline in films.
As a luminescent film actor in the mid to late 1930’s, Stewart enjoyed playing the role of the film star, hobnobbing with other celebrities like Clark Gabel and Ginger Rodgers, to name but two. But there were aspects of Stewart’s personality and upbringing that made him more practical than others in Hollywood, in particular his ancestral links to the military and its role in the national consciousness, as well as his devotion to flying, a pastime that he embraced long before knowing how to fly became an especially important aspect of national defense.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Stewart volunteered for service and was accepted into the United States Army Air Force. In December 1942 he trained for 100 hours on the B-17 at Hobbs Army Airfield, New Mexico, and in February 1943 qualified as a pilot on four engine aircraft. In late summer 1943 Stewart started more intensive training on the Consolidated B-24, whose penchant for requiring much physical strength on the part of the pilot and co-pilot distinguished it from the sleek B-17. In August 1943 Captain Stewart was appointed commander of an 8th Air Force unit, the 703rd Bomb Squadron, 445th Bomb Group. His command included 15 B-24s and their flight crews, as well as the 200 ground crewmen who maintained the aircraft.
In early 1944 Stewart and his unit were posted to the European theater, where it and Stewart remained until war’s end. The war, and the role that Jimmy Stewart played in it, required the former actor to, perhaps for the first time in his life, “get real” with other people. The reality that Jimmy Stewart now faced included innumerable perils, some general and some specific to the aircraft that he and his men flew. The B-24, for example, included design features that were hazardous in the extreme. The aircraft’s fuel transfer system, for example, was mounted in the bomb bay, along with the main electrical switches and the heating system. It was not uncommon for aviation gasoline to leak from the fuel lines, causing gas fumes to collect throughout the crew cabin. This could, and with unfortunate regularity did, result in the sudden disappearance of an airborn B-24 in a blinding flash of light.
An incident like the spontaneous explosion of a B-24 could engulf other nearby aircraft. Other similar dangers also existed. As an example, the first thing that bomber formations did after becoming airborn was to circle their airbase so that the squadrons and wings could form up in a mass formation. This was done in order to provide the best defense against enemy fighter attacks, as well as to ensure that bombs, when dropped, landed in a concentrated pattern. The act of forming up, often undertaken in dense cloud cover, made formation assembly exceedingly risky, sometimes because of pilot error, but just as easily from crowded airspace. Still another dangerous situation confronted Allied bomber crews. Even if their attack on the day’s target had proven successful, both anti-aircraft fire and the attacks of enemy fighters could so seriously damage a B-24 or B-17 that the crew would be forced to land (or “ditch”) their aircraft in the English Channel, the North Sea, or other large body of water. The chances of the crew surviving such an event were especially small.
The war in which Jimmy Stewart and his fellow airmen of the U.S. Eighth Air Force took part was a vicious one for both the bombers and the bombed. The Allied air campaign against Germany began in 1943, well before the Eighth Air Force appeared on the scene. The campaign was first conducted solely by British Bomber Command, and its targets were twofold: German industry and the German civilians who resided and worked in that country’s industrial heartland, and in particular, cities like Essen, Hamburg, Bochum, Berlin, Schweinfurt, Coblenz, Cologne, and others. By the time that Stewart and his men arrived on the scene, the British had mastered the art of bombing by night. The skill developed by the Eighth Air Force was mastery of daylight bombing. When the American air campaign was in full swing, by the autumn of 1944, Germany was being subjected to round-the-clock air assault. That assault continued until the war’s end in May, 1945.
Matzen does an excellent job of describing the perils that confronted the men of the Eighth Air Force, using the career of Jimmy Stewart as the vehicle for doing so. His book is an intimate glimpse into what men like Jimmy Stewart and his fellow airmen endured.
 In the uncorrected proof of Mission so graciously provided to me by Smith Publicity, there was one serious gaffe that presumably was corrected before the final version of the book hit the streets. At page 20 of the uncorrected proof, Matzen’s draft said the following:
“On the last day of January 1933, a Tuesday, Jim Stewart heard that Adolf Hitler had been appointed by Otto von Bismarck to serve as chancellor of Germany.”
Prince Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck, one of the most significant personailities in German history, was born in 1815 and died in 1898. In fact, the man who actually appointed Adolf Hitler Chancellor of Germany in 1933 was the then President of Germany and retired Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg.