Stewart, James Maitland
Military Combat/PromoterEnshrined 2009 1908-1997
Stewart was squadron commander and was required to fly one mission out of every five. While most commanders picked the milk runs, Stewart flew with his men on all the worst missions. High command didn’t like it and he was relegated to a desk job. One day, tired of shuffling papers Stewart said to his assistant, “find us an airplane and let’s shoot some landings.” Barely at 1000 feet, Stewart pulled back on the power and with a wry smile said, “My former group commander has a nap about now. Let’s go wake him up.” After several passes and repeated calls from the control tower, Stewart began buzzing the tower, running everyone out.
- Stewart had over 400 flight hours as a civilian pilot when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941, and became an instructor for both the B-17 and B-24.
- In November 1943, Stewart was sent to England as Operations Officer for the 703rd Squadron, 445th Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force, transferring to the 453rd Bombardment Group in March 1944.
- Stewart flew 20 dangerous combat missions as a B-24 command pilot, wing commander or squadron commander, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters, The Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, and the French Croix de Guerre with Palm.
- After the war Stewart remained with the US Air Force Reserves and was promoted to Brigadier General in 1959.
Of Scottish-Irish descent, Jimmy Stewart was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania May 20th, 1908, the son of Alexander Stewart, a hardware store owner.
As a boy, Stewart nearly broke his neck trying to fly his own version of an airplane. Just before he entered high school, he adopted another hobby, playing the accordion. What might have been a harbinger of Stewart’s future profession was his prowess with a film projector which, in turn, led to a hitch as a projectionist in the town’s movie theater.
At Princeton University, Stewart elected to major in civil engineering. He was discouraged by one of his professors and turned to architecture. While at Princeton, he also became interested in the Triangle Club and took part in the shows in his sophomore, junior and senior years.
He won a scholarship to work toward his master’s degree but when the time came to start school, he accepted an offer to make his professional debut in the play “Goodbye Again” in summer stock and stayed with the troupe when the show moved to Broadway.
In 1939, he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The following year, he won the Academy Award as Best Actor of the Year for his role in “The Philadelphia Story.” He appeared in only three pictures after that. Nine months later, after entering the service and because of his previous flying experience and educational background, he was made a lieutenant and won his wings.
After a year of training, Stewart spent three years stateside before becoming a squadron commander. Soon thereafter, Stewart went to England and into combat with the 8th Air Force. Stewart aggressively sought to participate in the missions and he inspired unit and aircrew morale with his demonstrated leadership and aviation competence.
He flew three missions during the “Big Week” of February 20th through the 26, 1944, acting as Group and Wing Commander. This action, and subsequent missions over Berlin in early march had a devastating effect on the Luftwaffe and this factor was key to the successful Normandy landing.
Then Major Stewart was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with a personal citation from General Jimmy Doolittle. It is especially noteworthy that Stewart came to lead bomber forces in war through his initiative and persistence in seeking meaningful combat duty, despite obstacles imposed by the military leadership more interested in safeguarding a famous actor who had already won an Academy Award.
Another major area of lifetime achievement in promoting aviation came about through Stewart’s career in movies. He was already a very popular and successful actor before he went to war. He resumed his acting career and was especially receptive to roles that provided opportunities to promote aviation and the exploits of aviators. In particular, he made four movies including “The Spirit of St. Louis”, an account of the historic Charles Lindbergh flight from New York to Paris.
Stewart played a reservist called to service in “Strategic Air Command”, which was a realistic presentation of the commitment to duty by airmen during the cold war.
He starred in “No Highway in the Sky”, which turned out to be a portent of the future by describing analytical methods of predicting structural fatigue for the purpose of enhancing aviation safety. In that movie, Stewart plays an engineer.
And “Flight of the Phoenix”, with Stewart again as a pilot, turned out to be a moving portrait of technical initiative and courage and, ultimately, a tribute to the human spirit.
The third aspect of Stewart’s lifelong involvement in aviation was his continuing service in the Air Force Reserve. During this period, he was a persistent and influential advocate for aviation and its importance for our lives, economically, and, especially, for national security.
No doubt the impact of his efforts was enhanced by his celebrity status, which he saw as an important factor in helping to better serve his country. Stewart’s advocacy was reinforced through his leadership and active involvement in the Air Force Association. He was promoted to Brigadier General in 1959 and retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1968.
General James Stewart has earned his place in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.