Jimmy Stewart is perhaps the best known of the celebrities who served, partially because he chose to serve while already a successful movie star.
However, having come from a military family (both of his grandfathers had fought in the Civil War, and his father served in both the Spanish-American War and World War I), he saw it as his duty and was more than happy to serve.
Stewart already held his private pilots’ license when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1940, but was rejected for being below the required weight of 148 pounds. Rather than going back to making movies, Stewart asked the studio’s trainer to help him put on weight. He still missed the weight requirement on his first attempt to enlist in the Army Air Corps.
Finally, he made weight and enlisted in March 1941.
Pvt. James Stewart began pilot training and earned a commission as a second lieutenant in January 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II. He became an instructor pilot and performed limited engagements for the Army Air Forces. For example, he performed with Orson Welles, Lionel Barrymore and others in the radio program “We Hold These Truths,” to commemoratethe 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights.
He also appeared in a propaganda film “Winning Your Wings” to help recruit 100,000 much-needed airmen. This film, the first of the USAAC’S First Motion Picture Unit, resulted in 150,000 new recruits.
Although Stewart was proud to serve his country, he was concerned that, as a celebrity, he would always be stationed away from harm. At first, this was true, but Stewart spoke with his commander, who understood and reassigned him to an overseas unit.
He began combat operations beginning in December 1943 and, by 1944, was flying missions deep into Nazi-occupied Europe. A truly humble warrior, Stewart requested that these missions remain uncounted, leaving his official count at 20 missions.
He was highly decorated, earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Croix de Guerre and the Air Medal with three oakleaf clusters. When Stewart was made Chief of Staff later in 1944, he was no longer required or expected to fly missions, but he did not slow down. He became one of the few Americans to rise from Private to Colonel in four years, by the end of the war.
Again, Stewart exceeded expectations when he continued to serve in the U.S. Air Force Reserves after the war and became Brigadier General in 1959. He continued to shun the spotlight for his service, choosing to serve quietly. In 1966, Brigadier General James Stewart went on a bombing mission to Vietnam as an observer. Again,he refused publicity for the event, as it was part of his job as an officer.
Stewart retired in 1968 after 27 years of service. President Ronald Reagan later promoted him to Major General.