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About the Author
Robert Matzen is a former federal contractor for NASA who now specializes in Hollywood history. He has appeared on BBC 2 and BBC Radio 4. He is the author of Carol Lombard: A Bio-Bibliography and Errol & Olivia, and he is the coauthor of Errol Flynn Slept Here. He lives in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania.
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Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe
By Robert Matzen
Paladin CommunicationsCopyright © 2016 Robert Matzen
All rights reserved.
James Maitland Stewart had to fly. His earliest memories of flight involved colorful covers of Literary Digest depicting the Great War, then in progress, and the incredible use of air power by both sides. Jim tacked up each magazine cover on the wall in his bedroom. "Airplanes were the last thing I thought of every night and the first thing I thought of every morning," he would say as an adult.
Jim had entered the world on May 20, 1908, in the quiet, hilly western Pennsylvania town of Indiana, the county seat with a population of 7,000. He was the first child of Spanish-American War veteran Alexander Mead Stewart and his wife of less than two years, Elizabeth Ruth Jackson Stewart. There was nothing special about Indiana, since America was full of towns roughly that size and that population. King coal ruled the area, with mines boring into the hard earth, undercutting the landscape, which also featured lush and rolling farm fields. An educational facility for teachers, the Indiana Normal School, sat a few blocks south of the Stewart home on Philadelphia Street.
Normal was the word for Indiana, and Jim experienced a normal childhood rooted in faith. "Religion was an important part of our lives," said Jim. "We used to go to church a lot. The Presbyterian Church. My mother played the organ and my father sang in the choir." Jim's friends visiting to dinner would watch the family hold hands as Mr. Stewart said grace.
Jim's father was a favorite son in Indiana, and among his community involvements was service on the volunteer fire department. Some described Alex Stewart as "the town character," a tall, loud, extroverted, opinionated, often flighty man who required a fair amount of attention and pampering, which made it handy that the family hardware store served as the crossroads of the town of Indiana. He greeted his customers loudly, remembered their names, and always had a story to tell. Earlier in life, he drank to excess and drinking made him grow wild. Later, he would cut down on the booze but not by much.
"Alex should have been an actor. He was a born actor. He made it a business to be a character," said D. Hall Blair, one of Jim's childhood friends. Only one human could wrangle Alex Stewart and that was his wife, Bessie, a stable, strong, commonsense, salt-of-the-earth woman whom her son Jim would describe as "cultured, elegant, and refined."
Young Jim — known as Jimbo to his father and Jimsey to his mother — grew up seeing Dad as his role model every day, and walking in his father's long shadow made it necessary that Jim become something of a performer as well. It was expected. At the same time, Jim possessed none of his father's high volume or blunt extroversion; quite the contrary, Jim grew up quiet like his mother and high-strung, with a nervous stomach that made it difficult to eat a full meal. His whole life, nobody would know what Jim was thinking.
The Stewart boy played ball and caught tadpoles in Two Lick Creek. When a customer offered an accordion as payment in lieu of cash at the hardware store, Jim picked it up and started playing, and liked it well enough to take lessons from the Italian barber up the street. Jim lived a normal childhood with friends Hall Blair and Bill Neff until war in Europe broke out for the United States in 1917 when Jim was nine. At that point, life changed because his father went back into military service as a captain of artillery.
A profound memory in Jim's life involved traveling to New York City, where the Stewarts had trudged up the steps of the Statue of Liberty and Jim had attempted to climb out on her nose, despite his fear of the great height, because he had wanted to prove to his father how brave he was. Alex had always set such high standards and demanded such perfection that Jim felt motivated to take extreme measures to prove himself.
The trip also was memorable because Jim and his parents had watched President Woodrow Wilson deliver a speech at Carnegie Hall. Days later, on October 17, 1917, Capt. Alexander Stewart shipped out for Europe and the Great War.
Jim had grown up on war, beginning when Fergus Moorhead, his great-great-great grandfather on his father's side, served in the Cumberland County Militia in the American Revolution. A counterpart on his mother's side also fought in the Revolution.
Jim's grandfather, James Maitland Stewart, youngest of ten children, followed older brother Archibald into the Union Army; J.M. enlisted in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1864 at the advanced age of twenty-four, whereas Archie had joined up at the beginning of the war in 1861. Why J.M. waited until the South was on the ropes is anybody's guess, but he saw a great deal of action in the Shenandoah Valley of western Virginia under Union Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan and Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer, among others. At about the time J.M. Stewart was participating in the battle of New Market, older brother Archie was cut down by mortal wounds at the battle of Spotsylvania Court House. J.M. would continue to see action in engagements at Berryville, Winchester, and Fisher's Hill, which began the scorched-earth march by Sheridan down through the valley, torching farms, factories, and railroads. Virginians called it "The Burning," and Sgt. James Maitland Stewart was there to see it all. Gen. William T. Sherman would soon emulate Sheridan's practice in Georgia on his march to the sea.
Sergeant Stewart kept a colorful diary that detailed much of the fighting in Virginia in the last year of the war, like this entry about the battle of Cedar Creek, fought October 19, 1864, when the army of Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early launched a pre-dawn attack on General Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley:
"We then went out on station on the banks of Cedar Creek where we remained until Oct. the 19th, when the Johnnies charged our works about an hour before daylight. They carried the works on our left and came in on our left flank and in less then [sic] an hour they had the 8th and 19th Corps on a skedaddle. The 6th Corps was then drawn up in line of battle & held them there till they were ordered to fall back. They fell back in good order till they got a good position then drew up in line of battle & held their position. A heavy fire was kept up all day till about four o'clock PM when the 6th were ordered to charge. The Johnnies broke and skedaddled like [a] flock of sheep without a Sheppard. We encamped for the night near our old camping ground on the Cooly Farm. We took about 4,000 prisoners, 50 pieces of artillery, and about 60 ambulances. Our loss in killed and wounded was pretty heavy. The next morning Thurs. the 20th I rode all out over the battle field, saw some hard sights. That evening went out on station at the breast works. Came off station to reserve camp the next morning."
J.M. would go on to see more action at Dinwiddie Court House, Five Forks, and, finally, Sailor's Creek. He served under Custer when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House in April 1865. In fact, Sgt. Stewart witnessed the ceremony, and fifty years later when he owned J.M. Stewart & Company, the family hardware business, he told young Jim about the time the dignified Lee met the sober Grant, about seeing President Lincoln, and about the flamboyant "boy general" Custer. This wasn't history in a book; this was eyewitness history from a man who had been there to see the hard sights, brother of the late Lt. Archibald Stewart, who became another hero to young Jim. J.M. had lived American history and served as a direct link between Jim and the American Civil War, between Jim and a family's military heritage and a strongly held belief that each generation of Stewart men had a mission, and that mission was to serve their country.
There was a third heavy military shadow hanging over Jim. In addition to Archie and J.M. Stewart, there was Jim's mother's father, Samuel McCartney Jackson, colonel of the Eleventh Pennsylvania Reserves. Whereas Sergeant Stewart was a tough-as-nails workingman remnant of the Civil War, Colonel Jackson — who would become General Jackson by war's end — was J.M.'s officer corps counterpart. Jackson had seen the butchering of Union troops at the stone wall at Fredericksburg and seven months later participated in a successful charge across the hotly contested Wheatfield at Gettysburg as part of Col. Joseph Fisher's brigade. That charge proved just as important to holding the federal left flank and preserving victory for the Union as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain's stand at Little Round Top the same day, at about the same time. Young Jim would never lay eyes on Sam Jackson, who died May 8, 1906, two years before Jim's birth, but General Jackson remained heavy in the air as a guiding influence in Jim's youth.
The rambunctious Alex Stewart was known throughout his lifetime to Princeton University classmates as "Eck," probably because he insisted on his name being pronounced Alec instead of Alex, causing bemused Princetonians to grant half his request. Eck had run off to fight in the Spanish-American War at age twenty-six, two weeks shy of his college graduation, but he spent only thirty-six days in Puerto Rico, grew ill, and saw no action; it was all over too soon. J.M. must have been displeased with his son's performance in round one of his service, because at age forty-five, by then a father of three and yet under the close scrutiny of J.M., Alex went off to serve again in 1917, this time in the Ordnance Repair Department, which was close enough to frontline combat in the Great War that Alex had been forced to look into the eye of the beast, just as his father, uncle, and father-in-law had half a century earlier. At one point Alex, referring to the combat death of an Indiana man, wrote home that "the Germans must be exterminated; that is what is coming to them."
With his father away at war, Jim turned ten, and passion for military life burned within him in all its preadolescent glory. He expressed his enthrallment with war by staging plays in his basement and the basements of his friends, plays that depicted the war in progress in Europe as imagined in the minds of schoolchildren. The young troupe of players used as props German trench helmets and other mementos sent home from the European lowlands by Captain Stewart.
The world war ended with the capitulation of the German empire and harsh terms by the victors, who divided up German territory, demanded war reparations, and dictated severe restrictions on Kaiser Wilhelm's military to make sure Germany would never again pose a problem for the world.
J.M. had imparted to Alex, and Alex would now impart to his son: "This is your destiny; this is what the Stewart men do. We serve our country without hesitation whenever there is a need." Jim responded by asking his mother to fashion a uniform for him, so he would be ready when the bugle sounded.
J.M. had hardly been a perfect parent to Alex and his younger brother, Ernest, who had been born with a deformed leg. At one point J.M., frustrated with his unruly eldest child, remarked, "I have one son with a crippled leg and another [Alex] with a crippled head." This remark may have been in response to a questionable incident at Princeton when Alex accidentally (or on purpose) left a Bunsen burner running in the science lab, with a fire resulting. Or was it the incident when Alex and his pals griped to the Chinese laundryman about the quality of his ironing and then, according to Jim, ganged up and "ironed the laundryman." There was a cruel streak in the Stewart men. J.M. had it and Alex had it, and Jim never did, although perhaps some of his introversion resulted from being too close to hurtful times at home.
Alex's father was a hard-liner, with a view of women that was typical of the times — a view that would prove unhelpful to Jim down the road. J.M. was on his third wife by the time Jim knew him; the two earlier women had up and died on the old man — Alex's mother had died when he was just nine — and J.M. every so often needed to recruit a replacement caregiver. Alex learned from his father just what the role of a good woman was, and this was how Jim grew up, with the notion that a man found a lucky little lady to quietly pamper him and always be there with a kind word or a firm hand, depending on whether he was sober or drunk. Since the Stewart men were quite successful at business, they always found willing candidates to be the next Mrs. Stewart.
Still ten, Jim began helping out at the hardware store and earning wages; just about then the family moved from the house on Philadelphia Street to a larger home on a cliff known as Vinegar Hill, overlooking the center of town. This larger home made Alex a focal point of Indiana since anyone passing by on the streets below could look up and see the Stewarts' front porch and potentially the big man himself. The new place accommodated a growing family that included Jim's two little sisters, Mary, known to all as Doddie, born in 1912, and Virginia, or Ginny, in 1914. Jim's new address meant a change in schools; he began sixth grade at the Model School, a laboratory school for new teaching techniques within the Indiana Normal School. There he earned average grades because he possessed a short attention span and was easily bored — traits he would retain all his life. He perked up some when appearing in school plays, and around that time he joined the Boy Scouts.
Soon after the conclusion of the Great War, a pilot named Jack Law advertised that he would be barnstorming through Pennsylvania, including a stop in Indiana. "I knew a long time in advance that he was coming," said Jim, "and I saved every cent I could. I made up my mind I was going to have an airplane ride. My folks said I wasn't. They said flying wasn't safe."
Jim had convinced his parents to at least go and watch, and he stuffed all the money he had saved, fifteen dollars, in his pocket. "The Bennetts had a farm right south of town," said Stewart, "and a nice big [flat] field where they could land." Down came the Curtiss Jenny onto the field, and the pilot began taking townspeople up for rides, many of them friends of Alex Stewart. "They came back intact, raving about the thrill," said Jim. "They helped me break him down, and he finally said I could go up. So I went up on my ride and from then on, I was stuck on flying."
Like many boys who went on to become pilots, Jim was bowled over by his first taste of being airborne. "It was more than liberation. It was the ultimate experience of being in control ... and being alone. I've always been a loner. I don't enjoy being lonely, but I enjoy being on my own."
He went up on at least four barnstorming rides growing up and built model airplanes "by the gross," many of them decorating odd flat surfaces in the hardware store. By now, he was growing into a gangling and shy teenager who had once been to New York City and that's about it. He was a nervous kid on the inside, high-strung and unsure of himself, still a musician who delighted in playing the accordion and an adolescent male interested in girls, although no one knew it because he kept quiet and spoke and moved at a leisurely pace.
In 1921 J.M. Stewart, Civil War veteran and hardware store owner, retired, giving ownership to Alex. But J.M. remained a daily visitor to the enterprise and was there for Jim as a comforting companion and font of wisdom. Questions the self-critical Jim couldn't ask Dad could be directed to Granddad, about life in general and girls in particular. "It's not a crime to be human," said the elder J.M. at one point. "Make allowances for yourself." This was not advice that demanding perfectionist Alex — and hard-on-himself Jim — would ever allow.
Jim got a job as weekend projectionist at the Ritz Theater in Indiana. Between the plays he produced in basements and participated in at the Model School and the celluloid flickers he un-spooled night after night, Jim got an inkling that acting might be an interesting vocation.
In 1923 Jim's stable small-town life saw interruption; Alex had engineered his average-student son into Mercersburg Academy in lieu of Indiana High School so that Jim might boost his grades and follow in his father's footsteps to the hallowed halls of Princeton University in New Jersey.
Mercersburg Academy was a private school located in south-central Pennsylvania that had been founded in 1893 "to prepare young men for college," and not just any colleges, but Ivy League schools. The course of study was five years, not the traditional three of high school. Off went Jim to Mercersburg, 121 twisting, hard miles from Indiana. Jim had never been an A student and barely gained acceptance to the academy, then worked like hell his first year to remain there. His second year was marred by an attack of scarlet fever and then a kidney infection that kept him bedridden for months. When finally on his feet again but too weak to hold a regular job for the summer, Jim teamed up with his Indiana friend Bill Neff on Neff's Magic Show. Neff had found puberty a dark experience; he had become obsessed with magic and the occult, making him an unlikely companion for Jim, who kept Neff's darker stuff from his parents so he could continue to hang out with his friend. Neff's skill at magic and drive to perform earned him local and regional play dates, all precursors to a soaring national career in magic. Jim was in on the ground floor, serving as Neff's onstage assistant and playing audiences in and out with the accordion. In one summer Jim Stewart became a seasoned performer used to public scrutiny and the spotlight. But he remained quiet and aloof with a mystery about him that attracted the opposite sex.
Excerpted from Mission by Robert Matzen. Copyright © 2016 Robert Matzen. Excerpted by permission of Paladin Communications.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ForewordPrologue - UnrealityChapter 1 - High-StrungChapter 2 - SoaringChapter 3 - Factory WorkChapter 4 - Silver BirdsChapter 5 - Reliable GirlsChapter 6 - A Storybook LifeChapter 7 - Mr. Smith Goes HollywoodChapter 8 - Seeing HistoryChapter 9 - Restless SpiritChapter 10 - The EagleChapter 11 - Alias James SmithChapter 12 - OverachieverChapter 13 - Static PersonnelChapter 14 - A Game of ChessChapter 15 - Destination: Meat GrinderChapter 16 - Boy ScoutChapter 17 - DaftChapter 18 - ShakedownChapter 19 - Pushed by AngelsChapter 20 - Mission TodayChapter 21 - A Late BreakfastChapter 22 - Topaz BlueChapter 23 - BailoutChapter 24 - Roman CandleChapter 25 - January on The RhineChapter 26 - The Dungeon of EppsteinChapter 27 - IcemanChapter 28 - BaptismChapter 29 - Boys Will Be BoysChapter 30 - Mother Nature's a BitchChapter 31 - Fat DogsChapter 32 - Argument, Part OneChapter 33 - Argument, Part TwoChapter 34 - BloodbathChapter 35 - Physics LessonChapter 36 - The Big BChapter 37 - No-Nonsense MenChapter 38 - The SumatranChapter 39 - InvasionitisChapter 40 - They Are Coming!Chapter 41 - Germany BurningChapter 42 - The Great AviationChapter 43 - GroundedChapter 44 - Marching to DeathChapter 45 - Aged in East AngliaChapter 46 - Gold LightEpilogue - Reaching Beyond
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Learned a lot
It was with great enthusiasm that I purchased Mr. Matzen's recent work on James Stewart and his role in World War II. As a 66 year-old retired history teacher, I can rightly claim that I’ve read thousands of history books in my life. Upon finishing my reading of Mission, I remarked to my wife that the book must now rank in the top three or four of any I’ve ever come across. The book on Stewart was pure joy as it combined biography, World War II history, subtle humor, sympathy for the suffering that human nature embodies, and solid scholarship. Words such as great and excellent aren’t superlative enough to describe what Mr. Matzen produced. All in all, Mr. Matzen's book exceeded all expectations and I look forward to his next work.
First, I was given this book to review through NetGalley. I was even contacted by the publicity company for the book to inquiry if I would prefer a printed copy, which I gratefully accepted, since nothing beats holding an actual book in your hands. This is the second book, I have read by Mr. Matzen, and I have enjoyed both immensely. This book like his book on Carole Lombard, gives a look, not only of a star, but glimpses into their real lives and those involved in it. I was never a big Jimmy Stewart fan, but had a aunt who loved him, which was why I requested the book. I wanted to see what attracted her to him. I knew he served in World War II, as did many stars of his era did, but never really knew the extent of his service. This book starts off after the war, and transitions back to his start, his life growing up and Hollywood years. I never thought of him as a ladies man, but he cut a swatch through some of Tinseltown's leading ladies. He was friends with some of the leading actors of his day, even the men who started Southwest Airlines. He was a man with strong convictions, who served his country as a soldier, not a celebrity. He rose in the ranks, by determination, he commanded squadrons of young men and fought beside them gaining their respect for the soldier he was and not the star. This book doesn't just focus on him, but tells of the men who served with and for him. It gives you a glimpse into their lives during and after the war, it tells you of the toll it took on all. The most telling sight of that, besides the stories is two pictures, one when he joined the service, and the other after he had seen action in Europe. The difference in those two pictures, shows the terrible toll that war takes on a human being. Mr. Matzen alternates chapters with stories of some of the soldiers in his squads, some of German people, even German soldiers. Some chapters are not, easy to read, the descriptions of death and destruction are brought vividly to life. His return to Hollywood, and family life show the transition to civilian life from war and how life changes for all, not only Mr. Stewart, but those he served with. It is a fine tribute to a man who served his country with honor and I am so glad to have read it. I think anyone, male or female would enjoy this book, whether for the look into celebrity life or the look into what war is and does to people. After reading this book, and the author's previous book "Fireball (Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3", I will look for any other books he has written, because he truly gives you a complete look at his subject. Thanks for allowing me to review this book.
Beginning with family history and his days before Hollywood, progressing through the wild days and nights in Hollywood including learning to fly, comes the days of WW2 here and abroad. Motivated by personal commitments to serving in time of war, and to the importance of the air war, Stewart battled against Hollywood moguls wanting to preserve their moneymaker, and Air Corps brass who thought he was too old for combat flying, he succeeded in getting himself assigned first to stateside training, then on to fight with others in the war in Europe. Deep thorough research into his personal life, relationships with the others in his squad and their responses to his command, as well as the missions and skirmishes he was involved in make for a great military history chapter in the course of the war. This is an excellent and highly detailed study, not only of Stewart, but of involvement in the air war. Many thanks to NetGalley which provided me with the opportunity to ask for a free uncorrected proof from the publisher.
I received a free electronic copy of this book from Netgalley, Robert Matzen, and GoodKnight Books in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for sharing your work with me. This is an excellent history covering James Stewart's military career. Entertwined with the historical facts surrounding The WWII experiences of Clem Leone, a young enlisted man working as a radio operator in a plane under Stewart's command; Gertrud Siepmann 'Trudy' McVicker, a youngster raised in Germany during the war years; and the career of Adolpho Galland, a German Ace who rose in rank similar to that of Stewart but on the side of the Nazi machine, this is a bold, stark look at this period of world history and it's effect on a broad slice of humanity. Robert Matzen includes an extensive Epilog Reaching Beyond which follows up on many of the lives we visited in this biography, leaving one with a welcome sense of closure. This is a biography I am comfortable recommending highly to history buffs, Stewart fans, and avid readers of all kinds.
Jimmy Stewart enjoyed success in Hollywood. Professionally, he won the 1941 Academy Award as Best Actor for The Philadelphia Story, and found enduring fame for It’s a Wonderful Life. Personally, he made the conquest of many of his female costars. That was disappointing to learn; I thought he had such a clean cut image. With American involvement in the war likely, the draft began. His draft number got him in early, before Pearl Harbor. He waged his own battle to get into the Air Force. Overseas. In combat. Not just one token mission, but a sustained combat tour. Serving their country was a Stewart family mission. Jim’s grandfather served in the Civil War; his father in the Spanish-American War and World War I. Stewart already had his own plane and worked toward a transport license as a commercial pilot, doing as much as he could to increase his prospects and offset his advanced age of thirty-three. Most pilots were at least ten years younger than he. Louis B. Mayer of MGM, which had Stewart under contract, did his best to keep Jim out of combat and suggested he could best serve in the Army Air Corps Motion Picture Unit. Stewart did make Winning Your Wings, one of the most successful recruiting films of the war. But he would not allow it to deter him from serving in combat. He seemed destine to serve as a flying instructor. A talk with his commanding officer at Gowen Field in Idaho resulted in the “static” designation removed from his personnel file. A newly formed B-24 bomb group needed personnel, and Stewart was on his way as an operations officer of one of the four squadrons. As a squadron commander in Tibenham, England, he flew missions in rotation with the other high ranking officers in the 445th Bomb Group. He saw friends die and planes explode. His hair began turning gray. A nervous stomach had always made eating a full meal difficult. Now he could barely eat at all, telling a childhood friends that ice cream and peanut butter got him through the war. He got the shakes, wrung out by the rigors of war. Nevertheless, he rose to Colonel in command of the Second Combat Wing. After the war, Jim Stewart enlisted in the Officers Reserve Corp because he considered his service years as the happiest years of his life. Considering all the stress and horror of war, that’s hard to imagine. And since acting was the only thing he liked to do, he returned to Hollywood, hoping to resurrect his career. Retaining stardom wasn’t a given. Many actors served in the military and failed to regain their momentum. New, younger actors were getting the starring roles. Stewart was 37 and looked 50, no longer a probable romantic lead. Detective and murder pictures were now big, but having just been through the war, he wanted no part in a movie about death. He would prefer a comedy. Louis B. Mayer wanted to make The James Stewart Story about his war experience, but Stewart said no. His refusal to relive the war extended to conversation. He never talked about his experiences. Actors weren’t the only ones having trouble getting reestablished. Producer/director Frank Capra wasn’t getting offers, so he went independent and called Jim Stewart about a project he had in mind called “The Greatest Gift.” Renamed, It’s a Wonderful Life saved Jimmy Stewart’s career. Mission concentrates most on Stewart’s military service during World War II, but covers his childhood and prewar Hollywood days, too. An enlightening biography I recommend. I received a free copy to review.