The Mission

I stood in high Pennsylvania winds last Sunday morning on what is ground zero to the core story of Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. At my back was Gettysburg’s infamous Wheatfield, scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the second day’s battle. A half mile at my front rose Little Round Top. And staring me in the face was a granite monument to the 11th Pennsylvania Reserves, the regiment commanded by Col. Samuel M. Jackson. In murderous fighting on July 2, 1863, the 11th Pennsylvania—part of Fisher’s Brigade of the Fifth Corps—was part of a charge down the slope of Little Round Top that checked Longstreet’s ambitious maneuver to hit the federal left flank. Afterward, a Union commanding general rode up to Jackson hat in hand and exclaimed, “Colonel Jackson, you have saved the day. Your regiment is worth its weight in gold; its weight in gold, sir!”

Thanks to men like Col. Sam Jackson, the Union was preserved.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

The monument of the 11th Pennsylvania Reserves, with Little Round Top in the background. This ground was carpeted with the dead and dying on July 2, 1863, but Sam Jackson remained upright. It was here that union Brig. Gen. Samuel Crawford praised Jackson for saving the day.

Why is this ground zero to Mission? Sam Jackson was Jimmy Stewart’s grandfather, his mother’s father. Jackson’s regiment had been positioned at the foot of Little Round Top and received orders to hold against the Confederate advance at all cost. This his regiment did, and advanced probably no more than 1,500 yards that day, but hard-fought and bloody real estate it was. Standing amidst the monuments to so many regiments intermingled there and representing both Union and Confederate units, this hallowed acreage, I was hit by what Jackson had done, and how much it influenced James Maitland Stewart, the laid-back star of stage and screen.

Except Stewart wasn’t laid back at all. Stewart was high-strung and possessed a compulsion to serve—his Mission of the book title—that was born of his two grandfathers, Sam Jackson and James Maitland Stewart, Jim’s father’s father and a sergeant in the Army Signal Corps. Sergeant Stewart had fought his way through many Civil War battles, the last being Appomattox, where he then witnessed the surrender of Lee to Grant that ended the war. The estimable Jackson had died just before Jim was born in 1908, but old J.M. lived into the 1930s and Jim learned about service and sacrifice from this man above all others, one who had lived through America’s bloodiest war.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

The Pennsylvania Memorial at Gettysburg, where S.M. Jackson gets top billing.

This past Sunday, November 20, I lectured at the Gettysburg Heritage Center, which includes an ambitious multi-media museum designed to entertain and educate even today’s short-attention-span learners. When I described Jackson’s advance and his connection to Jim to a packed Heritage Center house, there was a collective gasp. People just don’t realize what a giant shadow Jim’s grandfathers cast on his life. In effect, Jim was poured into a military mold and had no choice but to end up a soldier. It’s the reason he gleefully reported for induction after being drafted nine months before Pearl Harbor. With this action he turned his back on Hollywood luxury, a thriving avocation as a sexual athlete, and an Academy Award career with a giant, goofy grin and pulled an army private’s uniform onto his six-foot-four, 139-pound frame. After he was fingerprinted and sworn in before a throng of reporters and cameraman, Jim refused to talk to or work with the press for the next five years so he could concentrate on being the best soldier he could be. It’s unprecedented what he did and the way he did it.

Speaking of soldiers, I shared the microphone last Sunday with Clem Leone, 92-year-old veteran of the air war over Europe. Clem knew and flew with Stewart as described in Mission, and was shot down over Gotha, Germany, on February 24, 1944. I’ve never experienced anything quite like this stretch of two hours, sharing the stage and then sitting and signing books with my own hero who had lived history. It’s one of many things I’m thankful for this Thanksgiving 2016.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

With Clem Leone at the Gettysburg Heritage Center event. Amidst an outpouring of love for Clem, who is a local celebrity, 97 books sold in 90 minutes.

8 comments

  1. What a grand day for you and Clem Leone – steeped in history. 100 years ago Jim Stewart was an impressionable eight-year old who, along with his buddies, lived to hear sweeping accounts of their families, and of their grandfathers, fathers and uncles who fought in wars. In 1916 there was no radio broadcast. Entertainment was books, live music, a Victrola if you could afford it, and lots and lots of stories.The gasp you heard from your audience at Gettysburg has echoed through generations followed by, “Tell it again.” Nice work, Robert Matzen. I wish I had been there.

  2. This is amazing and I’m so glad Clem and you are continuing the sweep of history. I’ve been thinking about your book a lot lately and its many themes. So, I was a stunned a couple of weeks ago when I encountered an old man at a thrift store reading books about the Depression. I asked him how well he remembered the war, and he said, “I was at D-Day.” Well. He enlisted in the Navy when he was 17. We talked for an hour. He’s 90 years old and sharp as a tack. Very opinionated and animated and warm. Fortunately, his opinions are in tune with mine, so we had a fun time comparing and expounding on ideas.

    He grew up on a farm in Indiana. What I couldn’t believe was that other shoppers wandered around us and completely ignored the living history they were hearing.

    I really hope to find him again. His name was Jerry and he said he goes to that store a lot. I’m thinking that I will ask if I can interview him for The Great Thanksgiving Listen. It’s a StoryCorps event and all the stories are archived in the Library of Congress. You can download an app (for free I think) until Sunday. I also need to do this for Trudy. Thank you Robert for your efforts.

    Here’s a link to StoryCorps in case anybody’s interested. https://storycorps.me/about/the-great-thanksgiving-listen/

    1. I really hope you get to see Jerry again and that you do interview him for posterity. Each of the men I interviewed for Mission had critical things to say for the historical record and when they’re gone, so are the memories. And Jerry was at D-Day with the guys who hit the beaches–wow!

  3. I finished Mission, reluctantly, because I didn’t want it to end and I didn’t want to take my leave of Mr. Stewart. But now I have a new, additional hero – CLEM LEONE! What a total badass in the best sense of the word.

    Two questions: 1) what’s your recommended biography of Stewart life outside of his military service – obviously you have written the definitive one there. 😉 2) Where are Mr. Stewart’s service medals?

    Best,
    Gail

    1. Thank you for reading Mission, Gail, and for your questions. It’s funny. I know Mission is a different sort of a book from Fireball–somebody I know who keeps saying how much they love Fireball just finished Mission–and didn’t say anything good about it other than, “It should do well.” It seems to have left her cold, which I guess reflects a book about war and a closed-off introvert versus the sweetly sad story of Lombard and Gable.

      Clem’s story is crazy-cool and he’s so matter of fact about it all. What a guy.

      As for the bios of Stewart that I’d recommend, Quirk is pretty good but I think Munn’s is the best. It’s got some detractors but I think he clearly has a handle on the real Jim and was on the inside with both Jim and Gloria.

      Stewart donated a great many of his personal items to Brigham Young University, but I’m pretty sure the Air Medal, Distinguished Flying Crosses, and Croix de Guerre stayed with the family.

      1. I am into WWII and Old Hollywood, so Mission is right in my wheelhouse. Add to that my fascination with houses and the impressions we leave behind in them and you hit the trifecta. Now I just need to get Olivia & Errol.

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