Mission: James Stewart & World War II

Wave

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

When the boys hit the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago, they created a shock wave that crashed through Europe. The subjects of two of my books felt that wave, Jim Stewart in Old Buckenham, England, and Audrey Hepburn-Ruston in Velp, the Netherlands. As much as we remember D-Day, as much as it’s celebrated, we simply can’t recreate or recapture the level of adrenalin felt anywhere on or near the European continent that particular day, Tuesday, June 6, 1944.

First came the anticipation. Everyone felt that, too; the tension, relentless and building—Allied forces in England, German forces in France, and the occupied peoples of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Where would the Allies attack? When would it happen? Word leaked out about Patton’s impressive First Army assembling in Kent. Not Patton, fretted the Germans. Anyone but Patton!

Tick, tick, tick. Time crept by. Minutes. Hours. Days. Weeks. March turned into April. April into May. As detailed in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, brisk action in barracks pools at Jim’s 453rd Bomb Group and elsewhere handicapped where and when the invasion would finally take place. In 453rd Operations, Jim knew the invasion was getting close because bombing missions by the group’s B-24s had transitioned from strategic flights against German cities and factories to tactical raids of key sites in France. It might be a railroad yard one day and a bridge the next, but the targets would be a couple hundred miles apart to reveal nothing about the intended invasion site. Would it be the Pas-de-Calais? Surely, yes, the shortest point between England and France. More daring gamblers said Normandy just because it was the last place Hitler would expect. For the Allied invaders, Normandy meant a long, torturous boat ride on choppy seas while rugged and heavily defended beaches awaited at the end.

A few hundred miles due east, the Dutch lived quite a different reality, as detailed in Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II. At age 15 and a junior member of the Resistance, Audrey was at this time helping downed Allied airmen avoid capture by day, while in the evening, dancing illegally to raise money for Jews in hiding. All the while her country experienced slow strangulation by ruling Nazi authorities who had extracted from the Netherlands all the food, coal, rubber, clothing, paper, and petrol they could in an ongoing effort to support the war effort on the Eastern Front. Dutch civilians had begun to suffer malnutrition that reached in and twisted bellies, all the while facing the anxiety of executions by firing squad for any random Resistance offense. By now, the Germans had confiscated radios from the Dutch—except for illegal sets that still operated on the sly. Officially sanctioned Nazi radio and newspaper reports boasted that invasion of the “Atlantic Wall” was no threat. According to the Germans, Allied attack was welcomed so the Americans and British could be defeated once and for all.

So the Dutch waited, hoped, and prayed. Every day those with radios listened secretly to regular broadcasts from Radio Oranje on the BBC. The Dutch listeners dared not speak the word that hung at the front of every mind: Liberation! If the day ever actually arrived, an Allied invasion would give hope to the hopeless, not just in small towns and large cities in the Netherlands but across occupied Belgium, throughout occupied France, and in all the concentration camps in Germany and Poland where Jews died by the day and Allied prisoners held out against disease and lice and inertia. In America, hope would spark through millions of mothers and fathers praying for the safe return of their children, the young people actually fighting this war.

If you watch The Longest Day, you get a sense of how the Germans on the Normandy coast felt when they beheld the invasion armada that misty dawn. If you watch Saving Private Ryan, you get horrifying glimpses of the killing machine the liberators faced on the beaches that day. And yet there’s no way history, let alone film, can do this day justice. As the news spread of military action at Normandy, as the titanic struggle played out on those beaches, as men fought and screamed and died, struggling dune to dune, hill to hill, hearts swelled in the United States and across Europe. Hands shook. Tears flowed. The free world held its breath through the longest day in history.

Seventy-five years later we can tour the beaches and imagine what the battle looked like. We can marvel at the crosses representing supreme sacrifice. We can revisit stirring eyewitness accounts. But we can’t feel the shock wave because it remains unimaginable. Jim was positioned to feel it in Operations at Old Buck when gates locked down and orders dictated what targets would be hit; Audrey felt it on a quiet street in Velp as secret radios barked out play by play and the Dutch dared hope they might break free of the oppressor.

What a day, that Tuesday in the fifth year of war—the day when everything changed, when the world felt a shock wave that tilted it in a new direction.

Family Secret

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

This Memorial Day I’d like to shine a spotlight on my great-grandfather, Charles Matzenbacher, Civil War veteran. He was born in 1844 of German immigrant parents recently off the boat from Bavaria. The Matzenbachers settled in the Deutchtown section of Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, now Pittsburgh’s North Side, and ran a tobacco shop. In 1864 at age 18, Great-grandpa Charlie enlisted in the 61st Pennsylvania Volunteers and on May 9, 1864, was wounded in the bloody battle of Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia. (These facts are courtesy of my brother-in-law Ron Gonter, who spent considerable time tracking down the story.)

Charlie convalesced for something like six months before returning to duty, but evidence suggests he never got over his wounds. The war ended the next April and Charlie married a well-off local girl and you’d think the story would have had a happy ending. It didn’t. For reasons that always seemed mysterious, the marriage broke up shortly after the birth of my grandfather, Daniel Matzenbacher, and Charlie relocated to Middletown, Ohio, northeast of Cincinnati. There he served as a laborer and lived in a rooming house, and it was there in 1880 at age 36 that Charlie Matzenbacher died.

Now the twist: My great-grandfather died of a morphine overdose. When Ron uncovered this fact, I was shocked, but then I learned that the Civil War produced the first wave of morphine addicts in a time when no one understood the lethal ramifications of fighting pain with morphine. Treatment of that wound from Spotsylvania led to addiction, then apparent destruction of a marriage and, finally, death.

Tom Roten of NewsRadio 800 in Huntington, West Virginia, invited me on the air this morning to talk about my book Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. Over the course of 20 minutes on the air, we strayed into the territory of PTSD as it related to Jim Stewart and then to the shocking number of veterans who commit suicide every day. Many veterans carry wounds of war that aren’t apparent—wounds that have never healed and may never heal. These men and women don’t talk about the experience of war to civilians, because “how could you understand if you weren’t there?” War kills in so many different ways, whether it’s bullets or shrapnel or memories that can’t be endured. In Great-grandpa Charlie’s case it was drugs to dull the pain of a bullet wound that became a fatal drug habit. At first I considered this to be a dirty family secret, but now I think it’s anything but; my great-grandfather lived history and succumbed to history, and I’m proud to have his portrait and sword hanging over the mantel. He was a Civil War fatality who happened to make it 15 years past the end of open conflict. He gave his life as the result of service to his country.

Today I salute all veterans, especially those who served in combat and experienced more than anyone can or should. If you’re a veteran and you’re having trouble coping, whether your wounds are physical or emotional or both, please find someone to talk to. Soldiers have this need to gut it out, to feel that asking for help is a sign of weakness. Really, it’s a sign of strength. Don’t keep things bottled up inside; get help. Every time I see Charlie’s portrait I wish there had been compassionate help available and, especially, knowledge about the dangers of morphine. He was part of an army of addicted veterans shunned by a society that didn’t understand.

Veterans of every war come back changed, and it’s up to all of us to do what we can to help them find peace and to live out long and healthy lives.

Death for Wacky Donald

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Clem Leone, age 18, graduates gunnery school.

My friend Walt Powell reminded me that 75 years ago today—today, mind you—the most amazing thing happened that I’ve ever been even remotely connected to. On February 24, 1944, my friend Clement Leone escaped out the top hatch of a burning B-24 Liberator named Wacky Donald 20,000 feet above the frozen Netherlands. The formation of B-24s in which Clem was flying had been jumped by German fighters and an FW-190 hit Wacky Donald aft with incendiary rockets. The fire blazed forward toward wing tanks still nearly full as Clem clutched the barrels of the top turret machine gun in a 200-mile-per hour slipstream. Then his impossible situation was resolved in a flash; the wing tanks caught and the ship exploded.

The blast knocked Technical Sgt. Leone out cold and blew him clear of the ship to begin a free-fall to earth. He fell maybe 10,000 feet while unconscious, and it’s a miracle he didn’t just keep on going to hit the earth at terminal velocity. Not feisty Clem. Clem came to with a face wet from blood and managed to keep his wits, locate an orange metal ring on his chest, and give it a yank. His parachute opened and he managed a controlled descent that ended with fractured ribs on impact.

You’d think that was enough adventure for a lifetime let alone one February morning, but it was just the beginning. Dutch people ran to him from the surrounding countryside, and he drew his .45 thinking they were Germans and would kill him. Instead they fed him and helped dress his wounded face and ribs. Then a member of the Nazi Green Police tried to arrest Clem, the Dutch intervened, and he took off into woodlands under the protection of the Dutch Resistance.

For historical context, Sgt. Leone was a participant in Operation Argument, which the flyboys dubbed “Big Week.” From February 20–26, 1944, the Eighth Air Force concentrated on bombing aviation-related targets in Germany. They had to take out the German Air Force before D-Day could be staged. That February week, spectacular aerial battles took place across Dutch and German skies, the Luftwaffe launching maximum effort to repel the American maximum effort bomber stream. I’ll let you read Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe to find out what happened next to Clem, but it just kept getting more incredible. The man was simply meant to survive and make it home to marry his sweetheart, raise four children, become a major in the Maryland National Guard, and shape thousands of young minds as a schoolteacher.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Clem (lower left) with his crew. Top center is Lt. Robert Blomberg, an up and comer with the 445th Bomb Group who died at the controls when his ship blew up. Others in the crew were also KIA. Notable in this team photo is the small man next to Blomberg, Lt. Donald Widmark, co-pilot and brother of future actor Richard Widmark. The co-pilot would grab a parachute and leave Blomberg behind 75 years ago today. Clem’s personal rule was to stay with the ship as long as the officers did, but when he saw Widmark bail out, he said, “It was time for this guy to go.”

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

The ring on his parachute became a wall decoration for Clem.

I met Clem in 2014 when he was a spring chicken of 90 and spent many hours on the phone and in his living room learning about the air war, B-24s, combat missions in the European Theater, his time with Jimmy Stewart in the 445th Bomb Group, and his adventures with the Dutch and Germans. In November 2016, Clem and I played a double bill in his hometown of Gettysburg, PA—before a packed house I lectured about Stewart and introduced Clem, who with humor and humility told his story. Afterward, we sat and autographed books side by side for an hour and a half, and I doubt either of us ever had a better time.

So let’s take a moment to thank Clement Francis Leone for his service, and marvel at an incredible life that barrels full steam ahead toward birthday number 95. Another wacky thing: B-24s were always catching fire, and Clem had bailed out of another one on a training mission in England and broken his leg. It hadn’t even healed before he was bailing out again, this time over Holland. So 70 years later his daughters decided it would be fun to buy their dad a ride in a vintage B-24 that was touring in an air show. When he heard about it, he said, “I had to bail out of two of the damn things when they were new! I’m sure as hell not getting into one that’s 70 years old!”

That, my friends, is the working mind of a survivor.

And oh, by the way, without Clem Leone, there would be no Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, because it was while following Clem’s trail south from the Dutch town of Gramsbergen that I made a stop in Arnhem, and the rest is history. So, thank you for the gift of Dutch Girl, Clem. If I ever grow up, I want to be just like you.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

We each signed more than a book a minute for 90 minutes as Gettysburg paid tribute to its hero.

Heroes

Buster Keaton, every inch a hero in The General.

I came upon a piece of writing the other week that moved me, a column on my colleague Sister Celluloid’s blog. It turns out this piece was written in 2015 and re-posted last month, which is when I had the good fortune to cross its path.

In a few hundred words Sister C. captured my professional admiration, and I know this piece is going to stick with me and become a touchstone, a thing that other things remind me of. Reading it took me back to my own childhood, to fears and phobias, to school and not being able to keep up, to the tricks that get a child through another day or difficult situation. When I was a little kid of 6 or 7 and had to do something scary out in the world, usually in school, my mom would hand me a button or a hair clip and say, “Here, put this in your pocket. When you get scared, hold onto this and everything will be OK.” Son of a gun, it always worked. Mom imbued inanimate objects with magical powers that managed to keep me safe.

Errol Flynn at age 30 as Geoffrey Thorpe in The Sea Hawk, a character and picture that made a big impression on Gertrud Siepmann.

Sister C.’s magic came from Buster Keaton. As I read her column I imagined how Keaton would have felt if he had had the opportunity to read it himself. I’m not going to cheapen this slice of genius by giving it Spark Notes treatment. In my mind Sister C.’s work already hangs in the Louvre with stanchions and velvet ropes keeping it safe for posterity. What came to mind as I read it was Errol Flynn, who could never come to grips with being anyone’s hero. He knew what he was, and it wasn’t a knight in shining armor. Except, in a way he was because he entertained uncounted millions, and for some, adoring Errol Flynn became a reason to go on living. I think of my friend Gertrud Siepmann, who I wrote about in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. Gertrud survived World War II and its aftermath in Germany in part by being in love with Errol Flynn and keeping Flynn front-of-mind as a shining light in the blackness of those times. There he’d be every day, at Gertrud’s side, a square-shouldered protector, sword in hand to fend off any dangers she faced. As related in Errol & Olivia, Gertrud finally got to see Errol Flynn with his wife Patrice Wymore in the lobby of a hotel in Bad Soden, Germany, in the 1950s. Gertrud waited for hours, flowers in hand, for what she imagined would be a magical meeting. By then her Capt. Geoffrey Thorpe, protector of German maidens, was a bitter 45 and at first she didn’t recognize the real thing because “he was taller than I imagined, and much thinner—almost frail looking. His face was still beautiful, but so unexpectedly sad and weary that it shocked me—and broke my heart.” As he passed, he gave her a smile and she managed to smile back and then he was gone. She remained for a while rooted to the spot, still holding the flowers she’d intended to give him, and she wept at the sadness of the real Errol Flynn.

Gertrud Siepmann is known in today’s United States as Trudy McVicker, and if you asked Trudy if Errol was a real-life hero she would say an enthusiastic yes! That’s what came to mind when I read Sister C.’s ode to her protector and inspiration, Buster Keaton. That and the powerful, clear and clean craftsmanship of the piece.

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Coming Soon: Columns about the research and writing of Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II.

The Bear

My best friends in elementary school were John, nicknamed “Skip,” who lived a couple blocks away in one direction, and two brothers, Bobby and Ricky, who lived a couple blocks away in the other. We lived in a college town where my dad taught physics, and Bobby and Ricky’s dad was a big deal in the music department. He was also a wonderful guy and a WWII veteran. That made him into something like a mystical character to me. A lot of the fathers of my friends were in “the war”—my dad wasn’t because he was color blind. Talk about seeing the world as many shades of gray—that was my dad.

Skip’s father was what you might call the opposite of Bobby and Ricky’s. He had also been in the war, and my memories of this man are vivid through the passing decades. He lived in the darkened bedroom and was rarely seen. I heard him many times, snarling at his wife, a very nice lady, and yelling at his son over some misdemeanor. Skip never talked about the abuse that he and his mother were taking, but he didn’t have to. He wore the sadness everywhere, especially in school where he started to have trouble as the years passed.

To me as a kid, Skip’s father was a snarling bear in a cave. Skip and I never went near that part of their little ranch house; the basement door was near that bedroom, and we tiptoed so as not to poke the bear. There’s no one left to ask why he was like this; Skip died of a heart attack in the 1990s at a very young age because, I guess, if you lug that amount of sadness around long enough, it’ll wear you out. He was such a nice guy, probably because he knew how it felt when people weren’t nice. I wonder if Skip had any idea where his dad had seen action. Did he hit the beaches of Anzio or Normandy or Iwo? Was he ground crew for the heavies in England? Was he caught in the slaughter of the Bulge? Whatever had happened to him over there had left a wreck of a human back here, and laid waste to a family unit that deserved better.

I thought about that snarling bear for the first time in a couple generations because I’m involved in a project that’s analyzing 1945-46 in the life of Jimmy Stewart as he returned home from war and contemplated his future. He was one of 11,000 G.I.s who stepped off the Queen Elizabeth on August 31, 1945—maybe Skip’s father and Bobby’s stepped off with Jim, who knows. But all these guys who had just stared into the face of the most horrific war in human history now returned home to something just as terrifying: All had to make their way in a world that was different from the one they left behind. Now they actually had to live with the brides they had married in haste. They had to find jobs because the ones they had left had been filled by younger men or, in some cases, by women. Did you know that one of the greatest shortages of 1946 was the one for dress shirts for job interviews?

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

One day after stepping off the Queen Elizabeth, Jimmy Stewart condescended to hold a press conference after keeping the press at bay for the better part of four and a half years. That day he said he just wanted to make a comedy, “if anyone will have me.”

I am amazed at the bravery of these men. In Jim’s case, as detailed in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, he had flown 20 combat missions over France and Germany and survived many close calls. I can’t imagine you’re ever quite the same again after a German fighter has flown straight at you-as-pilot and fired wing-mounted machine guns at the cockpit of your bomber. Or after an anti-aircraft shell has hit your plane over the heart of Germany and blown a hole in the flight deck between your feet. Or after you’ve seen the planes under your command break up in the air or explode in a fireball. That was Jim’s tiny little corner of the war, and most of the 11,000 others on the QE had lived through their own little corner, whether it involved bullets or shells or some psychological evil that was even worse. And there were hundreds of passenger ship dockings, each unloading 11,000 more men. And more and more and more.

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

I have always been drawn to this shot as we first see Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. He’s playing a young man of about 20 and we suspend our disbelief, but if you look closely, the face that had stared into the face of war is clearly visible under heavy makeup.

It’s easy not to really think about what combat soldiers see in any conflict in any spot in the world. Whatever that is, they can never unsee it, and it becomes part of the veteran’s mind, and in some cases a handicap that inhibits performance at home and on the job.

For the World War II veteran, it had to take tremendous courage to start over in a civilian world where the men you had counted on to have your back, the ones who had been part of what Jim called a “grand thing,” were now your competitors for jobs. You knew another vet by the look in his eye, and you resented the ones who didn’t have it because you knew they had spent the war at home for whatever reason. The veterans had also changed physically. Many had left as wiry 18-year-old boys and come home as square-shouldered men to the surprise of mothers and siblings. In Jim’s case, as noted in Farran Smith Nehme’s excellent Village Voice piece, going into the service at age 32 and serving four-plus hard years had left Jim “so careworn that no studio would cast him.”

Jim must have lived right because the one call that did come resulted in It’s a Wonderful Life, and that rollercoaster picture with the happy ending contains a tour-de-force Stewart performance that mirrors the crisis in his post-war personal life. He stood at a crossroads like so many million others and displayed courage enough to push his way forward. He survived. He thrived. He lived 50 more mostly wonderful years while consciously tamping down an ongoing loop of black memories. He controlled them; they didn’t control him. For Skip’s father and I’m sure millions of others it didn’t go so well, and I think I could make a case for poor Skip being another casualty of World War II, once removed.

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

Director Frank Capra chose to throw Jim in the deep end and shoot this scene first. Jim was suffering PTSD and his confidence was shot, all of which is imprinted in celluloid for posterity. The scene is full of clumsy energy and some very strange kisses between stars who, Jim would claim later, had no chemistry.

Zero Hour

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

Here is Lt.-Col. Jim Stewart one month after the D-Day landings. I chose this image for the cover of Mission because it reflects the toll of war on a man so recently thought of as youthful. He had by this time flown 14 combat missions, earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses, and supervised his bomb group’s D-Day bombing missions. The photo was found in Jim’s personal collection, which he had donated to Brigham Young University.

 

One of my favorite chapters in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe concerns the run-up to D-Day, which Maj. Jim Stewart had a hand in, as did just about everyone in the Eighth Air Force. I well remember sitting in a Brigham Young University library looking at records from the 453rd Bomb Group at Old Buckenham and feeling chills along my spine as I read a rare history of the 453rd written during the war. It described “invasionitis”—the endless speculation over when and where the attack would take place—as it reached its peak, and then suddenly, after weeks and months of anticipation, the base went on lockdown. No one in or out. All leaves cancelled. No phone calls. All fliers on alert. Imagine how those guys felt—the invasion of Europe was at hand. It was Zero Hour, and they were literally on the front lines.

Now I’m researching my next book and looking at the impending invasion through the eyes of civilians in Nazi-occupied countries. As they felt the iron fist of Hitler’s Germany close around their throats, as Jews were sent away and innocent civilians were executed in reprisal for partisan raids, as young men and women were kidnapped off the streets where they’d lived all their lives and sent to Germany as slave labor or worse, the only hope of entire populations was an Allied invasion. Every day and every day and every day they waited and hoped and prayed, and it kept not happening. On the continent as in England and the U.S., rumors filled the vacuum of information as top-secret preparations continued. Loose lips could do a lot more than sink ships in May 1944—loose lips could result in a repulsed invasion and a prolonging of a war that had already killed tens of millions of human beings.

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

The landing craft that the B-24s couldn’t see as D-Day commenced.

Seventy-three years ago right now as I sit here in the New York time zone, B-24s took off from Old Buck to hit targets immediately behind the beach code-named Omaha on the Normandy coast. Jim Stewart briefed his bomber crews that they would be able to look down and see the mightiest fleet ever set to water, but upon return hours later, the pilots and bombardiers complained bitterly to Stewart that they had seen nothing because of heavy cloud cover. Among the things they didn’t see during those early June 6 sorties were their targets (Wehrmacht barracks and gun emplacements), which the bombardiers missed, and badly. Eisenhower had ordered a ‘Go’ to the operation despite continued lousy weather, and so shortly after dawn, tens of thousands of young men hit beaches that were supposed to be neutralized by bombing but hadn’t been softened at all. We know the result: Omaha was a bloodbath.

As the years pass by and the veterans of that day’s assault pass to glory, it becomes increasingly difficult to appreciate the gravity of D-Day, the shock of the headlines, the importance of the news to simply everyone in the world: to soldiers throwing up in landing craft in heavy seas knowing a storm of lead awaited; to parents across the ocean fearing for their sons in harm’s way; to oppressed civilians in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands desperate for liberation; to Jews heading for concentration camps or already there; and, yes, to Germans who could see their empire and dreams of a unified Europe slipping away. They knew that if the Allies got a foothold in France and headed toward Germany on one side with the Russians moving in on the other, the Reich was doomed.

For Baby Boomers (defined broadly as the children of service men who returned from WWII), D-Day is represented by The Longest Day, made by Darryl F. Zanuck’s 20th Century Fox in 1962 over the course of 10 months at more than 30 locations in France. It’s an occasionally brilliant, mostly ham-handed, decidedly G-rated version of a brutal 24 hours in world history. If anything, The Longest Day trivializes what really went on as it lays on globs of irony that’s supposedly clever and amusing and gives us some of the more unusual casting in Hollywood history. Everybody who was anybody got a cameo to the detriment of what this epic picture might have been. Even 18 years after the event when The Longest Day was released, there was no way to convey what D-Day meant to the world. So many decades after that, it’s downright impossible to do justice to this day and these people on all sides, particularly all those men who stormed the beaches code-named Juno, Sword, Gold, Utah, and Omaha. All I can say is, I salute each and every one of them for what they gave the world—a chance for an end to the most catastrophic war in history. And beyond that, a chance for a peace in Western Europe that remains to this day. Stated plainly, the accomplishments of the men of D-Day will always dwarf any and all acts of terror, for it infused the continent with a steely resolve that I’m convinced will endure forever.

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

John Wayne and a bunch of guys who looked nothing–NOTHING–like the generation of young Americans who participated in D-Day. Press materials noted “an unusually large and attractive cast.” Um, agree about the large part, at least in the Duke’s case.

Make It Personal

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

Months ago I was invited to appear at the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Georgia near Savannah to talk about my book, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. My presentation took place the evening of May 16 before a wonderful and enthusiastic dinner crowd.

This particular museum is all about the experience of the men of the U.S. Eighth Air Force based in England who slugged it out with their German counterparts for three bloody years in the skies over northern Europe. I got uncomfortably close to this story writing Mission, and now understand how horrifying was their job and how scarred they returned in 1945. And make no mistake, Stewart was scarred like the rest of them. As much as any other group, including those who stormed the Normandy beaches, these men won World War II.

I came away from my experience at the museum unsettled. After my presentation there was a lively Q&A and the best set of questions I’ve been asked yet. One of these was, “In your experience, how can we get the 12-year-olds of today interested in this story?” It was a question I hadn’t prepared for and I made a joke at the moment, but then really got to thinking about it because this is the challenge of any facility that wants to remain vital after all the veterans have passed on and their stories have been set in marble. It’s the challenge of any museum anywhere, say a museum about Hollywood history, as learning styles change.

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

The Memorial Garden with its statues and tablets dedicated to individuals, air crews, squadrons, and bomb and fighter groups moved me to tears.

Before my flight back to Pittsburgh the following day, I took an hour to drift through the museum and its haunting Memorial Garden by myself with the attendee’s question firmly in my mind. I find the museum to be very well laid out and full of items that tell the story of the fliers and their planes, down to uniforms, radio sets, control panels, bombsights, machine guns—the whole nine yards. There’s even a room that was built around a complete B-17 Flying Fortress.

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

History under glass. For WWII buffs, no problem. For school-age groups? Bring those items out from under the glass or create replicas and let the kids experience up close.

Groups of school children troop through daily—there were two large groups there while I wandered around, and a volunteer was talking to them about the whats and whys of the air war against Germany. The place is staffed by dedicated, articulate people volunteering their time to keep the history alive, and they want so badly to engage young people and let them in on this incredible story.

And I couldn’t help but think as a fly on the wall listening to the volunteer and watching the fidgety kids that the would-be educators are shoveling sand against the tide of time, and now here comes this latest generation for whom Hitler is some weird guy and yeah yeah yeah when can I get back to my texting? I worry that history under glass and docent lectures don’t work anymore, not with this and succeeding generations of ever shorter-attention-spanned generations. Maybe history under glass can be step 2, but heading into a difficult future, step 1 has to be to somehow, some way engage the imaginations of the 12 year olds who walk in the door expecting boredom and worse, torture.

In this particular case, the conclusion I came to in answer to the attendees question was that the kids have to walk a mile in the fliers’ boots. And I mean that literally. Ask for one of the students to come up for a demonstration. Get them to acknowledge that what they’re wearing now is the equivalent of the uniform shirt and pants of an Army flier—the first layer of a flying outfit. OK, now…

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

Visitors examine the bust of Jimmy Stewart in the museum rotunda.

Have him or her struggle into a “blue bunny” heated flying suit. Do you know why it’s heated? Because it’s going to be 30 below when you’re at 20,000 feet, which is almost 4 miles up. Think about that…30 degrees below zero, 4 miles above the earth. And oh by the way there are open windows in the plane and the wind really gets to howling inside at 200 miles per hour.

Now strap on your parachute harness. “Wait, what’s this for?” Well when the Germans shoot your plane full of holes and it’s not going to fly anymore, you have to jump out of it. The parachute straps onto this harness.

Now here’s your Mae West. “My what?” If you land in water, you need something to help you float.

Don’t forget your oxygen mask. “What the…” At 4 miles up and 30 below, without oxygen you will pass out in about a minute and die a few minutes after that.

And here’s your sidearm. “Why do I need a gun if I’m in an airplane full of machine guns?” Because if you manage to hit the ground alive after you’ve jumped out of your airplane, there are people who will want to kill you, and you may need to defend yourself.

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

The B-17, roped off in the name of preservation. Instead of signs that read, PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH, maybe the approach should be, BY ALL MEANS, TOUCH!

You’ll need your escape kit. “What’s an escape kit?” It’s got a map, coins, medicine, fake travel documents, a translation card, and other things you’ll need while you are running for your life in enemy territory.

Here’s your flak jacket and steel pot helmet. “Jeez, so heavy!” Yes, you need sturdy armor to protect you a little from the flying bullets and shrapnel—but just a little.

And here’s your flying helmet with headset, and goggles. And your sheepskin boots and gauntlets because every inch of skin has to be covered to prevent frostbite. And, oh, let’s strap on your parachute.

And with every question comes an answer that makes this story personal for these kids.

Pretty soon your volunteer is unrecognizable under 40 pounds of stuff and having trouble even standing there. You say, OK, now you’re ready to climb into the airplane!

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

The 1942 Jimmy Stewart short recruiting film Winning Your Wings plays nonstop on a monitor under the wing of the B-17. As related in Mission, Stewart initially refused to participate but then relented to create one of the most important tools for recruiting in the war.

What you’ve done is set the stage for life or death in German airspace. You’ve invested 20 minutes of the tour to make these kids think about the mortal danger of every flier from a personal perspective—fliers that weren’t much older than the school children themselves.

Pass around a .50 machine gun shell, which looks like a bullet on steroids and weighs a pound. Then show them a belt loaded with these shells and imagine a) how heavy and b) how devastating was that gun!

Pull a B-17 or B-24 fuselage out of mothballs or build a new one and outfit it, and let school groups roam around inside, from the nose to the cockpit to the waist and the turrets. Then rev up the noise and shake that fuselage until their teeth are rattling—and tell them this is what they’ll hear and feel for the next six or eight hours, which was the length of a mission. If, that is, they don’t get shot down first.

Create a simulation that lets them look through a bombsight over a target and maybe let them release some sort of bomb to see how they do as a bombardier. Or figure out a way to let them shoot a virtual-reality machine gun.

Maybe some of these ideas are already practice at the museum because I didn’t follow a student group from beginning to end.

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

The Chapel of the Fallen Eagles is a replica of the kind of English country church located near all the bomber and fighter bases. Behind it rest some veterans of the Eighth Air Force who chose to be buried at this focal point of their history.

I came away from my experience at the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth with a deepened appreciation of what Jim Stewart and the other flyboys did and with admiration for the mission and staff of this wonderful facility. After spending two years with the young men of the Eighth as I was researching and writing their story for Mission, I needed no context for the museum and its goals. I already know what the boys went through and what they sacrificed. The challenge for any American-based WWII museum is that there’s no battlefield here, so World War II can’t be interpreted in the United States the way the Civil War can be at Gettysburg or Antietam. No, the volunteers show up every day fighting ever-increasing odds to keep the heartbeats going for men who fought in foreign lands more than 70 years ago. I salute this noble effort and strongly urge that these outstanding young fliers were humans and that the human experience will never change. Therefore, find ways to connect the youth of today with the youth of 1943 so that when your school-age visitors walk back out into the light of a Georgia afternoon, they appreciate these brave men so much that maybe they take an extra couple of minutes thinking about it…before they remember to reach for their cell phones.

And maybe, just maybe, a precious few will catch the history bug, and become the volunteers of tomorrow.

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

I didn’t expect to see a memorial dedicated to Stewart–he’s in good company in the rotunda with statues of the founding generals of the Eighth Air Force.

The Texan

I have no interest in bucket lists because I’m not a faddist. If I were to maintain a bucket list, jumping out of an airplane would not be on it. So when I decided to go up in a single-engine AT-6 Texan built by North American Aviation in 1943, it was with some mixed feelings that I was strapped into a parachute by veteran pilot Dan Fordice of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

I sat in the back seat of the Texan as Dan strapped me into the parachute, and then pretty much stapled me onto the back seat of the plane by four straps. I was mighty harnessed at this time. The basics as he described them were that a 74-year-old plane sometimes breaks down, and “a crash landing is preferable to a bailout,” and we’d only bail out if the engine was on fire.

He explained the steps of a bailout to me, and I listened attentively because my life could sort of depend on it in another few minutes.

To take a step back, the AT-6—AT standing for advanced trainer—is a plane dear to my heart because it appears in chapter one of Fireball, and also in Mission as the plane that 2nd Lt. Jim Stewart landed at Moffett Field to confront director Owen Crump of Warner Bros. in a story detailing just how much Stewart did not want to participate in filmmaking during his military service. If you look at the Warner Bros. short subject Winning Your Wings, the first thing you see is an AT-6 sputtering to life and then Stewart tooling around in one and coming in for a landing. It’s a powerful airplane known as the “pilot maker” because every pilot in the war effort, tens of thousands of them flying everything from Warhawks to Liberators, mastered the Texan or washed out.

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

2nd Lt. Jim Stewart with an AT-6 backdrop in Winning Your Wings.

My ride in a Texan was a thank you by Patty Mekus, Dan Fordice, and the Southern Heritage Air Foundation for a series of successful and well-attended appearances I made talking about Mission in Tallulah, Louisiana, last week. I learned firsthand the definition of “Southern Hospitality” from residents of both Louisiana and Mississippi ,and now here I sat in the Texan as Dan drawled, “If you hear me call ‘bail out’ three times, the second two are echoes because I’ll already be gone.”

Sobering. During the briefing he related the procedure for bailing out as follows:

  • Roll open and lock the canopy
  • Release your shoulder harness
  • Climb onto the seat and stand up
  • Aim for the trailing edge of the left wing
  • Jump
  • Grab the ring on the parachute and pull it straight out

“The earth will be below,” said Dan in his Deep South accent. “You can’t miss it.” He gave the harnesses one last tug and said confidently, “Let’s go fly!”

It’s a terrific thrill to ride in an aircraft like this. Compared to the Cessnas and other small planes I’ve spent time in over the years, the Texan is a real beast. Dan took off and zoomed into a left bank and we headed for downtown Vicksburg at about 150 knots and 1,500 feet. He wore a headset and so did I, and communication was fine even above the roar of the 600-horsepower Pratt & Whitney engine. He said something about a “strafing run” and suddenly he banked hard and we were zooming earthward and then leveling off above the deck of the Mississippi Delta and I heard myself say the first of several “oh shit”s as the G-forces took over and I surrendered to the fates.

Wait, what was that bailout procedure again? Roll open and lock the canopy…

I realized that at 1,500 feet, if the engine suddenly flamed, even if I did manage to roll open and lock the canopy, unlatch the safety harness (which has four straps BTW), waddle up onto the seat and into the slipstream at something like 150 knots, and even if I did manage to aim for the trailing edge and jump into the heavens with the pilot long gone and flames licking about me, I’d only be a few hundred feet above the ground by that time and when my parachute opened, I’d be bug guts on somebody’s windshield or the pavement of a Vicksburg street. There’s something liberating about such knowledge. It allowed me to enjoy the rest of a terrific flight. Suddenly Dan climbed to about 3,500, and we punched through the cottony cloud deck and he did some fancy flying that included an aileron roll, my first—although I knew and appreciated the fact he was taking it easy on me.

In a little while we were back on the ground where we had started, and I’d had the thrill of riding in a vintage warbird far different from the heavy bombers I knew from past experiences, a warbird that had served as a living, breathing character in not one but two of my books, and a plane that was vital to the winning of World War II.

I unlatched the harness of my parachute and thought to myself that whenever I’d next be in one, I planned not to have to use it. To hell with bucket lists.

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

Bob Sauls of Houston, Texas, and I did a lot of work for NASA together in the old days. On Saturday March 25 Bob drove up to surprise me in central Louisiana during my last appearance in Tallulah. Here we are in front of the Texan I rode in Friday and he rode in Saturday.

A Jagged Edge

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

Jim Stewart as George Bailey Standing on the edge of suicide in It’s a Wonderful Life.

I’ve heard more than once on the book tour that some people are uncomfortable with It’s a Wonderful Life as a motion picture. A couple weeks ago I watched it on the big screen and sat there with this specific point of view in mind. I have to say, I understand where these people are coming from. This is a dark tale, so dark and so unusual that it’s no wonder Jim Stewart balked initially when Capra pitched it to him in autumn 1945.

A man driven to suicide? No, no, no, Jim countered, if I can find work–if any studio will have me-I just want to make a comedy.

An angel needs to earn his wings? What? Forget it, Frank, I’m out.

When you’re sitting in a balcony looking at a silver screen 30 feet high, the view is much clearer than your television system at home, even if you’ve got a 65-inch setup. As viewed this picture the way God intended, in a theatrical setting, It’s a Wonderful Life unspooled as a long picture, and grim, with a carefully crafted screenplay that drives our hero to despair in a relentless effort. Take for example the “Buffalo Gal” sequence after the dance and the terrific exchange between Stewart and Donna Reed walking along the street. It’s a dynamic sequence that builds and builds and suddenly she’s (presumably) naked in the hydrangea bush. Jim says what the audience is thinking, “This is a very interesting situation!”

Boom! The air is let out of characters and audience alike by news that George’s father has suffered a stroke. I don’t think it’s just me who reacts badly to this. We are meant as an audience to be uncomfortable with this moment because the theme of the picture is oppression, gloom, and the erosion of a person’s will by the tide of life. If not for the relentlessness of the setup, the payoff wouldn’t offer such release from the emotional bondage Capra has spent two hours creating.

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

George at the end of his rope, praying for guidance. Jim only had one take in him, and told Capra he had nailed it and couldn’t do another.

With my newfound perspective on Jim Stewart the man and actor, knowing more than anyone in the world other than Jim himself what he had gone through in the war, I watched him onscreen as, frame by frame, It’s a Wonderful Life unspooled in the dark. In his first scene buying the suitcase he’s playing 22 when in the real world he’s 38 going on 50. He’s got a hairpiece in front, hair coloring left and right on his gray, heavy makeup, and careful lighting to help him carry an impression of youth. He bubbles over with energy in that first scene. He’s a thoroughbred just out of the gate at Churchill Downs in this moment, a stallion away for five years and now once again feeling the bit between his teeth. And man does he run. What comes across is youthful enthusiasm but make no mistake, this is a man who appreciates the opportunity he’s been given, a man who is going to work this day and not getting shot at by a deadly foe.

There is brutal hate in George Bailey, and Stewart—a desperate man at this point in his life—finds that vibe easily, as when he goes to Mary’s house and berates her for showing romantic interest in him and accuses her of trying to tie him down. What did Mary ever do but love this man, and he all but wipes his shoes on her. Jim Stewart’s George Bailey is a guy with an edge, wild-eyed in some scenes, rage-filled in others, as when he wrecks his living room and terrorizes his wife and children who see not husband and father but a monster unmasked. The America of 1946 was filled with monsters, men back from the hell of World War II and now strangers in their own homes, in some cases ticking time bombs, full of self-loathing at what they had seen and done and unleashing fury on family members, just like George did with Mary and the kids.

Indeed, the picture is populated by people riding the line of good and evil, like Nick the bartender, good in the Bailey world, evil without Bailey’s influence. Or George’s mother, a bitter soul without George around. And Gower the druggist, who so easily beats youngster George to a pulp and bloodies his ear. Capra paints this corner of America as a brutal place but for the intervention of someone extraordinary like George, a man of principle who influences impressionable, self-involved masses.

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

Jim wild-eyed and letting the world see something from deep inside.

There is a myth that It’s a Wonderful Life bombed at the box office on release 70 years ago this month at Christmas 1946, but that’s not accurate. This was a prestige picture and it performed like one and nearly made back its cost, but that cost had been extravagant, from construction of the main streets of Bedford Falls at the RKO Ranch in Encino to the snowstorm created in 90-degree Mojave Desert to all those expensive bridge and river shots that took weeks to complete on RKO soundstages.

What isn’t myth is that this was a picture ahead of its time, too long and dark for war-weary audiences to process in 1946. In another 10 years television would intervene and peacetime Eisenhower-era viewers would drink up and savor It’s a Wonderful Life for its themes of principles, friendship, the value of human lives lived well.

When you finish reading Mission you will understand what Stewart brought to this production and what it meant to him. You will sit there in the dark not just with Jim but with fine young army fliers like Albert Poor and Earle Metcalf who died under Jim’s command but lived on through all their skipper’s accomplishments. Jim carried with him all those boys he had lost, which is one of the reasons he wouldn’t talk about the war—it hurt too much. He didn’t talk about it but he remembered those men and their times each and every day on a journey into the second half of his career that began with It’s a Wonderful Life.

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

Heartfelt salutations from both Jim and George in the last reel of It’s a Wonderful Life.

FLASH: AMERICA IS AT WAR.

It’s difficult to imagine a moment like that, when those words are heard. Wait, no it isn’t, not if you lived through 9/11 and the chaos, fires, and heartbreak of that day and the days that followed. But December 1941 was a more innocent time. We got our news from daily papers and radio, without benefit of TV or the internet. By 2001 we had been desensitized by all sorts of horrors over the decades brought into our homes mostly courtesy of television, but in the run-up to the holidays 1941, no one could conceive of a sneak attack by another nation on an American naval base where young men and women were stumbling out of their bunks in the utter quiet of a Hawaiian Sunday morning and wiping the sleep out of their eyes, guard down.

Pearl Harbor? Where the heck is that? We have a naval base way out there? There was so much we didn’t know that day and struggled to find out. It all unfolded so painfully slowly. First a bulletin after 2 in the afternoon on the East Coast, and phones ringing off the hook in D.C. Families told families until the news had rippled across the nation. All gathered around living room radio sets and stayed there through the evening to pick up shards of information that came through not in today’s explosion of information and misinformation but as facts crawling in one at a time, in single file.

We know now, from the hindsight of 75 years, what happened 75 years ago this morning. Hours of hell on earth. Bombs, exploding ships, blood in the water, death. We know how and why the Japanese attacked, the damage they inflicted, and the gross miscalculation of picking a fight with a “sleeping giant” and filling it with a “terrible resolve.” But on the evening of December 7, 1941, nobody in the United States enjoyed any sort of historical context. Instead, all wondered what would happen next because the Japanese hadn’t just attacked Pearl; they had swept across the South Pacific in a multi-pronged invasion that most believed would bring landing craft to Washington or Oregon or California. Air raids were feared and blackouts went into effect at once.

As ships burned at Pearl Harbor, America entered a new reality, just as we did on September 11, 2001, when buildings burned. Everyone knew nothing would be the same again and they were right. The world was plunging into a blackness that would claim tens of millions of lives. Parents would no longer sleep at night because they worried their children would be sent off to fight. Austerity became a way of life as everything of value was rationed for the common goal of defending liberty.

I’m not a big fan of war because it so rarely settles anything and only causes other problems. But 75 years ago today the United States entered a just war against terrible foes. After tremendous sacrifice over nearly four years, good defeated evil. I’m pausing this morning to think about the thousands of innocent kids who woke up at peace on the ships of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and ended the day as battle-tested warriors. And I’m especially remembering the 2,300 who fell in that attack, many of them entombed on the U.S.S. Arizona. Theirs are the first names on the honor rolls of World War II and I say to each one: Thank you. We will never forget.

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

In 1962, a memorial was built over the sunken U.S.S. Arizona, where hundreds of American sailors and Marines remain entombed. Arizona crewmen who survived the battle of Pearl Harbor are given the option by the National Park Service of being interred there after death.