Mission: James Stewart & World War II

Inside the Reptile

There is an affectionate term for the planes that helped win the fight against Hitler: warbirds. Mary and I saw all the warbirds of World War II in our recent visit to the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe was launched the evening of October 27.

This Veterans Day it’s easy to think about the boys who stormed Normandy’s beaches 72 years and 5 months ago because they’ve been memorialized in the neat and tidy The Longest Day and in the stunningly realistic Saving Private Ryan, and as one who sees and hears and feels and smells and tastes history, I don’t know how they did what they did that day. You know how you blanch when facing headwinds and slanting rain and the natural sense is to squint from it and recoil and run for cover? Well imagine the raindrops are eight-ounce parcels of lead coming at you like slanting rain. We’re all waterproof so the rain can’t really hurt us, although we act as if it could. None of us are bulletproof and for thousands of those guys that day, the rainstorm ended in instant death or worse.

Where do the warbirds fit in this story? Well, I didn’t know before writing Mission exactly how the war had played out up to the point that the LSTs hit the beaches of France. I knew there was an air war and a ground war in Europe, but it didn’t sink in that the air war came first and made the ground war possible, which means that for Americans over a two-year period, the front lines in the war for Europe were manned by flyers of the U.S. Army Air Forces. They climbed into their warbirds every morning not knowing if they’d ever walk the earth again. They’d give a thumbs-up and take off not into a glorious sunrise but into pea soup because, after all, this was England and the English weather is usually dreary.

And the warbirds themselves? Yikes. Sure, you had your sleek and nasty fighter planes, your Warhawks and Thunderbolts and Mustangs, and the kids who climbed into them fought like the glamorous swashbucklers they were. Theirs was the grave responsibility of guarding and defending the most unglamorous of warbirds, the heavy bombers. And that is the core story of Mission.

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

The B-24 Liberator, mocked as “the packing crate the B-17 came in,” but beloved by the men who flew inside.

Two heavy bombers flew for America in WWII, the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator. The relative beauty of the 17 and its lethal firepower made it the media darling of the war. Think Memphis Belle. The 24 was described as “the packing crate the B-17 came in.” It was boxy; it was decidedly unglamorous. Imagine this as a verbal portrait of your airplane: “On the ground it looks like a slab-sided prehistoric monster wading through swamps.”

But the boys assigned to the B-24 Liberators loved their airplanes. They cared for each as if it were a hotrod, as if the thing wasn’t a flying death trap. The Liberators Jim Stewart flew exclusively in the war had real problems, like controls that required muscle at all times and leaks in the fuel lines that would, all of a sudden, cause them to blow up in the air, usually on ascent when loaded with gas and bombs. Ka-BOOM! Ten men obliterated over friendly skies because of spark meeting fuel leak: pilot, copilot, bombardier, navigator, radio operator, engineer, waist gunners, ball turret gunner, tail gunner, all gone. This happened to Lt. Earle Metcalf and crew of Stewart’s squadron one morning during a relatively “easy” mission to bomb German rocket emplacements near the coast of France. There one moment and vanished the next, with no trace ever found.

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

This Veterans Day I am saluting the flyers of the Eighth Air Force, with a special shout-out to this crew: (kneeling, L to R) engineer Don Dewey, gunner Stan Treusch, gunner Bill Timmons, radioman Phil Bronstein, gunner Earl Doggett; (standing) engineer Jim Crawford, navigator Paul Fischer, copilot John Lercari, pilot Earle Metcalf, and bombardier Ernie Hutton. Of the men in this photo, only ground crew chief Eugene Peterson, kneeling at far right, lived past Feb. 2, 1944 when the Lib they were in, Billie Babe, blew up without warning in English airspace. These men were under Jim Stewart’s command in the 703rd Squadron of the 445th Bomb Group, and their deaths hit him hard.

On each mission to Germany, missions sent up every possible day, hundreds of planes would take off from a cluster of bases each five miles from the next in eastern England into that pea soup I described earlier featuring low cloud cover. If the pilot didn’t fly precisely in that cloud cover, as in, fly straight for 47 seconds after takeoff while climbing to 5,000 feet at an air speed of 150 and then on the 48th second turn right to a precise compass heading, ka-BOOM! Two bombers both flying blind would collide—loaded with gas and bombs—and not 10 but 20 men would be erased from the roster. That happened more than once on missions Jim commanded. He would hear the deafening explosion close by, muscle the controls as the shock wave hit his plane, and know that a score of fine flyers alive five seconds ago were now dead. Young men he had just seen and eaten breakfast with.

Dear readers, we haven’t even left friendly airspace yet! This was the easy part before hitting an enemy coastline that featured hundreds of anti-aircraft batteries aimed at Forts and Libs lumbering straight and level across the sky as if targets in a carnival shooting gallery. Each plane held 10 males somewhere between 19 and 26, except for Jim, the old man of 35. They were kids, so very young, so very brave, so very skilled, who died by the hundreds and thousands for the two years leading up to D-Day in an ongoing effort to smash Hitler’s ability to manufacture weapons of war. Not until they had succeeded in the task of fighting and fighting and fighting on endless brutal missions to knock out enough of the German air fleet did D-Day even become possible.

I spend a great deal of time in Mission driving home the point that, yes, Jim was a hero, but the band of brothers he flew with every day were people who lived and breathed. Each represented the best the United States had to offer. On the morning of a mission they rode out to their slab-sided reptile of an airplane, a beast that might turn around and bite them at any moment. They struggled inside it while loaded down with flying gear. They held their breath through a lumbering takeoff, each focused on all the tasks essential to keeping that plane in the air for a flight to and from Germany. For many, too many, something would go wrong and they would fly on to glory.

I am writing about the men of the Eighth Air Force today, but I think of them every day. They inspire me to be an American worthy of their bravery and sacrifice.

 

To learn more about Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Flight to Europe, visit the publisher’s website.

Calling All Ghosts

If you spend a lifetime around history, you can’t help but experience something paranormal along the way, even if you’re a pragmatist like me. I am not one to see ghosts. I will get an inkling of something once in a while, like the time I was on a ghost hunt with a friend and his group. As I walked down a hallway in an old house supposedly haunted, I felt someone touch the back of my neck with cold fingers…even though there was no one there. I can feel cold spots and get a sense of things being off, but I just don’t have whatever it is that allows a person to actually see ghosts. I’ve spent lots of time in haunted places begging for something to happen and it never did. When I went to England last year to explore the abandoned American air bases from World War II for my book, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, I was told it was inevitable I’d see ghosts because so many men died in crashes at those spots—I saw nothing. At Tibenham, where Stewart was based with 4,000 other guys of the 445th Bomb Group, I was on very spooky ground and I felt the frantic energy of this now quiet and desolate spot, but saw no ghosts. Thirty years ago the old control tower was still standing and supposedly very haunted, but it had been long-ago torn down by the time I got there. Years and years before my visit to England, on the only occasion when I did see a ghost, I wasn’t thinking anything about ghosts at the critical moment, and it took years to figure out what had happened.

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

Thirty-one years after last setting foot there, Jimmy Stewart returned to Tibenham in 1976 and here leans against the operations building with the control tower behind him. It even looks haunted. By the time I got here, these buildings were long gone, although if you know where to look, spooky old Army structures dot the Tibenham landscape and remain to be explored.

If you’ve read Errol Flynn Slept Here you know the story of the day I saw a ghost while visiting Flynn’s Mulholland Farm. I was so sure I was imagining things that I didn’t talk about the experience, and it was only 15 years later that I learned of Tracy Nelson’s close encounters with Flynn’s ghost in the house. Even then, that’s only two people seeing things, and when Mike Mazzone and I embarked on the writing of EFSH, we thought it would make an interesting one-column sidebar to talk about the legend of the Flynn ghost, as in ha ha ha isn’t this funny?

Then we started to interview inhabitants of the house, including the entire Hamblen family who lived there from 1959 to 1979. These are devout Christians, nationally known, who had a gospel radio show and were close friends of Billy Graham. Suzy Hamblen, matriarch of the Hamblen family and famous wife of Stuart Hamblen, was 100 when Mike and I spoke with her. Her story still gives me goosebumps: The night Flynn died in Vancouver, BC, she and Stuart were in the house he built, a quiet evening, and all of a sudden the pipes in the house started to moan and vibrate. It was as if the very bones of the place were rattling. At least a half-dozen members of this cold-sober family told us about seeing the ghost close up.

The last inhabitants of Mulholland Farm were Rick Nelson and his children, Tracy, Gunnar, and Matthew (the latter two were leaders of the 1980s rock group Nelson). I interviewed both guys and Gunnar told me of crazy experiences in his bedroom that shook him up and still bother him, like the ghost sitting on his bed at some points and slamming doors at others. Interestingly, Matthew didn’t experience these things—and they’re twins! The boys and their band practiced in Flynn’s bedroom, so you can imagine how racket like that would shake up an already restless spirit.

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

Mulholland Farm from the vantage point where I saw the ghost. If you look at the set of three second-story windows on the right side of the photo, the ghost appeared in the window on the left. I would learn later that this was Errol Flynn’s bedroom.

Here is my story for the record one more time. I was alone at Mulholland Farm high in the Hollywood Hills in 1987, standing outside by the pool one hot afternoon trying to drink in this setting. Before me stood a rambling ranch house, once elegant and now neglected more than a year after the sudden death of Rick Nelson in a plane crash. As I stood there looking, a face appeared in a second-story window and peered out at me. A face and a not-quite-solid form–that of a man. The hairs on my neck stood up, and we stared at each other for a while, and then the face and form were gone. On that occasion the house was locked up tight so it’s not like a resident was checking me out. Not a living resident anyway. Since my rational mind told me I couldn’t have seen what I saw, I kept it to myself all those years until others came forward to say they too saw the face and form…at the top of the stairs, in a bathroom mirror, just everywhere in the house over the years. Was it the ghost of Errol Flynn? Well, I can only answer that by saying that in life, his was one of the more troubled souls on earth, so in death why would it be any different?

The place was torn down the next year, and I have always wondered what happens to a restless spirit when the home he’s so comfortable with, the space he himself designed, is removed. Is its energy left behind so that he keeps seeing the same floor and walls and ceilings? Or does he move into the new house built on the footprint of the old? Next time you run into Justin Timberlake, ask him and let me know, because it’s Timberlake who built his fortified compound at 7700 Mulholland Drive on the spot where once sat the home of the dearly departed Errol Flynn.

Learn more about Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe and Errol Flynn Slept Here at the GoodKnight Books website. And I would love to hear about your close encounters with ghosts; I’m sure you will make me envious.

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

A 1944 magazine article detailed Flynn’s mountaintop home. In the shot above he sits under the windows where I saw the ghost.

Icons

If this were 1966 instead of 2016, you could go down any street and ask passersby if they knew who Clark Gable was, and be met by incredulity or outright anger. “Of course I know who Gable is! (…you idiot!)” Back then we were still attached to Hollywood’s golden age because the movies played on local and network TV and the glamorous movie stars showed up in series and variety and game shows. They existed in the fabric of our culture. If this were 1966, in just two more years would come yet another major revival of Gone With the Wind, this time updated in 70mm, and moviegoers would get another shot of Gable, Vivien Leigh, and crew to keep them fresh in our minds.

But that was a long, long time ago now. The old stars have passed on and their motion pictures no longer play on the late show. Instead those feature films have been relegated to that great Indian reservation for old cinema, Turner Classic Movies, where they can roam in free black-and-white isolation and not offend the youngsters. Here’s a great explanation of why classic film is not likely to endure in popular culture much longer.

Most of you come here to read my babble because you love classic Hollywood. And because you do know so much about it and have seen hundreds or thousands of vintage Hollywood movies and read dozens of books, you might not be aware how dramatically popular culture has changed around you. It’s no longer a slam dunk that some stranger will know even the name Clark Gable since his most famous picture hasn’t played network television in, what, a generation? Forget getting a glint of recognition about Ronald Colman or Norma Shearer. Joan Crawford is known only as the eyebrow lady who hated wire hangers—if she’s known at all. Astaire and Rogers; what’s that, a law firm? You get my point.

But there are a few old stars who still ring the bell all these decades later. One is John Wayne, subject of a definitive biography by Scott Eyman a couple of years ago that became a runaway hit and New York Times bestseller. The Duke is an American icon whether or not you’ve ever sat through one of his pictures. Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn are unquestionably still bigtime. And then there’s Jimmy Stewart.

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

Duke and Jim together in one of their best pictures, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

One thing that led to Stewart’s longevity is that after World War II, he reinvented himself and started looking for edgier roles. For a solid decade he made pictures you wouldn’t expect to find him in, usually with strong box office results. In other words, he didn’t play it safe and go out to pasture (move to television). He looked down his nose at television, skillfully played the system, and kept showing up on theater marquees well into the 1960s.

That’s not to say business acumen makes JS relevant in 2016. He died in 1997, about a generation ago. He stopped making public appearances long before that, and so for practical purposes he slipped from the “newsfeed” at the end of the 1980s. His last starring role in a feature film was way back in 1971. And oh by the way that picture bombed. Sure he left behind some wonderful films—Vivacious Lady, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Philadelphia Story, Winchester ’73, Harvey, and Vertigo come to mind off the top of my head. He made his share of clunkers too, but my point is, if you’re under 40 and not a fan of old Hollywood, you belong to a vast majority that doesn’t know these pictures. Nor do you likely have any urge to see them. It’s very much a generational thing.

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

Jim in one of those pictures you wouldn’t expect, grinding Dan Duryea’s face into the bar in Winchester ’73.

But Stewart has something no other leading man has, and he’s not about to lose it. Stewart starred in It’s a Wonderful Life.

I could ask the person on the street, “Who’s Jimmy Stewart?”—even ask it of a 20-something—and I’ll get a smile and an enthusiastic, “I love Jimmy Stewart!” and that’s because of It’s a Wonderful Life, a picture I’m beginning to believe has become the most beloved in American popular culture. Parents pass it along to children who grow up and pass it along to children, and it keeps resonating because the concepts are universal. Do the right thing. Have honor. Don’t give up. Value your friends. Value your life.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read customer reviews of Fireball that said, “I didn’t know anything about Carole Lombard before I read this book,” and for good reason. Carole Lombard died almost 75 years ago! Why should the modern reader know about Carole Lombard?

Stewart is a different animal. Everybody thinks they know Jimmy Stewart because they know George Bailey. Know him very well, in fact, and figure Jim is George, but guess what? Jim isn’t George. Jim isn’t even Jimmy. Jim is a complex, almost impenetrable character, and for me the hook was Jim came home from war and made It’s a Wonderful Life. From the moment the dynamics of this formula hit me, horrors of war, beloved actor, beloved film, I started writing and didn’t look back for fear somebody else was out there banging out the same story in Peoria or Sioux Falls.

Luckily, nobody was, and in a short six days you can tell me if you really knew Jim and if you still love him, because in six days Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe (GoodKnight Books) has its official release. In fact, why not plan to join me at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio for the launch event next Thursday, October 27 at 6:30 p.m.?

A Question of Character(s)

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert MatzenI have a new book coming out in two weeks, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, published by GoodKnight Books. I wrote it because Stewart in World War II represents one of the last great untold stories of Hollywood. Jim never talked about what he did in the war, and so there was a vacuum of information about it. I also wrote Mission because I love a challenge, and his commitment to remain mum meant there were no quotes from him about his experiences in combat, so I was starting with nothing, but had to end up with everything or the concept wouldn’t be valid.

In a nutshell, what I knew going in was that James Stewart flew heavy bombers over Germany as a member of the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force. I discovered in my research over the next 18 months that this was no tin soldier. Stewart was smack-dab in the middle of WWII, the most horrific nightmare in human history, and writing about something of that magnitude posed not one but a series of cascading challenges. How much can I assume the reader knows going in? How much do I have to set the stage? I can’t provide the whole history of the Great War and Hindenburg and Hitler and the rise of the Nazi Party but they’re all relevant to why the United States (and Jim Stewart) went to war, just as is the global Great Depression, the oppression of the Jews, and Germany’s aggressions against Poland and other countries. The reader also needs to have a basic understanding of the United States military before and during the war. In other words, Mission is supposed to be about Jimmy Stewart but it called for a whole lot of context.

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

Nineteen-year-old T. Sgt. Clem Leone graduates gunnery school and will soon meet up with Capt. J.M. Stewart.

I grant you that my biographical model is unorthodox: I always try to craft interesting stories rather than just tell you, the reader, “Jim did this, then Jim did that,” I decided to present readers with the German side through three supporting characters, Dolfo Galland, the ace German fighter pilot; Selma Lesser, the German Jew hiding in Berlin; and Gertrud Siepmann, the daughter of a German naval engineer. To let you see the American side I didn’t just feature Jim; I also told the story of Clem Leone, a young B-24 radioman from Baltimore. They’re all real people who lived during the war (I interviewed two of the three extensively), and through their eyes I was able to access a great deal of critical background in relatively few words.

So what happened was, I wrote the manuscript for Mission and gave it to some smarter people than me to review—two were experts on the Eighth Air Force and three were experts on classic Hollywood. All were expecting a straight bio of our boy Jimmy and what they got was a cast of characters led by Jim and supported by these others.

I had braced myself for a strong reaction to my unorthodox model and Whoa, Nellie, did I get it! To me, these other sets of eyes and experiences deepened our understanding of Stewart, his world, and what he faced. Two of the Hollywood experts had major objections, and passionate ones at that. They advised that these other characters had to GO because they got in the way and would put readers off who were expecting a book on Jimmy Stewart, although one of the two offered a solution: If I felt I must keep these characters, the best place for them was in an appendix at the back of the book where they’d be safely out of the way.

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

Gertrud Siepmann and her sister Anne in Eppstein, Germany during the war. Today Gertrud goes by the name Trudy McVicker and lives near Chicago.

Well, what a pickle, because I have tremendous respect for all my reviewers, and they cared enough to level with me that I had a big problem on my hands. The trouble was, I had constructed my story in a particular way and to lose the other characters meant ripping the frame out and starting over.

My editor supported my concept because Fireball, my telling of the Carole Lombard story, had been a big success and was just as unorthodox a biography. It was my call, and what a tough one to make.

My solution was to drop Selma the German Jew, and cut back the narrative of the other supporting characters to lean, hard-hitting snapshots of these lives lived in parallel to, and then intersecting with, Jim’s. I didn’t want to lose Selma; I had discovered her diary-style letter to family, 22 pages of single-spaced German text written just after the end of the war, and I had had the letter translated with care. What a story it tells—all the brutality of the Nazi regime and the death and suffering of the war wrapped up in one woman who lost everything, with the coup de grace a bombing mission by Jim and the boys over Berlin that destroys even her place of hiding. I will detail her story in a future column because Selma Lesser’s is a voice that must live on.

I’m glad I kept my other characters; when Publishers Weekly reviewed Mission a couple of weeks ago they singled out Clem and Gertrud, and I felt such relief that these people were seen as assets to the narrative about Stewart.

I’ll have a lot more to say about Mission in coming weeks, so stay tuned. In the meantime, please visit the GoodKnight Books website to learn more. (Imagine what a great Christmas gift Mission‘ll make.)

Going All the Way

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

An interesting situation arose when I routed the manuscript for Mission for review to key subject matter experts who had helped in its development. Two are Hollywood historians, one is a WWII historian, and two are aviators who flew with Jim Stewart in the war. One of the fliers took umbrage with my depiction of Jim’s sexual exploits in pre-war Hollywood, and most stridently so. No spoilers here, not for a book still four months from release (and the embargo is still in effect), but suffice to say Jim was a far busier boy than you’d expect during his five-plus years in Hollywood prior to joining the military in 1941. The flier said, basically, that in his day you didn’t speak of such things, and he didn’t want Jim to be remembered that way.

I did some soul-searching after receiving this feedback because I greatly admire the man who delivered it, and I wondered if he was right that this type of information has no place in a book about Stewart’s military career. Here are the meanderings of my mind as I thought it through:

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

You’d never know it from the characters she played onscreen, but MGM contract star Ann Rutherford was another of the busy ones around town.

Sex wasn’t invented by the counter-culture of the 1960s. Sex was a favorite pastime of Hollywood citizens going back to the first days of hand-cranked cameras in the silent era. All roads in my research for Errol Flynn Slept Here, Errol & Olivia, and Fireball led to, well, sex. Errol Flynn was a big fan of indiscriminate sex. So was Clark Gable. Carole Lombard nurtured a healthy sexual appetite and did what came naturally and so did Jean Harlow. Even—dare I say it—Olivia de Havilland succumbed to pleasures of the flesh in an environment in which many of the world’s most beautiful, suddenly rich and famous people were crammed into a few square miles of exotic Southern California real estate, with no rules or chaperones. It became a matter of sport and ego to see who could bag whom, and Marlene Dietrich might be the prototype for sexual athletics as will be revealed in Mission when she looked at her lovers not as men or women or actors or people but as “conquests.”

If you’re a 30-year-old heterosexual guy and your day-job requires you to kiss Hedy Lamarr or Lana Turner—women whose every move is of interest to an entire movie-going world—what the heck are you going to be inclined to be thinking about but, My God this is a beautiful woman! If you’re a heterosexual woman known as a glamour queen and the script says today you will be romancing Flynn, Gable, or Doug Fairbanks Jr., and you’re looking into their eyes all day long, feeling their beating hearts, are you supposed to turn that off along with the soundstage lighting at 6 in the evening?

Olivia de Havilland tells a funny story about being in the clinches with Flynn shooting the love scene for Robin Hood over and over and “poor Errol had a problem with his tights.” You betcha. He was 28; she was 21. Nature was taking its course.

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

Why, Robin, I do believe you’re happy to see me.

There was a whole lot of nature going on in Hollywood by the 1930s when Jim Stewart reached his prime. Going into the Mission project I had heard that Stewart was known for having a “big stick” and I couldn’t even imagine it from this small-town product with a strong Presbyterian upbringing, but son of a gun, America’s boy next door had a side to him that reveals a lot about who he really was and what his psyche needed. “He had an ego, like all of them,” said a man who knew the older Jimmy Stewart well.

A picture started to emerge for me as I searched for the “real Jimmy Stewart,” not the lovable old guy on Johnny Carson, but the young one roaming Hollywood and then, seemingly inexplicably, running off with a big grin to join the Army nine months before shots were fired by Americans in what became WWII. And part of the story of who Stewart was, a significant part, involved his Hollywood love life, which meant that after all my soul searching, the juicy stuff stayed. I decided to go all the way … just like Jim.

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

Stewart once told his perturbed BFF Henry Fonda, “Hank, I don’t steal your dates. They steal me.”

 

Thunderbolts

I would like to tell you all about my new book, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, but I can’t tell you because there’s an embargo until August on coverage of it, including in my own blog. I can’t even tell you why I can’t tell you, because of the embargo. But I’d like to talk about a news item that woke me up at 6 yesterday morning: an old single-engine airplane crash-landed in the Hudson River next to New York City Friday evening, and the pilot drowned.

When I saw this story on the news, it riveted my attention because the instantly recognizable plane was a Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, a plane as responsible as any other for winning World War II.

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

A formation of P-47 Thunderbolts in their heyday.

The P-47 is a main character in that which must not be named, a powerful, nimble single-seat fighter that could be fitted with bombs or rockets under its wings. Packs of these fighters, piloted by kids of 20, swooped above, below, and within the bomber stream of B-17s and B-24s that took off from England for bomb runs to Germany and France from 1943 through war’s end two years later. When I say kids, I mean kids who should have been pumping gas in filling stations or completing their sophomore year in college, but instead enlisted to become flyboys because there was no greater calling for this age group than to wear silver wings on your chest and enjoy every fringe benefit that went with being a fighter pilot. They fought for girls as much as for freedom, the freedom from Axis oppression and the freedom of being alone at 20,000 feet and commanding a 2,000-horsepower radial engine, with the devastating firepower of eight .50-caliber machine guns and wing-mounted rockets at your fingertips.

The German Luftwaffe didn’t like to see Thunderbolts coming. For ace German and American pilots going against each other, the Thunderbolt and the Bf-109 Messerschmidt or Fock-Wulfe 190 were evenly matched fighter planes in aerial combat, but as the war dragged on, the Luftwaffe ran out of aces and the Americans eventually ruled the skies in their Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs.

All of this flashed through my mind when I saw the news report yesterday morning, what a grand old bird had crashed in the Hudson, a distinguished veteran of service to our country piloted by a 56-year-expert pilot named Bill Gordon, an ace at acrobatics who took ships like this Thunderbolt, dubbed Jacky’s Revenge, across the country to thrill audiences at air shows and demonstrate what life was like in the fight for Europe. Engine failure brought Jacky’s Revenge down at about 7:30 Friday evening and even though photographs of the plane show Gordon did a tremendous job bringing her in with a kiss to the surface of the Hudson (nothing’s harder than a water landing), he couldn’t escape the cockpit and met his doom there.

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

Bill Gordon and Jacky’s Revenge.

On this Memorial Day, I’m saluting Bill Gordon, a guy with aviation in his blood who thrilled millions during his career by introducing the Thunderbolt and other World War II aircraft to new generations. And I’m saluting the Republic P-47 and the guys who flew her and lived and died in Europe and the Pacific during the darkest days of World War II. Their bravery and fearlessness bring tears to my eyes.

Note: For more on this topic, see the 1947 feature documentary Thunderbolt, with an introduction by Col. James Stewart, a man who appreciated this plane for saving his life many times over in combat over Germany.

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

A one-sheet for Thunderbolt, a Willie Wyler documentary about the ferocious flying machines that helped to win WWII. James Stewart provided a painfully short introduction.

Maltin at the Bat

I grew up with Leonard Maltin. I don’t mean we flipped baseball cards and caught tadpoles; I mean one of my go-to books when I became interested in classic Hollywood as a teenager was the first book he wrote, Movie Comedy Teams detailing the Three Stooges, L&H, the Ritz Brothers, and my faves, the Marxes. I haven’t opened that book in years, but I still remember the narrative and every photo and caption because I read that book over and over and over.

Maltin was a child prodigy in film and began writing for Film Fan Monthly at the age of 13, then took over that periodical (at age 16) and ran it for 9 years. From there he began releasing his movie guides and became an on-air critic for Entertainment Tonight. Is there anyone among my readers who hasn’t owned at least one edition of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and consulted it before watching a picture to see how many stars Leonard gave it and why? In those dark times before the internet, there was nowhere else to find a thumbnail description of even something as obscure as The Secret Mark of D’Artagnan without Maltin and his guide. Today there’s imdb and Wikipedia, but back then, there was Maltin. Period.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen, Foreword by Leonard Maltin

Hollywood author and critic Leonard Maltin, now aboard the Mission team. (Photo by Jessie Maltin)

Leonard Maltin is a pop culture phenomenon, a guy who remains after all these years a big kid when it comes to movies, and I’m happy to report this particular phenom is writing the foreword for my just-completed book, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. It occurred to me that I could really use Maltin’s insights into Stewart, the war, and subsequent effects on his career. Leonard said he might be interested in such an assignment, send along the manuscript; so I did. I guess what he read was OK, because he said yes.

I’ve been giving a final look to the narrative the past few days because soon it will go off for galleys and I want it to be right—you know, t’s crossed and i’s dotted and all that. It’s easy to get so lost in the process that I’ll be sitting there and it’ll occur to me, “Wait, did I write that? I don’t remember writing that.” It is becoming a descent into madness among 117,000 words. There are places that make me laugh, give me chills, and reduce me to tears, all of which I consider to be good signs because the same thing happened with Fireball. It’s a different kind of a book, though, a different story and a different protagonist. Lombard was sexy and vivacious, someone you wish you could have known or at least experienced once. Stewart was an aloof man who was there and not there at the same time, an introvert without much to say who kept his significant intensities on the inside, and a guy who, as he aged, hid behind the persona he had created for the Tonight Show and other public outlets. He became what people expected to see, and behind his blue eyes were 50,000 memories of the war that he kept locked away and never related to anyone. The reason Mission is necessary is specifically because he wouldn’t talk, and what I discovered was that in refusing to let Hollywood exploit his wartime service for publicity purposes, he turned out the spotlight on a terrific cast of characters surrounding him in the Second Combat Wing of the Second Bombardment Division of the Eighth Air Force. You’re about to meet some great guys in Mission, guys Stewart knew and commanded, guys who in talking about their lives in combat allow us to know what Jim Stewart did in the war, who he flew with and against, and who died beside him. He wouldn’t tell us, but others tell us. We have these guys and the combat records, and from a great number of sources, including survivors who flew with him, I was able to recreate the war as Stewart knew it. The result is an adventure more fantastic than anything he ever enacted on-screen. In fact, it’s an adventure that could only be recreated today in a CG universe, at which point you wouldn’t believe it really happened. I assure you, it did.

Into this mix of Hollywood and war is about to step Leonard Maltin to provide his thought-provoking perspective, and the coolest thing of all? I get to be the first to read it.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen, Foreword by Leonard Maltin

Jim sports the Croix de Guerre, a medal awarded to all Eighth Air Force combat veterans at the end of the war. (Photo courtesy of the Jay Rubin Collection)

Everything’s Relative

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

GoodKnight Books first look at the cover design for Mission, release date October 24, 2016.

As you may know, it snowed here in the Northeast. Actually it’s still snowing, so I got up this morning and decided to shovel the driveway. This is always something of an exercise because the driveway is very wide here at the top by the two-car garage and then narrows for the 216-foot descent to the road. Usually I just shovel the wide part near the house and a couple of tracks down the driveway, but this morning was different. Why? Because I’ve reached the stage on my new book where I’m confronting every word by reading it aloud (more on that later). So I went out to shovel the driveway at 7:30 this morning knowing that afterward, I had to come in here and confront. I kept shoveling, and shoveling, and then I decided, in a bizarre sort of work avoidance, to shovel the whole 216 feet because it was less strenuous than sitting here doing all that confronting. In 35 years of living here I had never shoveled the whole thing, you know, the whole width of the driveway from top to bottom; about three-fourths of the way through it, the sweat was in my eyes and the hair was frozen on my head since it was still snowing and it was accumulating up above my brain.

This was a very old-school experience, with a shovel, not a snow blower or a plow. I’m pretty sure the neighbors think I’m a lunatic but I wouldn’t know because I don’t know my neighbors (me being me). So anyway, I pretty much wrote this column in my head as I was shoveling all the way down the driveway to the road, eight inches of snow (and counting), thinking what I was doing was a lot easier than plowing through Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe aloud.

OK, why read Mission aloud, you ask? Well, back when I was writing Fireball, at a certain point I learned it would be an audiobook and I started thinking about how my good friend Tavia Gilbert, a nationally known, award-winning audiobook performer, would read it, which forced me to read Fireball aloud myself to hear what it would sound like as an audiobook. It was a highly worthwhile experience because confronting every word helped to iron out problems and strengthen the narrative. I heard the clinkers, realized what words I’d used too often, got reminded of things I forgot to include, and enjoyed one final opportunity to cut sections that didn’t hold up. This is the time to make a book sing. I highly recommend this step for anyone who writes anything about anything. Fiction, nonfiction, a letter to a client—whatever. Read it aloud to hear how it sounds.

Angelique when she's really into a chapter.

Angelique when she’s really into a chapter.

I’m up to chapter 36 on Mission and am pleased to report that I’ve given myself goosebumps in many places and made myself cry twice. There’s been only one chapter so far where I went, “This doesn’t sparkle.” Oddly, it was a chapter about one of Stewart’s missions over Germany, but it didn’t sparkle and still doesn’t, and I was alerted to this fact when I read it aloud. Actually, Angelique, our little peanut of a cat, was looking at me oddly when I was reading that chapter as she lounged on her perch beside my desk half asleep. She just wasn’t feeling that one, so I knew it needed more work and I flagged it for some final reconstruction at the very end of the process.

It only took about a year and a half to write Fireball, and it’s taken about that long to write Mission. I learned a great deal from Morticia Addams, who said one time on The Addams Family, “All work and no play gets books done.” It was an episode from around 1965 when Morticia decided to be a writer and Gomez found her in the dungeon or somewhere writing away and said what was she doing. That’s when she said, “All work and no play gets books done,” and that sentiment really got to me, to the extent that for years I had it posted in front of me here in the office in 60-pt type. For the past year and a half I’ve been all work and no play to the extent I don’t watch TV, and only hear about the local sports teams on the news the next day. Day job, night job, day job, night job, that’s the routine. Most of the weekend it’s the night job. The words pile up that way (like snow during a storm), with the goal being 1,000 an evening most evenings, and they don’t have to be good words, just bulk words to be sanded and polished later. Sometimes, when I was writing the stories of the actual missions, I’d listen to music. A little Von Suppe’s Light Cavalry here, some Elmer Bernstein movie music there, a little Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance for martial spice. You know how well Richard Wagner worked for Apocalypse Now—symphonic really works for B-24 missions over Europe, and for the German viewpoint fighting the bombers as well.

So this morning I shoveled all the way down the 216 feet of driveway, a seven-foot-wide path, and at the road had to make my way through the big pile left by the borough snow plows going past. I was terribly pleased with myself. Ha! Take that, neighbors. I had avoided work for 90 minutes or whatever it was, and I trudged back up the cleared driveway only to realize, Oh shit! It’s still snowing, and the top is covered in snow, and I HAVE TO START ALL OVER AGAIN. I had avoided my work a little too well.

There’s your little slice of life from Snowmageddon 2016 here in Pennsylvania.

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

View from the top after I was “done,” with snow covering everything all over again. Oh well, I avoided it as long as I could–time to get to work.

On a Mission for ‘Mission’

 

Mission: Jimmy Stewart by Robert Matzen

Jimmy Stewart risks his crisp uniform walking the muddy track at Tibenham in front of crew quarters.

It’s been more than 18,000 miles since I last updated this blog. First came a business trip from Pittsburgh to Portland and back, followed almost immediately by a nine-day excursion to Europe as background research for Mission, the Jimmy Stewart book now under construction.

As you know if you know me, I don’t believe an author can write about a physical place significant to a story without having been there. I consider the locations to be characters because of their importance to the narrative, and I didn’t feel qualified to write about, for instance, Mt. Potosi, Nevada, where TWA Flight 3 crashed, until I had climbed it. In the same way, I can’t in good faith describe the 1943-44 U.S. Army air base in Tibenham, England, without visiting the runways where Stewart and so many other fliers took off, many never to return.

Remaining Tibenham air base crew quarters as explored just last week.

Remaining Tibenham air base crew quarters as explored just last week.

Stewart was a four-engine-rated Army pilot when he first landed at Tibenham November 25, 1943. He spent four months there during his heaviest run of combat missions. My November 23 and 24 (last week) were boots on the ground in Tibenham, where I experienced what the Americans did upon touching down: cold, damp, muddy weather, unrelenting, with very low overcast. By 4:20 P.M. on the days I visited, it was dark in Tibenham, which, until the Americans arrived, and after they left, was nothing more than a meandering village located along even more meandering roads wide enough for one ox cart of ye olden days, but not for motor vehicles.

As for my visit, you probably know that cars drive on the left in UK, which seems like it shouldn’t be a big deal, but with the deck stacked by rain and country roads with nothing over there called a “shoulder,” it becomes a big deal, especially with trucks barreling toward me—on the right no less. And there are lots of trucks driving around over there, careening around the hairpin turns. Then there’s that thing the English call a roundabout—every town has one or more. I’m pretty sure the Brits designed roundabouts to thin the herd of visiting Americans trying to navigate from the left while at the same time figuring out when to yield, when to proceed, and when to turn, always at high speed. But enough of my whining.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart by Robert Matzen

Rare is the idiot, er, scholar, who would fly across an ocean, bypass London, and head straight for a rainy field near Norwich where once an air base stood. Here is runway 0-3, the big one at Tibenham. From here the 445th Bomb Group took off almost daily, weather permitting, on several-hours-long bombing missions. Crews felt very lucky to touch back down here later in the day. Hundreds of fliers who lifted off in the morning never did.

Tibenham’s landing strips were returned to the RAF after hostilities ceased, and the base saw some service in the Cold War before a glider club took over; the gliders still operate there. The club historian, a pilot himself, is Eric Ratcliffe, and Eric graciously spent his afternoon showing me around what was once the air base. Precious few buildings remain from the small city that once held 3,000 American airmen, but I saw what was where and got the lay of the land, including the barracks where Stewart stayed (some of those quarters are still standing), and the primary local point of reference, the All Saints Tibenham Church, built in the sixteenth century. Its high tower and the north-south railway nearby served as vital landmarks to American pilots returning at dusk to nearly identical bases in the endless rolling farm country of East Anglia. So many air bases in fact, that mid-air collisions of heavy bombers taking off for morning missions in the overcast were a common occurrence in 1943 and 44, with great loss of life. Local lore includes very specific references to what body parts of American fliers rained down where around the railway station after a particular mid-air collision of B-24s.

I learned a lot during my two days of visits to Tibenham, and I know it will lend command and authenticity to my recounting of the 445th Bomb Group and Stewart’s squadron, the 703, as I describe his role in the war and his missions. But I also flip the story around and describe the experiences of others who crossed paths with Stewart and the daily bomber stream, civilians in Holland and Germany, and those in the Luftwaffe up against these great flying armadas. To many, Jimmy Stewart was a hero; to others he was one of the “terror fliers” of World War II. One of my colleagues in this enterprise dubbed the approach a “360-degree look at the war,” and that’s exactly what I’m going for.

The tower of All Saints Tibenham Church was a welcome sight that let pilots know they were home.

The high tower of All Saints Tibenham Church was visible for miles and served as a welcome sight to pilots struggling toward home.

Stewart’s a complex character and one I can identify with in some ways given that he and I both grew up in sister small western Pennsylvania college towns in coal country. But he’s also an enigma, a closed book of a human who hid a nervous stomach and waves of self-doubt about his looks, his attractiveness, and his talent behind a slow-thinking, slow-talking persona. Then there’s the most perplexing question of all: Why did Stewart so willingly step away from a Hollywood career that included the great triumph of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and then an Academy Award for The Philadelphia Story to sign up for service when there wasn’t even a war to go fight? The obvious answer is that Jimmy Stewart was a flag-waving American patriot. Hooray for Jimmy! But the reality is quite different and something I look forward to sharing with you when Mission goes to press at the end of 2016.

For now, may I just say I’m home after four days of domestic and nine days of European travel and ready to get back to work and finish my book. It’s a story with a great main star and terrific supporting cast, and it’s so crazy in so many ways that it simply has to be true.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart by Robert Matzen

World War II expert Eric Ratcliffe (left), my guide, poses with me at the 445th Bomb Group Memorial in the fading light of a raw November day. I like to believe the spirits of all those airmen of the 445th are posed around us and wishing me happy landings for telling their stories. Many thanks to Eric for his time, patience, and expertise that day.

Mall Rats

From the very beginning, Hollywood has corrupted the history of World War II. Did you know that? There’s a not-so-subtle fiction in the war pictures that started coming out of the studios from 1942 on, and as late as Saving Private Ryan the warping continued.

I’m talking about the ages of the actors playing soldiers in that war. I grew up thinking that WWII was fought by middle-aged men. My favorite war movie of all is Battleground, the 1949 MGM blockbuster about the Battle of the Bulge starring 33-year-old Van Johnson, 35-year-old John Hodiak, and a couple handfuls of other MGM contract players. Granted you saw a few younger guys like Marshall Thompson (age 24), Ricardo Montalban (age 29), and Richard Jaeckel (age 23). But co-starring was 47-year-old George Murphy playing a character named “Pop” and aged-well-beyond-his-years Douglas Fowley as a G.I. with dentures. None of these guys represent the real fighting men of the Ardennes Forest.

I stumbled upon another MGM war picture the other week, The Men of the Fighting Lady, about a Korean-era aircraft carrier and landing there were the supposed hotshot pilots, Van Johnson (again, now 38), Keenan Wynn (38), and Frank Lovejoy (42).

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Eighth Air Force by Robert Matzen

Battleground, starring Van Johnson and John Hodiak. Great cast, great picture. But the guys in it are too old.

I’m smack-dab in the middle of the real WWII these days writing about the Eighth Air Force, and I am astonished about how young these pilots under Jim Stewart were. He was an “old man” of 35 when he commanded a bomber squadron operating out of England, and all his pilots, and I mean all his pilots, were 22 or 23 or at the oldest 24 years of age, guys right out of college. The technical sergeants serving as radio men and gunners were 19 and 20. If you go to the mall and look at the kids hanging out there giggling and trying to look adult, or visit your local high school or college campus, that’s who fought World War II. That’s representative of the 400,000 Americans who died and whose names are carved in honor rolls in every town in the United States. Among the front-line personnel, the privates were 18 or 19, the sergeants were 20, lieutenants 22, and captains and majors 24. Stewart had a hell of a time getting off the ground when he earned his wings at an advanced age of +30. They were reluctant to let a man that old and slow behind the controls of a four-engine bomber—he didn’t have a prayer of operating a fighter plane, which all the pilots wanted to do.

There are stories of guys who landed at Normandy Beach and didn’t take their boots off for the next six weeks; at the end of it they didn’t have to peel off their socks because they had liquefied. These guys didn’t eat or sleep for days and they were digging foxholes everywhere they went. Facing life-or-death situations at every turn. It was survival of the fittest and the fittest were 18, not 40.

When Tom Hanks played Capt. Miller in Saving Private Ryan, he was 42 years old. In the real war, someone the age of his son would have been Capt. Miller.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Eighth Air Force by Robert Matzen

Alan Hale, a hard-lived 51 at the time of Destination Tokyo.

The actors go where there’s work, like they always have. During the war, studios churned out war pictures because that’s what people wanted to see, and who could play in their product but the men they had under contract, those not off to war themselves, and this talent pool was what it was. It only became burlesque occasionally, like when Alan Hale played a flier in Desperate Journey at age 50 or a submariner in Destination Tokyo at 51. For Hale it was a living and he was a fine character actor, and it’s always nice to see him. Just keep in mind you are looking at Bizarro World War II when it’s being fought by Alan Hale. We’d be speaking German right now if the war had been fought by Alan Hale. Or Harry Carey (a whopping 65 at the time he made Air Force) or George Tobias (43 in Air Force).

What’s another benchmark of World War II pictures? The Longest Day, I guess. You might as well call it The Longest of Tooth Day, with John Wayne the 55-year-old paratrooper leading Red Buttons the 43-year-old paratrooper. I guess this is one of the reasons my friend Clem, who fought in World War II and bailed out of two crippled planes in two months (a technical sergeant not yet 20) and lived out the war in a German prison camp, doesn’t care for war pictures. He sat through Unbroken increasingly disgusted, muttering as he is wont to do, “That’s not history, that’s Hollywood.” The reality of it was that when 19-year-old Clem hit the earth after his first bail-out he broke a leg; in the second he was looking out for his still-broken leg and broke some ribs. So you think Red Buttons at 43 could have been a real paratrooper?

Next time you see a veteran of World War II, think how young he was when he saw what he saw and did what he did. Think how fast he grew up. Think how many years he has lived with the memories of his friends dying around him during training or on the ground, in the air, or at sea. It’s an incredible story of the most brutal war in history fought by kids who these days might not be entrusted to do their own laundry or take out the trash.

The Longest Day: Stuart Whitman, 34 but looking older, is saying to John Wayne, "Colonel, recon says St. Lo has a Denny's up there to the right. The senior special is still being served, but we have to wheel you over right now."

The Longest Day: Stuart Whitman, 34 but looking older, is saying to John Wayne, “Colonel, recon says St. Lo has a Denny’s up there to the right. The senior special is still being served, but we have to wheel you over right now.”