Jimmy Stewart Robert Matzen

Stewart’s War

Bomb group CO Davenport, played by Gary Merrill, and his XO Major Stovall played by Dean Jagger, look at Robert Patton as Lieutenant Bishop, who is just back from a mission over France and on the verge of cracking up.

If you want to understand It’s a Wonderful Life, watch the 1949 20thCentury-Fox production of Twelve O’Clock High. Then sit there, digest what you’ve seen, and watch it again. Twelve O’Clock High has been recognized as the most accurate depiction of life in the Eighth Air Force, as proven by the fact it became required viewing at U. S. service academies in the 1950s.

The war depicted in Twelve O’Clock High was Jim Stewart’s war, marked by Quonset huts, mounting pressure, mud, and boring routine punctuated every so often by terror at 20,000 feet and the sudden death of your roommate.

Before D-Day in June 1944 the only Americans fighting in Northern Europe flew for the Army Air Forces and Jim was one of those guys, not in the first wave of bombers over Europe but in the second that came up as reinforcements. The first wave can be seen in Twelve O’Clock High, flying missions from southeastern England over the Channel to the coast of France, which in mid-1943 was dangerous and highly defended German territory as proven by the losses and stress on a bomb group that Gen. Frank Savage has to bring back to life through discipline. The story was written by veteran Hollywood screenwriter Sy Bartlett and former bomber pilot and journalist Beirne Lay, Jr., both of whom served in Eighth Air Force Bomber Command during the war—served, in fact, in close proximity to Captain, then Major, James Stewart of the 445thBomb Group.

Jim would know this building, the control tower of a U.S. heavy bomb group.

I have found no record whether Jim saw this picture or if he avoided it, which he might well have because of his close personal connection to events depicted. Right after the war Beirne Lay had written a two-part Saturday Evening Post exposé on Jim’s military service; had in fact written it from the inside, from knowing Jim during his 20 months in-theater. Jim would have remembered too well, from too close a proximity the life depicted in Twelve O’Clock High—those claustrophobic half-moon Nissen huts and the bad overhead pendant lighting, Franklin stoves that never alleviated the damp and cold, relentless English rains, all-night mechanical sessions to get ships that had been shot to pieces one day airworthy for the next, and the black curtain that opened to reveal not only the day’s target but also the place where some of the men being briefed were going to die. He’d have known the terms that are never explained, the I.P. (initial point of the bomb run) and the D.P.I. (desired point of impact of the bombs). He’d have recognized the boyish face of Lieutenant Bishop because Jim had known a hundred Lieutenant Bishops. And Jim would have known the feeling when Bishop is lost in combat because, as a squadron commander, Jim lost pilots and had to live with any error in judgment that had led to their deaths.

Like General Savage, played by Gregory Peck, Maj. Jim Stewart believed in group integrity, which was a disciplined approach to formation flying that maximized machine gun coverage from each ship’s ten machine guns and raised the odds of actually hitting any target. All the men I talked to who served under Stewart said he was a “by-the-book officer” both on the ground and in the air. As the decades passed, many apocryphal stories brewed up from men who said they had served under Stewart and described hapless Jimmy with the slow aw-shucks drawl who looked the other way from infractions. Don’t believe it. You don’t rise to the rank of full colonel in the USAAF and brigadier general in the Air Force Reserve by being a friend to enlisted men. Jim Stewart was tough.

Gung-ho General Savage finally goes flak happy after the in-mission death of his most relied-upon pilot. The same thing happened to Jim Stewart after a brutal mission to Germany.

I’ll touch just a moment on the Twelve O’Clock High production, with bases in Alabama and Florida standing in for Archbury, England. By my count they could muster eight stateside B-17s to represent a bomb group’s IRL complement of about fifty. Even a few years after the war they were being scrapped at a high rate. Please note as you watch the picture director Henry King’s use of long, unbroken takes under those stark pendants. I counted one scene between Gregory Peck and Hugh Marlowe as the “coward” Colonel Gately that ran more than five mesmerizing minutes, just the two of them in a scene of complex dialogue to match anything from The Caine Mutiny. One take! And it happens several times with Peck and his cast, the camera rolling and rolling on a two-shot, swooping in, moving back, but never a break. Everything they discuss, every issue they face, was based on what Bartlett and Lay saw during the war. Savage is really Col. Frank Armstrong and Maj.-Gen. Pritchard, played by Millard Mitchell, is really Maj.-Gen. Ira Eaker, first in command of the fledgling Mighty Eighth. Down to the sergeant who needs a zipper on his stripes because they keep getting put on and taken off, the characters are based in fact. The issues were just as real, as when Dean Jagger as Ground Exec Stovall gets drunk and says he can’t remember anyone’s face who has died in combat except they were all “very young faces,” or when Paul Stewart, the group’s doc, likens these young men to light bulb filaments burning bright one minute and burning out the next.

The parallels to Stewart’s war keep coming in this picture. Tough-as-nails Savage finally cracks after seeing the pilot he had counted on most die in the air. When you see Peck come apart right there on the perimeter track, think of Jim because the same thing happened to him. The exact same thing. He returned from somewhere around his twelfth mission and his plane cracked in two on landing, and Jim cracked with it. He went “flak happy” and had to go away to recover in the English countryside. It happened to many of the fliers; in fact, early in the film a navigator commits suicide after fouling up and that happened quite a lot as well—men blowing their brains out with their .45s because they couldn’t take it anymore.

Twelve O’Clock High only misses on a couple of things and both are understandable. The cast is simply too old. The officers who flew the missions at the front of the plane were in reality 20 at the youngest and 26 at the oldest, while in the picture the primary fliers were relatively ancient: Hugh Marlowe at 38, Gary Merrill 33, and John Kellogg 32. Robert Patten at 25 looked the part and was in fact the only actor in the cast with Eighth Air Force experience, serving as a navigator. The other miss is high-altitude flight as represented by the combat sequence that takes place an hour and a half into the picture. Yes, the cockpit crews are on oxygen and in helmets and goggles, but you never get the sense of life below zero degrees at 20,000 feet. It’s something Hollywood has never managed to capture and probably never will, but it’s another key to understanding the PTSD of those men on the front lines in 1943 Europe.

Twelve O’Clock High and It’s a Wonderful Life ought to be a double feature, and it doesn’t matter which you show first. When Jim Stewart came back to become George Bailey, he had just left the world of General Savage behind. He had lived in that base with those men in the same conditions under the same stress flying the same missions, and he too had cracked under the strain. The adult children of these fliers tell of a certain distance, sadness, and blind rage that could be experienced from “Pop” at any moment, and Twelve O’Clock High explains it all. Jim’s kids will tell you the same thing, that the war must have changed him because of that distance, sadness, and occasional blind rage. 

When I see Jim first appear in It’s a Wonderful Life as an adult, when the camera freezes and his arms are wide and he’s supposed to be playing a young guy of 21, I squirm because I see an old man and the face of war. A hairpiece and makeup can’t hide the horrors he had just encountered, which is why Twelve O’Clock High should be mandatory viewing for anyone who loves It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s the prequel that tells the story of an actor’s redemption and remarkable return to peacetime.

The face that had stared into the face of war. Now he’s back as a very old 37 year old in heavy makeup with a painted-on hairline.

A Wonderful time for IAWL

World War II magazine, on newsstands now.

I first noticed the trend with a Google Alert December 2 for a Closer magazine article about Kelly Stewart Harcourt’s Christmas memories; holidays in the Stewart household included an annual viewing of her father’s most memorable picture, It’s a Wonderful Life.

On December 6, another ping from Google Alerts pointed me to a Looper piece on Jim’s crying scene in IAWL and its motivation. And four days after that, two pings, the first another story about Kelly Harcourt and Christmas in the Stewart house, and the second a Showbiz Cheat Sheet look at the make-or-break nature of IAWL for Jim and the fact this could have been his last picture.

What interested me most (of course) was that my 2016 book Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe turned up in every piece as journalists investigated the magic of IAWL and the stark and ravaged nature of the Stewart performance. Then journalist Rachael Scott of CNN.com interviewed me for what turned out to be an excellent look at Jim’s experiences in war and its impact on his performance in IAWL.

Then The Federalist took a look at Jim the war hero and his return to make IAWL and again, there was Mission. And World War II magazine released a solid piece of work by David Kindy, who has interviewed me a few times over the years. That feature is The Dark Place and explains how Jim’s mind-altering 20 combat missions influenced the second half of his acting career.

At this point a producer from MSNBC’s Morning Joe contacted me to come on-air along with my favorite historical biographer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, to discuss Jim’s military career and return for IAWL. Hosts Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski, and Willie Guest asked insightful questions, and the resulting 10 minutes of television blew up Amazon’s orderly inventory system and Mission went out of stock. (Twitter blew up as well with often-hilarious criticism of the room in which my Skype interview took place, but that’s another story.)

Doris offered wonderful insight on Morning Joe about why IAWL resonates with such power this year—George Bailey considered himself to be “stuck” in Bedford Falls just as all of us have been “stuck” at home through the pandemic. George’s life is such a dark place and the walls press in on him until he’s nearly crushed, and who among us hasn’t felt that way in 2020? When I described Jim’s combat career and its inevitable impact on his brain and his acting style, wasn’t I also describing the impact of Covid on the psyche of people worldwide as the germ wages war on all of us? Jim experienced combat fatigue; we are getting a taste of Covid fatigue. The Germans aren’t shooting at us at 20,000 feet, but the strain is real and ongoing.

As per the plot of IAWL, just in time for Christmas, George Bailey experiences redemption and realizes he’s living, after all is said and done, a wonderful life. It’s the kind of miracle comeback we all want to experience after such a bleak time in the history of our still-pretty-new century.

I can only wonder if playing George Bailey made Jimmy Stewart see himself as one lucky guy. The former playboy settled down after the war, married a mature divorcee with two sons, saw the addition of twin girls, and lived on. He survived the war when so many of his “boys” hadn’t. He lost many fliers from his squadron and bomb group in combat and took personal responsibility for this fact—it was one of the wartime memories he kept locked inside, and one of the reasons he would sit in quiet solitude at times and just stare at nothing, as Kelly Harcourt described to me.

Stewart’s beloved classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, was already a crazy-complicated picture, so warm and bright at times, so dark and unsettling at others. This year you may find watching it to be a deeper and more rewarding experience, and if true, we must give a nod to director Frank Capra, who sought, against conventional wisdom, to bring this story to the screen. In 1946 Capra was considered too sentimental and old school for a cynical post-war Hollywood. Now, I admire his vision as never before. It’s as if he foresaw our 2020 reality and brewed up what vaccine he could, and that’s why this year in particular the world is riveted by It’s a Wonderful Life as never before.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen
Heartfelt salutations from both Jim and George.

P.S. After this column went live, MSN’s The Wrap published a trivia slideshow with Mission content.

Day of Infamy

It’s December 7, a momentous date in history. I think back to what this date meant to a U.S. civilian population rocked by the Japanese surprise attack, and I think about those already serving in the military on Dec. 7, and what a declaration of war meant to them. As you know, the draft had begun, and thousands of 12-month draftees knew as soon as bombs fell at Pearl that their number was truly up, and they wouldn’t get out after just a year. But they would soon be joined by millions of enlistees outraged by what happened to the Pacific fleet and by Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States.

Mission_Cover_webHollywood’s beloved boy-next-door movie star Jimmy Stewart was one of those draftees and had entered the service in February 1941. As described in my book Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, he was, as of Dec. 7, Corporal James Stewart, and in less that a month he would earn his wings as an Army flier with the rank of second lieutenant. (If you’re a WWII history lover, please explore this January 18 auction of an incredible military aviation collection in Plymouth, MA, which includes a complete Norden bombsight, pilot’s wings, very pistols, uniforms, plane parts, books, and so much more.)

The Mission hardcover gets a fair amount of attention at this time of year. Right now it’s being featured in all Barnes & Noble locations across the U.S., face out in the Military History section. Mission describes all 20 combat missions flown by Stewart, some of them “milk runs” over the coast of France, but many others harrowing, seven- and eight-hour flights that took Jim deep into Germany for strikes at the industrial heart of the Reich on the run-up to D-Day.

Of course there’s another reason why a book about Jimmy Stewart and the war does well at the holidays; the first picture he made after the war, while still suffering PTSD from all those missions, was It’s a Wonderful Life. When he began making this one in the spring of 1946, life wasn’t so wonderful for James Maitland Stewart. He’d left the holy crusade against Hitler, which had been Jim’s great purpose in life. His mind had been shattered by a few missions too many and the relentless strain of command, necessitating visits to the “flak farm” to de-stress. He’d aged in the service and no longer felt he could land a job as a romantic idol. And in fact no studios came calling except Frank Capra with his risky idea for a picture about a suicidal man and an angel.

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

Turning darkness into gold.

Suffering nightmares and flashbacks, his hands shaking, his diet shot from anxiety and confidence gone due to the years-long break from moviemaking, Jim stepped onto RKO soundstages to begin this crazy picture with Capra. And the director, who had been a king of 1930s Hollywood, was battling his own demons. He’d been away doing war work too, and now a grittier Hollywood had emerged that rejected his notions about crafting sentimental pictures. There was this film noir thing that now suited a shell-shocked, post-war America. Nobody welcomed Capra back just like nobody had welcomed Stewart—“welcomed” as in offered work. The men were desperate, as noted by IAWL leading lady Donna Reed, who described Capra and Stewart on the set as tense second-guessers; it wasn’t the happy shoot you’d imagine as these two giants of pre-war cinema set about trying to reestablish themselves in a younger, reborn Hollywood that had passed them by.

I was neutral on Stewart when I began writing Mission, and he’s a tough character to know because he closed himself off in some regards. But he showed remarkable bravery in the war, and even more guts in the peace that followed, because he did nothing short of win the battle of Hollywood; this 38 year old with the shakes who looked 50 began a second career when the wags called him washed up. First, he used the darkness of war in his characters, many of whom were now haunted or seeking revenge. Second, he urged producers to gamble on him as he gambled on himself—he’d take a smaller salary upfront in exchange for a percentage of the profits on each picture.

In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is called “the richest man in town” for having friends. But in the 10 years after the war, Jim Stewart became the richest man in town for picking good pictures and banking a fortune in profit participation. By any measure this was a hero, and it’s fitting that every year we get around to celebrating him and the post-war venture of two down-and-out war veterans, which happened to become the most beloved movie in Hollywood history.

It-s-A-Wonderful-Life-its-a-wonderful-life-32920354-1920-1081.jpg

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.

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.

Long Live the King

Sometimes there’s nothing you can do but laugh. In the past two months I’ve been interviewed dozens of times about the themes of Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, my GoodKnight Books release. It’s a story with so many angles that the media practically has a smorgasbord. But my experience of a couple days ago was one I didn’t see coming and an angle I wasn’t comfortable talking about at all.

A certain talk show host at a radio station in a major Midwestern city asked me for a 7- to 10-minute interview. It was on the schedule for 10 days. Sometimes the station calls me and sometimes I call the station. Usually, I speak first with a producer during a commercial break who patches me in so I hear the intro, and then go live. Well, this time it was me doing the calling, and there wasn’t any conversation with a producer. I automatically went into a queue where I heard the commercial break and then the talk show host, a woman, started her segment with a folksy chat about the holidays, and I thought she was segueing nicely into a mention of It’s a Wonderful Life and then here I’d come after she completed a standard welcome of Jimmy Stewart biographer Robert Matzen.

She was going on about the baking of holiday cookies, and I wondered how she was going to bring it back to Mission, but OK I’m sitting there listening waiting for the plane to circle around to my direction. Then she started talking about the “Cookie King,” Robert Merten who has written a book about holiday cookies and in a split second I realized: Wait a minute. Robert Matzen, Robert Merten. World War II book, cookie book.

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

A book not about cookies.

It’s a horrible thing when you realize, This plane isn’t landing. This plane is about to crash. She launched into an adoring, full-fledged introduction to Cookie King Robert Merten and the deeper she got into it, and the closer I got to going live, the faster my brain operated as I tried to think of what to do. I imagined the conversation that was about to take place, the one where I hesitated and stumbled my way through an explanation of how, yeah, I like cookies just fine but I’m not the king of them and in fact my blood isn’t blue but rather, it’s as red as the next guy’s, and I’ve written this book called Mission about death in the heavens over Germany. It would be a conversation blinded on both sides by egg on faces, and there would be earwitnesses all over a major Midwestern city.

The flop-sweat started to flow as she brought the intro into what she imagined was a smooth landing with a warm, “Joining me today in a rare radio appearance is the Cookie King himself, Robert Mert—

*CLICK*

Yes, people, I strapped on my ’chute and jumped before the plane crashed in flames. I left the host to die in the cockpit and I besmirched Robert Merten’s reputation but at that moment the Cookie King was on his own and I was out of the doomed ship in one piece. I lived to fight another day.

The post-mortem with Sarah my top-notch publicist left us both baffled (and her furious on my behalf), and I don’t feel too bad because somebody at that station wasn’t paying very close attention: How do you confuse an author who’s written a book about cookies with an author who’s written a book about World War II? I mean, I can sort of imagine how this crash happened, but only sort of, and the startling lack of preparation on their end mitigates any guilt I felt about bailing out with bare seconds until impact.

For the record, the Cookie King’s book is entitled, logically enough, The Cookie King, and sports a royal crest on its cover. The subtitle is, “Delicious, sweet and savory cookies from a lifetime journey of cookie baking” and my sweet tooth thinks it must be a steal at $34.95.

So there you have it, just another day in the life of an author who is soldiering on in a major publicity campaign. And Robert Merten, the next time you realize that somebody has booked you to talk about Jimmy Stewart as a combat pilot in World War II, please bail at the last moment and leave the host to crash in flames. At that point we’ll be even.

The Mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.