Jimmy Stewart World War II

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.

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Make It Personal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Texan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Jagged Edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FLASH: AMERICA IS AT WAR.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.?