In 1941, men from all over America were racing to enlistment offices to “join up” and “fight the good fight” against Hitler and his war machine. At the head of this line of ordinary Joes trying to do their part was one of the most celebrated Hollywood actors of the time. With an Oscar for best actor under his belt, Jimmy Stewart pressed pause on his movie career to serve his country from 1941 to 1946. Unfortunately, Stewart didn’t meet the Army’s height and weight requirements to become a fighter pilot and was rejected in his first attempts to enlist. Unfazed by the setback, Stewart found an alternative route by joining the U.S. Air Corps, where he would quickly rise through the ranks. During the war, Hollywood would see many of its most famous actors and actresses serve, but Stewart was the first major star to wear a military uniform in WWII, enlisting eight months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
During his time in the war, Stewart would fly twenty combat missions as a B-24 Pilot in Europe and command a squadron, eventually earning the rank of Colonel. He would be awarded the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Croix de Guerre, and seven battle stars. “As a squadron commander, he flew many dangerous missions when he could have sent others instead,” recalled Robbie Robinson, a sergeant who was an engineer-gunner in Stewart's B-24 squadron. After the war, Stewart continued in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, earning the rank of Brigadier General.
Stewart was interviewed by LIFE magazine shortly before returning home from the war, where he made clear his intentions to go back to making movies after the Army but with one caveat. “No war pictures. I’ll settle for a good comedy,” he said. True to his word, Stewart returned to film in 1946 with a little picture called “It's a Wonderful Life."
Today Stewart is celebrated as one of the greatest actors of all time. With numerous medals, commendations, and decorations spanning his service through two major wars, Stewart is also among the greatest American heroes of all time. His life, work, and service were a rarity even in his time, but they stand out in deeper contrast today when role models of his caliber are few and far between. He is a life worth remembering, a life worth celebrating, and a life worth saving. Share his story and help us remember what a true American looks like.