by Bob Alvis, special to Aerotech News
The other night surfing the channels I came across the movie “Strategic Air Command” and immediately settled in to watch one of my favorite actors, Jimmy Stewart, in a role that he was more than qualified for.
After it was over, I started to think about the articles that had been written about how Stewart’s World War II experiences had affected him. Stewart suffered from psychological battle scars — “shellshock,” as they called it in that war — like every other soldier who faced the demons of combat. One Hollywood reporter even wrote a piece that painted a grim view of the man who came back from war, saying that he was never the same and how it affected his acting ability.
Jimmy Stewart was a hell of an actor and it kind of makes me scratch my head when somebody would say “It affected his acting ability.” Did it affect it for the good or the bad? Pretty sure most people who are fans of his work would think his body of work after World War II was pretty strong!
So thinking about an article for this week and with that movie as my inspiration, I started to think about Mr. Stewart and how he approached life after his war-time experiences. Shell shock, or PTSD as they call it nowadays, can be a very fickle demon in the human psyche but for some reason when it came to Mr. Stewart, his actions showed another avenue that I think would leave many wondering what was driving this amazing man. With the war over, Stewart did not leave the military. He stayed on as a Reservist and continued to train and advance in the Air Force for many years — and continued to seek the cockpit of America’s premier bombers.
Jimmy Stewart will always be associated with the glory days of Hollywood and the 1930s/1940s era of great movies, but what will really impress is his commitment to this country and the military that lasted for 30 years, and how he pursued that service with dignity and honor.
Thirty years you say? Well, here is a story about his very last mission that will leave some folks in disbelief and show us his ability to live with the horrors of war, and yet put those experiences in a box and get right back in the saddle.
In February 1966, the war in Vietnam was in full swing and the dangers in that region of the world were horrific. Arc Light missions over North Vietnam were hot and heavy, as both sides were doing all they could to gain an advantage.
For one young B-52 bomber crew at Anderson Air Force Base in Guam, the grind of flying those 13-hour missions was going to be a bit different, when a call came in that a high-ranking pilot would be joining them for the days’ scheduled mission, called “Green Two.” The crew was informed that a Gen. Stewart would be joining them to observe the operation, so he could report back on any aspect that he felt could be improved. The young B-52 crew kind of cringed to think a Pentagon-type would be looking over their shoulders for one of these long missions. But attitudes changed quickly when, on the crew manifest, the name Gen. Jimmy Stewart was listed and questions were asked by the pilots as to this very unique name! Yep, it’s “that” Jimmy Stewart, and you better not screw up and kill a national treasure! With that news, the pilot and copilot rushed out to the plane to inform the rest of the crew that a legend would be joining them for the day’s mission!
When the mule arrived (Air Force slang for truck) and General Stewart stepped out, he looked like a grandfather surrounded by grandkids. With pleasantries out of the way, the serious business at hand started to get into full swing and as the pilots took up their positions in the cockpit, a very calm and cool General Stewart watched over them from a backup pilot’s seat. Before long, they were in the air with 30 other Buff’s on their way to their missions’ target.
Jimmy Stewart, at this time in his life, had flown every bomber design the Air Force had. When it came time for an inflight refueling, the crew asked if he would want to get his hands dirty — he jumped right in. The boom operator was a bit perplexed as to this voice coming over the radio, as he had heard it somewhere before (he thought). With a bit more back and forth it was revealed that he was talking to Jimmy Stewart, the actor! “Wow! This is a story they will never believe back home,” he replied! With that, and fueling done, the boom operator said, “It’s been a pleasure, General, and just for you, today we’re giving double stamps!” Jimmy laughed as did the rest of the crew and they pressed on to their target.
When they arrived at the target, the general was very intent on seeing the bombing patterns of the planes that had already delivered their payload, and sat quietly writing down notes as he observed. As they turned to head home, a nervous atmosphere prevailed in the cockpit, as this was considered to be the most dangerous part of the mission. They had lost many aircraft after bombing runs.
After a bit, a call came up from a crew member down below, who stated to the general that something they never had in those B-24s in Europe in World War II, was now available if he would come down. Jimmy was surprised to see this enterprising crew had rigged up a hot plate and had cooked up some eggs, bacon and grilled cheese sandwiches! Jimmy gladly accepted the offer and enjoyed the meal, as it had now been seven hours in the air, with many more to be flown on the way home.
With the end of the mission approaching, a good Hollywood-style plot twist showed up when, lowering flaps, the big bomber started to flounder and a ‘flaps malfunction’ warning alarm went off. The crew jumped into action, recovering the ship and climbing for altitude. With the plane steady, the crew was briefed on bailing out. The general was sent down to the navigator’s position to follow him out, if the plane faltered when the flaps were re-deployed. Come that moment, the flaps were dropped and the plane responded favorably and everybody’s heart rates dropped back to normal. Luckily a flaps-up landing — or a bail-out — would not need to be attempted.
After the big BUFF (Big Ugly Fat Fellow) landed and taxied up to its hard stand, there was more than just the usual ground crew waiting and departing the aircraft. Leaving was not on people’s minds, as everybody wanted a chance to meet and see the big movie star who had just completed his last combat mission. The next day the crew got a call to meet out at the plane and there was Jimmy to thank and compliment them for their expertise and dedication to their mission. Crew pictures were taken and each photo was autographed and given to each crew member. The perfect Hollywood ending, but also the perfect ending to a legend’s flying career and service to our country in the air.
Jimmy Stewart continued on in the Air Force Reserves with the rank of brigadier general, and was an activist for a strong American military. Here in the Antelope Valley, we were blessed with his presence for two major events — when they rolled out the XB-70 and B-1A in Palmdale. Seeing him sitting in the front row with all that brass, it’s amazing to think of how much this man crammed into his life and what a real treasure he was — a soft-spoken, witty man who in the end just loved to fly, act and feared very little.
Until next time, peace my friends and Bob out …