Friday, February 10, 2017

Preserving Jimmy Stewart's World War II Career

Towards the end of his life, Jimmy Stewart refused to discuss his experiences in World War II. He rarely spoke of his achievements or missions even to his family. And as expected most of the good folks who wrote books about Jimmy Stewart have always focused on his screen career, often dismissing or only briefly mentioning his career in service. Throughout World War II Stewart commanded numerous pilots, led death-defying bombing missions and rose to the rank of Brigadier General. Once in service, Stewart ducked the press at every opportunity and spent four years at air bases serving his country. His enlistment in service was a media frenzy (his fingerprints were taken multiple times for the benefit of the press) and this sparked the actor’s decision not to receive preferable treatment because of his California occupation. What Stewart accomplished “over there” he took with him to the grave.

Thankfully, author and historian Robert Matzen went to the trouble of tracking down many of Stewart’s copilots, Michael Bandler’s donated research at Brigham Young University, and dug through the Military Personnel Records at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, to read the 600-page military personnel file covering Stewart’s career from induction in 1941 to retirement in 1968. And this was just the start of an exhausting task of compiling every shred of detail regarding Stewart’s career in service.

Jimmy Stewart was a changed man when he returned to Hollywood in 1945. This book, for the benefit of the legions of Hollywood fans, also documents Stewart’s rehabilitation in the movie-making industry with Frank Capra’s post-war film, It’s A Wonderful Life, which helped Stewart get back into the grove of making movies.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe (2017, GoodKnight Books) was long overdue and I was thrilled to learn a year ago that Robert Matzen was finishing his research and was going to publish his findings. Considering the next few biographies about Jimmy Stewart will only briefly touch on the actor’s military career, Matzen has provided us with a chapter in the life of Jimmy Stewart that will fill in a much-needed gap. Matzen’s book may even be consulted by other historians writing future biographies about Jimmy Stewart (as if we really need another to add to the dozen already published), proving further how badly in need a book of this type was needed.

As an author myself I can attest that winning awards is pretty cool and lends itself to bragging rights but there can be no better award than receiving a letter from a family relative or historian for what your book accomplished beyond the printed page. Kelly Stewart, daughter of Jimmy Stewart, remarked: “As Jimmy Stewart’s children, we have always known that our father’s service during the war was the most significant event of his life, although he rarely spoke of it. This book gives us the best glimpse we will ever have of what that experience was like for him and the men he flew with.” Regardless of what awards Robert Matzen will receive from this book there can be no greater satisfaction that accompanies this treasured tome than an accolade like that.

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