AETC connects with holiday classic 'It's a Wonderful Life'

  • Published
  • By Col. Stephen Clutter
  • Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs
If you're flipping through TV channels this holiday season, you're likely to come across "It's a Wonderful Life," the 1946 holiday classic starring Jimmy Stewart.

In the film, Stewart's character, George Bailey, had been rejected for World War II service while his younger brother, Harry, becomes a heroic combat pilot. In real life, Stewart was actually more Harry than George. "It's a Wonderful Life" was Stewart's first film after serving five years on active duty as a pilot who planned and led some of the most dangerous strategic bombing missions over Nazi-occupied Europe.

Stewart came from a long line of ancestors who served in the military - from the American Revolution to World War I. Still, it was baffling to many in Hollywood when Stewart, who had won the 1941 Academy Award for Best Actor in "The Philadelphia Story," walked away from acting at the top of his game to enlist as a private in the Army Air Corps - nine months before Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.

It would be the equivalent today of Tom Hanks enlisting to fight in Afghanistan.

An accomplished civilian pilot, Stewart was eventually sent to flight school, commissioned and became a B-17 instructor pilot for what is now the Air Force's Air Education and Training Command (then called Flying Training Command). He instructed at several FTC bases, including Mather in California, Kirtland and Hobbs in New Mexico, Gowen Field in Idaho, and Sioux City Army Air Base, where he was a B-24 instructor pilot.

Although he appeared in one propaganda film to recruit pilots, Stewart avoided publicity while in the military, wanting to be judged for his abilities, rather than his celebrity.
As the war progressed, Stewart's major concern was that he would be kept stateside. After hearing that he might be taken off of flying status to make training films or sell war bonds, Stewart asked a sympathetic commander for a transfer to a unit that was rumored to be heading overseas. In August 1943, he was assigned to the 445th Bombardment Group at Sioux City. Just as he'd hoped, the unit was deployed, arriving in England in December 1943.

Although it took nearly two years to get into the war, Stewart quickly distinguished himself. He quickly rose from squadron operations officer, squadron commander, group operations officer, chief of staff and eventually Commander of the 2nd Combat Bombardment Wing of Eighth Air Force. He took part in major operations, receiving one of his two Distinguished Flying Cross awards for piloting the lead plane in a spectacular raid on aircraft factories in Brunswick, Germany. He also received the Air Medal with three oak-leaf clusters.

Stewart left active duty in 1945, having risen from private to colonel in four years. Later, as a civilian, he worked with Lt. Gen. (Retired) Jimmy Doolittle (his former 8th Air Force commander), and others in a national lobbying effort to create the U.S. Air Force, which was established in 1947.

Although it was not a big success upon release, "It's a Wonderful Life," helped restore Stewart's faith in his acting. He went on to become one of the most beloved actors of his generation. He also remained active in the Air Force Reserve, rising to the rank of brigadier general. He flew as an observer with a B-52 bomber crew over Vietnam - a war in which he later lost a son, a Marine lieutenant who died in combat in 1969.

Stewart rarely discussed his military service, consistent with his desire to be seen as a citizen, just doing his duty. However, he once appeared on the TV series The World At War regarding the famed bombing mission to Schweinfurt, the center of the German ball bearing manufacturing industry. Known in USAF history as Black Thursday due to high casualties, Stewart maintained his professional demeanor, asking to be identified only as "James Stewart, Squadron Commander."

Upon retirement from the Air Force Reserve in 1968, Stewart donated his retirement pay to the Falcon Foundation at the U.S. Air Force Academy to fund scholarships.

Starr Smith, in his 2004 biography, "Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot," noted that Stewart "served with unbending determination, subtle style and a quiet mystique...he was a man who led and inspired his fellow airman in battle, won the admiration and respect of his superiors, and, in the end, was like many another - a good man who fought the good fight."

So as you watch "It's a Wonderful Life" this holiday season, enjoy the film, but keep in mind that the actor behind the George Bailey character was in reality an inspirational combat leader who had just helped defeat Hitler in World War II, and was trying to get his once-celebrated acting career back on track.

Ironically, Stewart was nominated for another Academy Award in 1946 for his portrayal of George Bailey, but was beat out by Fredric March in "The Best Years of Our Lives" - a film about veterans returning from war.

Stewart died July 2, 1997, and was buried with full military honors. Upon his death, President Bill Clinton said, "America lost a national treasure today. Jimmy Stewart was a great actor, a gentleman and a patriot."

When I watch "It's a Wonderful Life," I get lost in the performance. I know, though, that the man behind the actor is not George Bailey. He's my AETC wing man, and a wing man to everyone who has served our nation during war.