Dad was hiking back to the base with a handful of buddies as a truck pulled up beside him and an officer shouted an invitation. He instantly recognized the voice.They piled into the truck for the short ride back to base, chatting with their benefactor. He turned out to be really nice, a regular guy who didn't put on any airs just because he was an officer. Or a movie star.
That was all there was to it - a brief and pleasant encounter with a famous man. But it was a man Dad would respect and admire for the rest of his life.
James Maitland Stewart - Jimmy to his friends and fans, which was just about everybody - was already a famous actor at the beginning of 1941. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington had made him a star, and Philadelphia Story gave him an Academy Award. He loved to fly, having taken lessons in the 1930's while sharing a house with lifelong friend Henry Fonda, who also shared with him a passion for building model airplanes. By 1941 Jimmy had both private and commercial pilot's licenses and owned his own plane, a Stinson two-seater.
Stewart saw the war coming for America. He knew what he had to do: he would use his skills as a pilot to defend his country. It was that simple.
As much as Jimmy wanted into the Army Air Corps, it seemed that it did not want him. Drafted in 1940, he failed his physical exam - he was underweight for his height in spite of prepping for several months with an exercise program. But Stewart appealed the decision, and on his second try (and, it is rumored, with a friend at the scales) he made his weight.
Although the Army used his start status in some limited PR work, he went out of his way to shun the limelight and avoid special treatment. In basic training he did his share of K.P. and guard duty like any other buck private. He earned his commission from corporal to second lieutenant and his pilot wings by going through the same training and passing the same tests as every other pilot in the Air Corps.
Stewart wanted into the fight, and the path he chose was in heavy bombers. He made his way through an increasingly difficult progression of training programs, becoming qualified on the B-17 in February of 1943. Every member of his class was given a combat assignment - except Stewart, who was assigned as an instructor pilot to Gowen Field.
This is where Dad and Jimmy crossed paths, if only for a few minutes. But for Stewart, Gowen Field was a frustration. It was obvious he was being withheld from combat because of his movie star status. But he had resolved to not use that status to gain special favors, so he toughed it out and did his duty - for the time being.
Not that Gowen Field was safe. One of Stewart's good friends was killed in a training accident, and Jimmy went out to the mountains to help retrieve the body. In the process he fell and badly injured his back , and his 5' 6" commanding officer ended up carrying him down the mountain. This earned him a long stay in the base hospital.
It was only when it was rumored that he was to be taken off flight duty and put to work making training films and selling war bonds that Jimmy decided to break his rule. He went to his C.O., Colonel Walter Arnold - the man who had carried Jimmy off the mountain - and presented his case. By the end of the day Stewart was on his way to a B-24 squadron finishing its training in Sioux City.
Stewart went on to fly twenty missions over Europe, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal. He was universally respected for his dedication and professionalism, as well as his popularity with the crews and his brother officers - and not the least, for his piano playing in the off hours at the office's club (his favorite was Ragtime Cowboy Joe).
Jimmy Stewart eventually became a Brigadier General in the Air Force Reserve. But most Americans know him for his many acting roles. And every Christmas season when It's A Wonderful Life hit the TV, or when Winchester '73 was on the late movie, Dad would tell the story of how Jimmy Stewart gave him a ride.