Jimmy Stewart Was a Two Star General in the U.S. Military

Jimmy StewartToday I found out Jimmy Stewart was a two star general in the United States military.

In 1940, Jimmy Stewart was drafted into the United States Army, but ended up being rejected due to being five pounds under the required weight, given his height (at the time he weighed 143 pounds).  Not to be dissuaded, Stewart then sought out the help of Don Loomis, who was known to be able to help people add or subtract pounds.  Once he had gained a little weight, he enlisted with the Army Air Corps in March of 1941 and was eventually accepted, once he convinced the enlisting officer to re-run the tests.

Initially, Stewart was given the rank of private; by the time he had completed training, he had advanced to the rank of second lieutenant (January of 1942).  Much to his chagrin, due to his celebrity status and extensive flight expertise (having tallied over 400 flight hours before even joining the military), Stewart was initially assigned to various “behind the lines” type duties such as training pilots and making promotional videos in the states.  Eventually, when he realized they were not going to ever put him in the front line, he appealed to his commanding officer and managed to get himself assigned to a unit overseas.

In August of 1943, he found himself with the 703rd Bombardment Squadron, initially as a first officer, and shortly thereafter as a Captain.  During combat operations over Germany, Stewart found himself promoted to the rank of Major.  During this time, Stewart participated in several uncounted missions (on his orders) into Nazi occupied Europe, flying his B-24 in the lead position of his group in order to inspire his troops.

For his bravery during these missions, he twice received the Distinguished Flying Cross; three times received the Air Medal; and once received the Croix de Guerre from France.  This latter medal was an award given by France and Belgium to individuals allied with themselves who distinguished themselves with acts of heroism.

By July of 1944, Stewart was promoted chief of staff of the 2nd Combat Bombardment wing of the Eighth Air Force.  Shortly thereafter, he was promoted to the rank of colonel, becoming one of only a handful of American soldiers to ever rise from private to colonel within a four year span.

After the war, Stewart was an active part of the United States Air Force Reserve, serving as the Reserve commander of Dobbins Air Reserve Base.  On July 24, 1959, he attained the rank of brigadier general (one star general).

During the Vietnam War, he flew (not the pilot) in a B-52 on a bombing mission and otherwise continued to fulfill his duty with the Air Force Reserve.  He finally retired from the Air Force on May 31, 1968 after 27 years of service and was subsequently promoted to Major General (two star general).

Bonus Facts:

  • Both Stewart’s grandfathers fought in the American Civil War.  He also had ancestors on his mother’s side that served in the American Revolution and the War of 1812.  His father served in the Spanish-American War and World War I.  His adopted son, Ronald, was killed at the age of 24 as a Marine in Vietnam.
  • The full list of military awards achieved by Stewart are: 2 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 4 Air Medals, 1 Army Commendation Medal, 1 Armed Forces Reserve Medal, 1 Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1 French Croix de Guerre with Palm.
  • As a child, Stewart was a Second Class Scout and eventually became an adult Scout leader.  He was also the recipient of the prestigious Boy Scouts of America Silver Buffalo Award, of which only 674 to date have been given out since 1926.  Of the other recipients besides Stewart, 14 have held the office of President of the United States.
  • A brigadier general is equivalent to a lower rear admiral in the navy.  A major general is equivalent to a rear admiral and is typically given 10,000-20,000 troops to command and is authorized to command them independently.
  • U.S. law limits the number of general officers that may be on active duty at any time to 302 for the Army, 279 for the Air Force, and 80 for the Marine Corps.
  • Eligible officers to be considered to promotion for the rank of brigadier general (one star) are recommended to the President from a list compiled by current general officers.  The President then selects officers from this list to be given the promotion.  Occasionally, the President will also nominate officers not on this list, but this almost never happens.  Once the President makes their selection, the Senate confirms or rejects the selected individuals by a majority vote.
  • The name “brigadier general” comes from the American Revolutionary War when the first brigadier generals were appointed.  At that time, they were simply general officers put in charge of a brigade, hence “brigadier general”.  For a time in the very early 19th century, this was the highest rank any officer in the military could achieve as the rank of major general (two star) had been abolished.  The rank of major general was later re-established just before the war of 1812.
  • At Princeton, Stewart excelled at architecture and was eventually awarded a full scholarship for graduate work by his professors as a result of his thesis on airport design.
  • Stewart and Henry Fonda were roommates early in their careers.  Later in life, they still shared a close friendship and, when they weren’t working, they often spent their time building and painting model airplanes with each other.
  • Jimmy Stewart also was an avid pilot before his military service.  He received his private pilot certificate in 1935 and used to fly cross-country to visit his parents.  Interestingly, when he did so, he stated that he used rail road tracks to navigate.
  • Stewart was also one of the investors and collaborators who helped build Thunderbird Field, which was a pilot training school built to help train pilots during WWII.  During the WWII alone, over 10,000 pilots were trained there.
  • After WWII, he strongly considered abandoning acting and entering the aviation field, due to personal doubts that he could still act.
  • It's a Wonderful LifeHis first film after the war was Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life which, at the time, was considered somewhat of a flop with the public, though it was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Stewart.  Partially due to this film’s poor showing at the box office, Capra’s production company went bankrupt and Stewart began to further doubt his ability to act following the war.
  • On January 5, 1992, It’s a Wonderful Life became the first American program ever to be broadcast on Russian television.  A translated version, courtesy of Stewart and Lomonosov Moscow State University, was broadcast to over 200 million Russians on that day.
  • Stewart went on to act in several flops, as well as several critically acclaimed films, and by the 1950s was still considered a top tier actor over all.  This was important because in 1950 he became one of the first top tier actors to work for no money up front, but rather a percentage of the gross of the film.  Others had done this before, but it was rare and generally only lower end actors on the tail of their careers would agree to this.  He did this on the movie Winchester ’73 where he had asked for $200,000 pay to appear in that movie and Harvey.  The studio rejected, so he countered that he’d work for a percentage of the gross.  He ended up taking home nearly $600,000 for Winchester ’73 alone.  Hollywood’s other top-tier stars took noticed and this practiced began becoming the norm for top tier actors.
  • By 1954, Stewart was voted the most popular Hollywood actor in the world, displacing John Wayne.  He also was the highest grossing actor that year.
  • Stewart was also known somewhat for his poetry.  He frequently would appear on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show and would read various poems he had written throughout his life.  One of his poems, written about his dog, so moved Carson that, by the end, Carson was choking back tears.  Dana Carvey and Dennis Miller, in 1980, parodied this on Saturday Night Live.  These poems were later compiled into a book called Jimmy Stewart and His Poems.
  • Later in life, Stewart appeared in The Magic of Lassie (1978), much to the dismay of critics and the general public, as the film was a universal flop and seen to be beneath him.  Stewart’s response to them was that it was the only script he was offered that didn’t have sex, profanity, or graphic violence.
  • Jimmy Stewart GraveStewart’s final film role was as the voice of Wylie Burp, in the 1991 movie An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.
  • Stewart devoted much of the last years of his life to trying to enhance the public’s understanding and appreciation of the U.S. constitution and the Bill of Rights as well as promote education.  He died of a blood clot in his lung on July 2, 1997.  Over his life, his professions included a hardware store shop-hand; a brick layer; a road worker; an assistant magician; an actor; an investor; a war hero; and a philanthropist.  He also held a bachelors degree in architecture from Princeton.
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  • Please note, he completed 20 official missions in the B-24, in addition to the unofficial missions mentioned. He is lucky to have survived, given the very high casualty rate in these bombers (said to be 50%). Mentioned alongside Jimmy Stewart should be Ted Williams, who twice interrupted his fabulous baseball career to fly fighter planes: once in WWII and again in Korea.

  • He was promoted after he retired?

    • That’s not unusual if you are in the reserve. Also in some armies (I was in the Italian Army) you get promoted upon retirement (I assume by reading this that the same is true in the US Army). I was a Second Lieutenant when I retired and I was promoted to First Lieutenant and then a few years later to Captain in the reserves.

  • What an admirable man. An American hero who inspired generations of movie-goers to think about what the right thing to do is and to do it. I wish America were populated with Jimmy Stewarts!! He also married a woman with two young children, adopted them and lovingly raised them as his own. He remained married to her thereafter until he died, two years after his wife’s passing. If there is, indeed, a Heaven, Jimmy Stewart is there.

    • I agree! I heard that Jimmy gained weight so he could join the military! A great actor and a great hero! I love him in Its A WONDERFUL Life,just to name one GREAT PERFORMANCE! JIMMY IS THE STUFF OF LEGENDS!

    • I agree! Jame’s Stewart was a hero, he also lost a son in Vietnam and never said anything or complained.

  • A hero to be sure, and one of my favorite people, but he was never promoted to Major General.

    • He was in 1985 by Ronald Reagan at the same time Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He reached Colonel on actived duty and Brig in reserves.

  • Jeff: He was promoted to Major General, after his retirement, by President Reagan.

    • David Pennington

      President Reagan said that was one of the greatest highlights of his presidential career.

  • “He was also the recipient of the prestigious Boy Scouts of America Silver Buffalo Award, of which only 674 to date have been given out since 1926. Of the other recipients besides Stewart, 14 have held the office of President of the United States.”

    There have only been 14 President from 1926 to the present. And I highly doubt all 14 of them have received the Silver Buffalo Award. (I’m pretty dang sure Barack Obama hasn’t. Unless they give one to EVERY President, regardless.)

    • In fact there are now 15, not 14, and not all of them were yet or still president when it was awarded. That is because this was written in 2011, and Obama was awarded his in 2013, so it almost looks like EVERY president gets one regardless, but that’s not 100% the case. The earliest president I could find was Taft. After him, there were only three presidents that DIDN’T get the award:
      – Woodrow Wilson
      – Warren Harding
      – JFK
      It’ll be interesting to see if Trump gets one.

      • Read “Bomber Pilot”, the complete biography of Jimmy Stuart’s WW2 experiences. He was a true leader of men, not just a Hollywood star in the war. You’ll thank me for this if you read this wonderful book.

        Chuck Eaves

    • According to Wikipedia, all presidents since 1927 excluding Harding, Wilson, Kennedy, and Trump, have received the award .

  • By the way… an exceptionally great read is the book, “Jimmy Stewart, Bomber Pilot”, by Starr Smith.

    I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a voracious reader. But I could not put this book down. Not only is the subject matter – Gen. Stewart and his military service – very interesting, but this book is exceptionally well written. On a scale of 1 – 10, I give it a 98. (And no, I did not mean 9 point 8. I meant 98. As is 2 short of 100. Oh heck… let’s give it the full 100.)

    • Amen to that!! Jommy Stewart, Bomber Pilot is a great read. It’s one of the few books that I wished would keep going and going and going and…….. and I am a voracious reader. I was working as an airline captain in 97 and was on a trip when I got up one morning and turned on the news while I was getting ready for work and heard that he had passed away. I was bummed out all day.

  • ” Interestingly, when he did so, he stated that he used rail road tracks to navigate.”
    That was common practice before the development of the extensive radio-beam navigation system. The pilots called that “Flying the Iron Beam.”
    Obviously, it only worked in the daytime in clear weather.

    • Air Force and Airline Pilot

      It still is common practice among pilots to follow roads. IFR stands for Instrument Flying Rules, but it also stands for I Follow Roads 🙂 lol.

  • Thanks for a solid article on Jimmie Stewart. It’s good to recognize such decent folk who also happened to become celebrities. Sadly one of his sons, who had joined the Marines, was killed in action in Vietnam in 1969.

    @Lardo There have been 14 presidents who have received the Silver Buffalo award, beginning with Taft (who served prior to the first award in 1926. All past presidents except for Wilson, Harding, and Kennedy have received the award. President Obama currently serves as the honorary President of the BSA.

  • Anthony R. Walsh

    Not only a great actor but a hero and man of unblemished charactor. By the way,don’t forget his wonderful potrayal of Glen Miller.

  • Dana Carvey and Dennis Miller parodied Jimm Stewart but it was several years after 1980 as they did not join the cast of SNL until the mid 1980’s.

  • Jimmy Stewart was not drafted. He volunteered as a private. Gave up alot to join Army Air Corps. prior to Pearl Harbor to serve the country while most citizens were asleep to the danger. He never stopped serving our country.

  • Maybe the exception, but Stewart proves that men of character can be “Hollywood”. Then there’s Stallone, who made millions off movies about the Vietnam war which HE experienced while hiding in Canada. Stallone, unlike Jimmy Stewart is worthy only of my CONTEMPT. I can understand, being from that era positions against the Vietnam war. What I CAN’T understand is making millions off of something you were (supposedly) so dead set against. Or maybe it was his HIDE he was concerned about, not his convictions. Extreme ends of character, Stewart and Stallone. The epitome and the totally lacking.

  • My grandfather (a major and POW) was actually his commanding officer for a short time over there. He has told some rather funny stories.

  • My favourite film starring James was The Glen Miller Story, he was superb

  • No Jimmy Stewart in Hollywood today…. Sad..

  • “he was promoted to the rank of colonel, becoming one of only a handful of American soldiers to ever rise from private to colonel within a four year span”—Jimmy Stewart was a great actor, and a great man. But, how many of his promotions were due to his celebrity status? Seriously, how does someone go from private to Colonel in 4 years, even during a war?

    • Well, here’s how it works. Enlisted as a buck private. Has a college degree along with civilian pilots license. Immediately Puts in for a commission and to become a pilot. It is approved…..walla, he skips all the other enlisted ranks to second Lt. with only a couple or so months on active duty. Progress to capt. in about the normal time as everyone else at that time. Go’s on to active combat status and actually flies dangerous combat missions. Quickly is promoted up, through ranks as were several other officers at that time. He was not the only one to achieve quick rank during WWII. Did his famous status play any part? Maybe, but after reading the book about him in his war time exploits I doubt it.

      • All true most made 2nd Lt
        after flight school or Blue Bar the rank another hero held for a time Gen. Chuck Yeager. This does not take away from General James Stewarts achievements.

        He flew 20 missions in WW2 prior to that he was a flight instructor on every aircraft the Army was flying those days.

        When promoted to the rank of Major he refused the rank unless men in his command ,who been in service as long as he were promoted as well. The Army Air Command agreed. Gen. Stewart stood up for the men in his command. A mark of a true leader.

        Gen.Stewart flew missions, as an oberver on B-52’si during Viet Nam.
        He flew B58 super sonic Hustlers at Mach 2.

        He was instrumental in the founding of the seperate military branch The US A F.

        He was also a founding fathrr of the Air Association.

        He was a famly man and great etertainer

        Gen. Stewart a true American hero.

        Thank you Gen. Stewart.

  • General Stewart, a truly great gentleman, gallant officer, outstanding father and American hero…

    One thing for certain, they don’t make real men like that anymore!

  • I think that Jimmy Stewart was a very highly HONORABLE man. He did more than his share
    in WW2. My home town is Sharon, PA, not very far from Indiana, Pa. I enlisted in the U S
    Air Force in 1946 underage at age 16. Jimmy Stewart gave me a lot to encouragement to
    go into the Air Force.

    Jimmy is the greatest.

    Jimmy Stewart was a highly HONORABLE man that did all he could do for our country. He
    wanted to be in our military service and he was in as early as possible. Jimmy Stewart
    encouraged me to go into the U S Air Force. (He was not aware of his encouragement for
    me) I enlisted underage at age 16 in 1946 into the U S Air Force.
    My hometown is Sharon, Pa, not very far from Indiana, Pa. I enjoyed reading this
    information about Jimmy Stewart’s life. He was a great American.

    Thank You

  • Why didn’t the Veterans Administration put on James Stewart’s grave marker his rank and the metals that he had been awarded durning WWll? It is like he WASN’T ever in the Army Air Corps durning WWll. Why isn’t something done to give Major General James Stewart’s the honorable recognition that he deserves

    • Most likely his family paid for the marker and did not ask the military to pay for it, otherwise if it was paid for by the military, his rank would be on the marker.

  • What a Great Man! It’s too bad we don’t have more like he was.

  • I don’t believe this article is correct saying that he was promoted to major general. This article is the only place I find saying that. Everything else says his highest rank was a brigadier general.

  • You see actors playing Naval, Army and Navy heroes who never served, and did everything to make sure they didn’t serve. I have absolutely no respect for these wannabes at all none.
    Here in Gen. Stewart you have, a leader of men who lead by example.
    President Clinton too skipped the Vietnam Draft, George W. Bush had his Dad, president Bush Snr make sure he too didn’t face any enemy of the USA but were and remain in the queue grabbing honours to which they are not entitled. They are The Gutless Ones.
    President J F Kennedy at least served, though he should have been courts martialled for leaving his men during one incident, he had the guts to serve though his father could have kept him safe.
    All in all those who portrayed war heroes are an affront to the honour of those who stood up for democracy like Audy Murphy, what an exceptional man he was, quite rightly respected by his nation.
    Here in the UK we too have what I call Magazine Heroes, and that’s all they ever will be… As for the reason of this comment, Gen. Stewart.
    I conclude with. Stand Down General, Your Duty Done. And for doing your duty, the world is a better place.
    At The Going Down of the sun
    And in the morning
    We will Remember Them.

  • USAF Reserve General Stewart participated in the swearing in of myself along with a couple hundred other young men from Indiana in May 1965 into the U.S. Air Force. The ceremony took place on the steps of the War Memorial downtown Indianapolis. Gen. Stewart was in attendance in a ceremonial capacity standing alongside another USAF officer who officiated the oath. Jimmy Stewart the actor was then working on the original Flight of the Phoenix movie and was sporting a full beard. Regulations did not allow him to be in uniform so he could not give the oath himself. However, to his credit, Gen. Stewart was apologetic for not being in uniform and did say he was proud to be there.