On page one of the same edition, the story read, “He’s Jimmy Stewart to millions of movie fans, but at Gowen Field Saturday he registered as First Lt. James M. Stewart, and on the routine registration forms, in the listing his occupation in civilian life he placed a question mark after the word ‘actor.’”
Stewart had been determined to serve his country. When he tried to enlist in the army, they turned him down because he was too skinny. At 6-foot-3, he tipped the scale at only 138 pounds. So, putting on weight became his goal. He started on a diet heavy with steaks, pasta, and milkshakes. When he stepped on the scales at his second physical in March of 1941, he was still a little shy of the minimum weight, but someone fudged the figures by a few ounces, and Jimmy Stewart was on his way to boot camp.
Eager as he was to serve, it was a bit of an adjustment. He’d been averaging $12,000 a week as an actor, according to the article “Mr. Stewart Goes to War,” by Richard L. Hayes on the HistoryNet website. An army private’s pay was $21 a month. It is reported that he sent $2.10 a month to his agent.
Stewart had a college degree from Princeton, and he was already licensed to fly multi-engine planes, so it was no surprise when he got his commission in January 1942. That meant he could wear his uniform when he presented Gary Cooper the Academy Award for best actor for Cooper’s performance in Sergeant York. Stewart had won the Oscar the year before for his role in Philadelphia Story.
The actor became a flight instructor, serving first at Mather Field, California, then transferred to Kirkland, New Mexico for bombardier school. He was at another base in New Mexico and HQ for the Second Air Force in Salt Lake City before coming to Boise, where he was a flight instructor for B-17s. He was also a sensation.
The About Town column on February 21, 1943, read, “Being constantly on the lookout for Jimmy Stewart has made Boiseans celebrity-conscious. We could have sworn we’ve been seeing Lucille Ball and John Garfield night-spotting about town…but it turned out to be Eileen Cummock, beauteous Gowen Field civilian employee, and Capt. Cox.”
About Town was breathless with chatter about Stewart. It wasn’t until June 21 that the paper published an actual photograph of the “ordinary American serving his country.” He was shown visiting back stage at a Gowen Field minstrel show at the Pinney Theater. They published another six days later of Stewart shaking hands with someone at a “recent Gowen Field Frolic.”
In July that year, Stewart got his captain’s bars and was called back to Hollywood to attend a wedding. In August, his stint in Boise was over. His stint in the military had just begun.
Jimmy Stewart would fly 20 bombing missions over Europe in World War II. Those were the missions he was credited with. He often flew self-assigned as a combat crewman when he was a commander. Oddly, he flew on one bombing mission in Vietnam as a non-duty observer in a B-52 when he was Air Force Reserve Brigadier General Stewart in 1966. He retired from the Air Force in 1968. In 1985, President Reagan promoted him to Major General on the retired list and presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Stewart didn’t spend a lot of time talking about the war or his military service. In fact, his movie contracts always included a clause that his military service would not be used as part of the publicity for the movie. Stewart passed away in 1997.