Jimmy Stewart was a keen aviator and a great patriot, and in 1966 he insisted on participating in a bombing strike against VC targets, flying a mission at the controls of B-52F 57-0149.
Designed to form the backbone of Strategic Air Command’s nuclear deterrent, the B-52 performed vital Cold War service by standing ready to fly atomic strikes against the USSR, using a succession of ever more devastating weapons.
In 1965, Stratofortresses were deployed to Southeast Asia, where they formed the backbone of the USAF’s bombing campaign in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The aircraft first saw combat over the jungles of Vietnam during Operation Arc Light in June 1965.
The first B-52s deployed to the region were B-models, but the first variant to see combat service was the superb B-52F.
Even in 1966, the war in Vietnam was contentious, and not something for a career-minded Hollywood actor to be seen to be supporting too strongly. As told by Jon Lake in his book B-52 Stratofortress Units in Combat 1955-73, the B-52F deployment was therefore doubly pleased when a USAF Reserve brigadier general arrived at Andersen AFB as part of a two-week inspection tour, since that officer was none other than Jimmy Stewart. Coming to the end of his USAF service, he had reached the rank of brigadier general in the USAF Reserve in 1959.
During his two weeks of active duty in 1966 Stewart requested a combat assignment, and he was duly sent on an inspection tour of Vietnam, where his stepson, 1Lt Ronald McLean, had recently been killed at age 24. Stewart was a keen aviator and a great patriot, and he insisted on participating in a bombing strike against VC targets, flying a mission at the controls of B-52F 57-0149.
Although best known to the general public as Hollywood actor, Stewart had also enjoyed a remarkable and distinguished military career. He had seen the war clouds gathering and volunteered for service in 1940, joining the USAAC in March 1941 – a full nine months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into the war. At the age of 33, Stewart was too old to be an aviation cadet, but used his own aircraft (a Stinson 105) to build hours until he qualified to enter as an experienced pilot. The gangling Stewart was also underweight, according to the Army Air Corps doctors, and he binged until he had put on the ten pounds necessary to meet the Army’s minimum weight requirement.
Successively flying BT-13s as an instructor, and later piloting twin-Beeches and Boeing B-17s, Stewart craved overseas combat duty, and made considerable efforts to overcome official reluctance to place him in harm’s way, and to avoid the propaganda duties which were being marked out for him.
Assigned to the 445th BG as operations officer, Capt Stewart flew B-24s from Tibenham, in Norfolk, leading the group during a 1000-bomber raid against Berlin on Mar. 22, 1944 and rising to command the 703rd BS. Stewart was transferred to the 453rd BG after that unit had suffered heavy losses, and with him as operations officer and a new CO at the helm, the 453rd’s proficiency rate on raids rose from near the bottom of the list to near the top among Eighth Air Force units.
Stewart became a full colonel and the 2nd BW’s chief of staff in July 1944, and then in the spring of 1945 became the wing CO. He flew 20 bombing missions over Germany (against targets which included Brunswick, Bremen, Frankfurt, Schweinfurt and Berlin), and his decorations included the Croix de Guerre (with palm), two Distinguished Flying Crosses, a succession of oak leaf clusters, seven battle stars and an Air Medal. Careful to avoid being known for who he was before the war, rather than what he was doing in uniform, Stewart gained an enviable reputation as an exceptionally hardworking, conscientious and dedicated officer.
Even after resuming his acting career, Stewart continued to take his Air Force Reserve duties extremely seriously, and ensured that he flew the B-36, B-47, B-52 and B-58. During the war, he had been a keen student of bomber tactics and doctrine, and had developed a real knowledge of and enthusiasm for, daylight precision bombing. His exposure to the carpet-bombing of area targets in Vietnam must have come as something of a shock to the distinguished brigadier general.
B-52 Stratofortress Units in Combat 1955-73 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force via This Day in Aviation and San Diego Air & Space Museum