The original owner of Thunderbird, James Maitland Stewart (May 20, 1908 – July 2, 1997) is, of course, famous for his career as a movie star and leading man in films from the 1930’s all the way through to the 1970s. Bart Barnes, a Washington Post staff writer, perhaps characterized Jimmy Stewart best in an article commemorating Stewart’s death when he said “Stewart was the cinematic epitome of common sense and decency.”1
In addition to his time in Hollywood, James “Jimmy” Stewart also led a distinguished military career that spanned 27 years.
As a young man, a film career wasn’t his original plan. Instead, James dreamed of becoming a naval aviator and hoped to attend the United States Naval Academy. However, his father’s wishes prevailed over his own, and James enrolled at Princeton University.
While at Princeton, Stewart’s interest in acting was kindled and he met a new friend, Henry Fonda when they both participated in an intercollegiate drama team.2 Though Fonda wasn’t a Princeton student, both men shared an interest in theater as budding actors, and they also happened to share an interest in model airplanes.
1 Bart Barnes Film Hero Jimmy Stewart Dies at 89, Washington Post, Thursday, July 3, 1997; Page A01
2 McGowan, Sam, War Hero, Jimmy Stewart,WWII History July 2012, https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/article/jimmy-stewarts-rise-from-private-to-colonel/
After college, Jimmy and Henry headed to Hollywood and shared an apartment as they sought to make their mark in cinema. Theirs was a lifelong friendship despite diametrically opposed political views. Jimmy was always a strong supporter of conservatism and the Republican party, while Fonda was a liberal Democrat. Stewart once said “There were certain subjects we just didn’t talk about,”
Shortly after his arrival in California, Jimmy began taking flying lessons, and by early 1941, he owned a Stinson 105, had recorded 300 flying hours, and held a commercial pilot rating as well as his private pilot license.
As it became clearer that the United States would have difficulty avoiding involvement in World War II, Stewart joined other stars including singer-actor Hoagy Carmichael, Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, Robert Taylor, and Margaret Sullivan, who invested to support the construction of a pilot training airfield. The project was initiated by Hollywood agent and producer Leland Hayward, former Air Service pilot John H. “Jack” Connelly, and Life magazine photographer John Swop. Leland, Jack, and John were convinced that a pilot training facility would be critical should America become actively involved in WWII.
The training field was constructed about 25 miles from Phoenix. The buildings, landscaping, and runways were arranged to approximate a mythical Anasazi Thunderbird from the air, with the control tower forming the bird’s head. The project began in 1939, with the construction of the pilot training facility beginning on January 2, 1941. The training facility was completed in a remarkably short period of 3 months.
The name of this project, Thunderbird Field, undoubtedly influenced the name choice for Stewart and DeBona’s P-51 racer after the war.
Thunderbird Field was eventually incorporated into the Army Air Forces training establishment and trained more than 10,000 pilots during World War II.3
A movie was shot on location at Thunderbird field in 1942 entitled Thunder Birds: Soldiers of the Air. It is a typical wartime enlistment motivational film, with the normal Hollywood inaccuracies, (like taking off in a Stearman and the plane magically becoming a Boeing P-12 in the air). But it is filmed in color and shows what Thunderbird Field looked like in its training heyday.
During the pre-war time period, Stewart found work in numerous films from 1936 to 1941. By the time US involvement in WWII was on the horizon, he had played the lead in Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939). He was nominated for an Academy Award for Mr. Smith and actually won his first Oscar the following year for “Philadelphia Story”.4
His firmly established fame as an actor would later become a point of contention when the Army assigned him to non-combat duties.
Just before the United States’ entry into World War II, Stewart became the first major American movie star to enlist in the United States Army. However, at the age of 32, he was too old to qualify for aviation cadet training, which would have been his first choice.5 In 1941, after winning the “Best Actor” Oscar for The Philadelphia Story, Stewart’s reported Hollywood income was $12,000 a month. The joke in the industry was that, as a private in the military, he got paid $21 a month, thus taking a huge pay cut of $11,979.”6 While the movie industry may have made a joke of the change of pay, the fact that Jimmy Stewart was willing to leave his movie star income for a private’s salary, demonstrates the sacrifice he was willing to make for his country.
That Jimmy enlisted was no surprise to his family, whose tradition of military service went back to Fergus Moorhead, a 3rd great grandfather, who served in the Revolutionary War. Jimmy’s maternal grandfather was a general for the Union in the Civil War, and his father Alex, served in both the Spanish-American War and World War I.
Stewart’s first attempt at enlistment in November of 1940 was rejected because, at 138 pounds, he weighed 5 pounds less than required for his 6’3” height. Three months later, in February of 1941, Jimmy successfully enlisted and reported for induction on March 22, 1941. Various accounts exist of how he passed the weight requirement, from having a friend man the scales, to loading up on bananas before the weigh-in, but in any case, James Maitland Stewart was now a private in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
3 Bart Barnes Film Hero Jimmy Stewart Dies at 89, Washington Post, Thursday, July 3, 1997; Page A01
4 Together We Served website, https://blog.togetherweserved.com/2021/12/01/jimmy-stewart/ accessed 11-23-2022
5 TResch, John Phillips (2005). Americans at war: Society, culture, and the homefront. Detroit: Macmillan Reference. ISBN 002865806X. Retrieved July 15, 2019.
6 Emmanuel Levy, Oscar Actors: Stewart, Jimmy–Making of a Star; Pay Before and After Military Service,https://emanuellevy.com/profile/stewart-jimmy-how-much-he-got-paid-before-and-after-military-service/ accessed 11-29-2022
Stewart’s first station was Moffett Field in the San Francisco area. As a college graduate, he was eligible to apply for a commission as an officer. During his 9-month assignment at Moffett Field, now Corporal Stewart completed courses with the goal of obtaining a flying commission, which required 400 logged flying hours. Jimmy was 40 hours short in the 200+ hp aircraft required for a second lieutenant commission. To rectify that deficiency, Stewart logged flight time in high-performance aircraft at his own expense on weekends.
As Corporal Stewart awaited news of his commission, the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor occurred. “A month later he received his commission, and because he had logged over 400 hours as a civilian, he was permitted to take basic flight training at Moffett and received his pilot wings. During the next nine months, he instructed in AT-6, AT-9, and B-17 aircraft, and flew bombardiers in the training school at Albuquerque, N.M.”7
Though Jimmy’s first flying assignment was as a flight instructor, the Army was determined to use Stewart as a recruiting tool. There was little doubt that a star of his stature, wearing a USAAF uniform and pilot’s wings, would be an effective inducement to prospective enlistees. While he did participate in some early war publicity tours in Washington D.C., Jimmy’s interests were to contribute to the war effort as a combat pilot rather than as a recruitment encouragement. With that goal in mind, Lieutenant Stewart enrolled in multi-engine and instrument training upon his return to Moffett Field.
When he completed his multi-engine rating, Stewart was assigned to Mather Field for multi-engine instructor pilot training. Now a qualified multi-engine instructor, Stewart went to Kirkland Field near Albuquerque, New Mexico where he flew Beechcraft AT-11s on bombardier cadet training flights. Later, at Mather Field again, he served as a four-engine instructor in both the B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers. Much to his dismay, Stewart stayed stateside for almost two years working as a flight instructor.
Finally in the fall of 1943, now Captain Stewart was selected to be the operations officer of the 703rd Bomb Squadron, 445th Bomb Group destined for England.
7 National Museum of the United States Air Force, https://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Visit/Museum-Exhibits/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/196679/brig-gen-james-m-stewart/ accessed 11-23/2022
Stewart began flying combat missions and on March 31, 1944, was appointed Operations Officer of the 453rd Bomb Group and, subsequently, Chief of Staff of the 2nd Combat wing, 2nd Air Division of the 8th Air Force.8
8 National Museum of the United States Air Force, https://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Visit/Museum-Exhibits/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/196679/brig-gen-james-m-stewart/ accessed 11-23/2022
Stewart ended WWII as a colonel in the Army Air Corps, fully decorated as the result of the 20 combat missions he flew over Germany as leader of a B-24 squadron. Among the medals he was awarded were two Distinguished Flying Crosses and the Croix de Guerre.
On one mission in February of 1944, Stewart had perhaps his closest call of the war when, on a nine-hour round trip to Furth, Germany, Jimmy’s B-24 encountered very accurate radar-directed German flak. After the bombers hit the target, a flak shell impacted Stewart’s Liberator in the belly, directly behind the nose wheel.
Despite the damage, the Liberator and crew managed to limp home. The damage was severe enough that, upon landing, the fuselage cracked open in front of the wing and buckled.
Stewart mused to a bystander, “Sergeant, somebody sure could get hurt in one of those damned things.”9
9 Richard Hayes, Mr. Stewart Goes to War, https://www.historynet.com/mr-stewart-goes-to-war/accessed 12/1/2022
Stewart continued his military career after WWII in the USAF Reserve and was promoted to Brigadier General on July 23, 1959.
On 20 February 1966: Brigadier General James M. Stewart, United States Air Force Reserve, flew the last combat mission of his military career, a 12 hour, 50 minutes “Arc Light” bombing mission over Vietnam, aboard Boeing B-52 Stratofortress of the 736th Bombardment Squadron, 454th Bombardment Wing. His bomber was a B-52F-65-BW, serial number 57-149, call sign GREEN TWO. It was the number two aircraft in a 30-airplane bomber stream.10
10 This Day in Aviation website https://www.thisdayinaviation.com/tag/736th-bombardment-squadron-heavy/
The rudder, elevator, and dorsal fin were fitted or installed this month. The windshield assembly and cowl formers and stringer were also fitted.
Much of the wiring was completed this month.
Hydraulic plumbing, wiring, and installation of the fuel tank bladders were the major focus of work on the wings this month.
Wow. Thank you for a wonderful story on one of my favorite people and his planes.
You are more than welcome and thanks for the kind words.
My dad was a norden bombsight tech at Kirtland at the same time as Stewart and frequently flew in AT11s to check the functioning of the bombsight. Perhaps he and CPT Stewart flew together on one of those test hops!
That would be very cool. Wings of the North Air Museum in Eden Prairie , MN has an AT-11 that they will be restoring.
It’s beautiful already, I’m sure it’ll be gorgeous when done. Will it fly or be static? WW 2 paint or racing config?
Blue racing paint.
A beautiful restoration work and a great movie to see absolutely!!!
I appreciate all your documentation on this restoration, and will continue to follow it closely.
Thank you Martiin,glad you enjoy the updates!