Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe
by Robert Matzen
Robert Matzen's book tour kicks off October 27, 2016. Robert will be presenting Mission and conducting book signings around the country through May 2017. Check the Events tab for more information.
On Saturday March 22, 1941, Jimmy Stewart, America's boy-next-door actor, left Hollywood behind and took the oath of service in the
United States Army Air Corps. The move made headlines because Stewart was a highly paid movie star and his country wasn't at war, so why did he take this step?
Once in the service, Stewart ducked the press at every opportunity and to a large extent for the next four years remained behind the secure perimeters of air bases in the Western Hemisphere serving his country. Then at war's end he refused to discuss what had happened "over there," and continued to be tight lipped about it to the end of his life. In effect, Jimmy Stewart took the story of his military service with him to the grave.
Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe tells that story by presenting the first in-depth look behind the scenes at the first 38 years of Jimmy Stewart's life, from his childhood in Indiana, Pennsylvania, to stardom in Hollywood, his life in the skies over Germany, and, ultimately, his return to Hollywood the changed man who embarked on production of his first post-war film, It's a Wonderful Life.
Following up on his meticulously researched Fireball, author Robert Matzen has once again combed official federal government archives, this time the 500 pages of the James M. Stewart personnel file, to track his progress from private to full colonel. Matzen sifted through thousands of pages in the official Records of the Army Air Forces to piece together the 19 combat missions Stewart flew over Europe. Matzen took to the skies in the cockpits of the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator—the two heavy bombers piloted by Stewart; interviewed surviving fliers who flew with Stewart stateside and in Europe; accessed the James Stewart Papers at Brigham Young University; and explored the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences Library. And Matzen walked the muddy earth of Tibenham and Old Buckenham in East Anglia, the two air bases most often used by Stewart in his combat missions of 1943-45, and explored German cities that were the targets of the Eighth Air Force.
But Matzen takes the story further to also tell of others in the fight for Europe—the pilots that Stewart commanded in the 703rd Squadron; enlisted men flying aft of the flight deck; German aviators contesting the bomber stream of the Mighty Eighth; and German and Dutch civilians caught in the crossfire of the titanic global struggle now known as World War II.
What emerges in Mission is a set of people you will never forget led by a Jimmy Stewart you never really knew—until now.
Robert Matzen is a former NASA contractor with 10 years' experience in communications related to aeronautics research. But then, Robert
wrote the book on research. Literally. He broke into print straight out of college with the mass-market paperback, Research Made Easy: a Guide for Students and Writers for Bantam Books, where his
editor was the New York publishing-world legend, Toni Burbank. Since then Robert has written bestsellers and edited the bestselling books of other authors. His sixth book, Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3, rose
to number two on the Amazon bestseller list for biographies, won the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Award as Biography of the Year, and earned praise from the Smithsonian Institution. His
fifth, Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood topped three bestseller lists and was a finalist in both the USA Book Awards and ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year competitions. Visit Robert's blog.
During the national publicity campaign for Fireball, Robert appeared on television programs coast to coast and had a global reach on radio.
Robert is also an established filmmaker. His 2001 historical documentary, When the Forest Ran Red, which aired on PBS, is recognized as the classic interpretation of the French and Indian War in America—the war that launched the career of George Washington. Robert’s work in film and video includes many programs for NASA where he collaborated with the Astronaut Office and many NASA senior leaders on videos for NASA events, nasa.gov, and NASA Television.
1. Why did you write Mission?
I consider the story of James Stewart in World War II to be one of the great untold adventures in American history. Here went a movie actor off to war, and he went against the wishes of not only his employer in Hollywood but also the president of the United States. While he was over there, Stewart refused to lend himself to press coverage even though it would have benefited his career. He did everything a movie star shouldn't have done, and did it magnificently.
2. Is Mission a biography of Jimmy Stewart?
Very much so. In it I detail Jim's birth and early life, his family history, his upbringing and education, and his acting career on both stage and screen. It becomes in-depth biography when he enters the service, which is the area of his life that has never been covered in detail. I end the story when he comes home a veteran suffering PTSD and has to restart his career all over again after being away from the screen for five full years. And what picture does he stumble onto? It's a Wonderful Life.
3. Why does Mission have such an unusual construction?
In a sense, Mission is like Fireball in telling a conventional story through unconventional means because I remain at heart a historian who hates the way history is told in textbooks. I go all the way back to seventh grade and Mr. Coatsworth, my history teacher. Here I was a kid who loved history and who was bored to death in history class. How could this be? But one day Mr. Coatsworth talked about Athens and Sparta and the guy running 26 miles with a message and I was captivated. I thought, why the hell doesn't he do this every day? All my life I've wanted people to experience the magic I do when I lose myself in history.
4. As research for Fireball, you climbed a mountain. Did you do anything comparable for Mission?
I did. I flew in the cockpit of a B-17 Flying Fortress, and in the cockpit of a B-24 Liberator--two seventy-five year old warplanes. While these big, rumbling ships were in the air I explored every inch from the bombardier's position in the nose to the gunner's spot in the tail. I needed to know what it was like to be in a bomber. I also traveled to a key location in the story, the site of the 445th Bomb Group air base in Tibenham, England. From here Jim took off a dozen times, never knowing if he would ever make it back.
5. You tell more than Stewart's story in Mission. Why?
What is a hero? Why is Jim Stewart a hero? Well, he's a hero because he flew missions over Germany for a noble cause. There, I just described hundreds of guys in the 445th Bomb Group alone, the ones who flew on Jim's right and left wing, and in front of and behind him in the bomber stream. Those other fliers give perspective to Jim's story. And I also include another American airman as a primary character, and two Germans, one an aviator and one a civilian. I want the reader to understand Jim's spot in the bomber, definitely, but also the perspective of the German pilots going after those bombers, and the German civilians on the ground as bombs rained down. It was a terrible time in history, and only telling Jim's story as if he went off to work in the morning and came home in the evening is doing all these people in that war a disservice.