Jimmy Stewart…Bomber Pilot

February 22, 2019

You may remember Jimmy Stewart from his iconic movie rolls in “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “The Philadelphia Story”, and “Rear Window”, but did you know Jimmy Stewart was also Col. James Stewart, WW2 war hero?

I have been reading a biography of James Stewart focused upon this very significant aspect of his life. In fact, the two people to speak at Jimmy Stewart’s funeral, with full military honors, were his pastor and Lt. Gen. Roger DeKok from the US Air Force. No Hollywood celebrities spoke, though many were in attendance and were close friends. Those closest to him knew that his military career was more significant to him personally than his Hollywood celebrity.

Col. James Stewart was revered and loved by the men he led and respected by his superiors. In one of my favorite anecdotes, Col. Stewart and his 489th squadron is on a bombing mission over Germany and notices that the lead commander of the 389th squadron (Stewart’s superior), has made a navigational error on his return flight. He notifies this superior of the mistake, but is assured by the commander that his calculations are not incorrect, and to continue to follow him on his present course. As a squadron commander overseeing several aircraft and their crews, Col. Stewart is faced with a difficult decision. Should he continue to follow this commander and his squadron of ships, in tight formation, on a potentially calamitous detour into enemy territory? He knows that to do so is to put his life and those of all his squadron in danger.

What will he do?

What would you do? My guess is that it is not the same thing James Stewart did.

He decided to obey the order of his superior and support them on a misguided trek into enemy territory, knowing that his commanding officer was in error. The reason? Simply to follow the two cardinal rules of combat: “persuade your leader of his mistake, if you can, but follow him, right or wrong”.

When I read this with my 2019 peacetime brain, I thought that those rules sound utterly ridiculous. Why would you risk the lives of dozens of men just so as to not “show up” your C.O.?!?!?! Let the superior officer eat some humble pie! After all, he deserved it!

But as I continued to read the biography, I came to a better understanding of war and the terrors associated with it. When crew members, by the grace of God, were able to land safely back in England with their flying fortresses decimated by anti-aircraft fire and “flak”, crew members could often not stop shaking for days on end. The experience was absolutely terrifying in every sense of the word. Absolutely critical to the success of any wartime endeavor was the clearheaded and organized chain of command. If that broke down, success was virtually impossible. Col. James Stewart knew what successful soldiers have always known, obey your commanding officer.

It turned out that approximately 60 Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs (enemy fighter planes) noticed the mistake and pursued the straying bombers. Several lead planes, including the one flown by the mistaken commanding officer, were shot down, but Col. Stewart did not lose a single plane or man from his 445th squadron, and offered critical support to the 389th so that more planes were not lost.

When his superiors recognized what Stewart did, the commendations poured in.

What I appreciate most is that in wartime, one must not lose sight of the bigger picture. In war, lives are tragically lost and mistakes are made, but if the objective is maintained, success is achievable.

As you follow Jesus Christ in this world, do you have a bigger picture in mind? Do you take a long view in your mind’s eye of the Christlike man or woman God is seeking to form you into? Battles are fought and lost, distractions, errors and mistaken judgments are common, but consider the end. Will you receive that commendation from our Lord, “well done, good and faithful servant!”? You have been faithful. You have obeyed. You have not strayed when the temptation was there to do so.

And so, Christian, today consider how you can best maintain your course. And one day enter into your Heavenly Father’s Kingdom!

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