Part 46: The war and movie star, Jimmy Stewart
From the accounts of Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek as shared by his son, Glen Palecek
I want to insert an episode here about the heroic deeds of movie star Jimmy Stewart during World War II. Dad never knew or met Stewart. I am only telling this story because Dad wrote and said many negative things about General Patton and I want to tell you the story of someone much different. Indeed, when Andy Rooney wrote his book, “My War,” he sharply criticizes Patton for many things, some of which I have told you, but Rooney does not speak of anyone else this harshly, and instead speaks highly of most of the men he writes about from the war. The information about Stewart below comes from Rooney’s book and other sources.
There were many men in this war who were famous before it started. There were movie stars like Clark Gable and baseball players Bob Feller and Joe DiMaggio. I will not attempt to list them all, but, for me, one stands out above the rest – Jimmy Stewart.
Even though he was already famous for parts in “The Philadelphia Story” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Stewart volunteered for the Army and joined as a private. Because he had private flying lessons as a civilian, he went to pilot training school.
It was a long and difficult route up through the ranks, but Stewart finally became commander of the Second Bomb Wing at Alconbury. He showed great skill as a pilot and rose to the rank of colonel, not because he was a Hollywood movie star, but because he was good. He became a flying instructor and could fly all the planes in the Army Air Force. He tried hard to avoid publicity about his acting career, but his students liked him and liked being taught by such a famous person.
The Army wanted to keep him out of combat so that they wouldn’t ever have to report that he had been shot down over Germany. But Stewart insisted and flew several missions in a B-24 bomber, which was much more difficult to fly than the more famous B-17s. He led a squadron of bombers to bomb Berlin.
Before he left service, Stewart was promoted to the rank of brigadier general.
Stewart played the hero, George Baily, in the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Next time you watch the movie, perhaps you will think a little more fondly of Stewart and perhaps his character image will stand out a bit more now that you know a little more about him. I hope so. Stewart was awarded the distinguished Flying Cross, as was Dad’s brother, Alvin. I hope to get to Alvin’s story at some point.
Just like Dad, Stewart thought there was no glory in war and wanted no recognition for his part in it. In contrast, he fought hard for his rights, pay, and fame in the movie industry. And, like Dad, it must have bothered him a great deal to think of all those he helped kill. Fame and glory should be left for movie stars, sports heroes, and such because there is no glory in war. Dad spent his teaching career trying to impress this thought on his students.
When Hollywood producers wanted to make the movie “Patton,” they asked several stars to play the leading role before George C. Scott accepted it. The others knew how Stewart felt and did not want to play the producers’ fictional version of Patton or to be part of the glorification of war.
I know it sounds strange for me to speak of Stewart and Dad as heroes and then tell you there is no glory in war. This probably comes across as a contradiction, and I understand that. Only after you get a true feel for this war will you know the difference. I am sure many of you never will.
Let me try to explain it this way: A hero is someone who does heroic deeds, who risks or even gives his life for the sake of others. Glory is when someone relishes in what he did or is relished by others. True heroes didn’t find glory in what they saw or did in this war. True heroes were saddened by it. We, then, should not relish in the so-called victories of this war. Instead, we should concentrate on how awful war is and the terrible cost to those who lived through it. New wars will continue to sprout up so long as writers keep repeating there is glory in war. Anyone who kills another man, even if justified, forever has that man’s blood on his hands and a stain on his soul. Let us never forget the object of war is to kill others, destroy cities, and to proclaim mastery over other lands and people. Dad once wrote, “If this is glory, I want no part of it.”
The bombing of Germany was absolutely horrendous. During the Battle of Britain, German planes had bombed London and southern England relentlessly. British planes did the same to Germany. They sent their squadrons at night in what is known as carpet-bombing. The vast majority of British bombs missed their intended targets by more than three miles. In contrast, American bombers flew by day and tried to take out specific military targets. German factories were soon nothing but rubble, and yet Germany continued to manufacture planes, tanks, and other military equipment as production was moved underground. In London and southern England, over a million children were evacuated to the safety of the English countryside. There were no such safe places in Germany as British bombs fell everywhere.
I will tell you a lot more about life in war-torn Germany when Dad gets there. Meanwhile, I have a lot more to write about the war in France and Dad’s critical role in dispelling Patton’s false reports. But first I want to give you the story I promised of Dad’s friend, Bill Mauldin, and his meeting with General Patton. Look for it in the next episode. I think you will find it very interesting. It is somewhat like the Biblical story of David versus Goliath.