Back in 1946, James Stewart starred as the suicidal protagonist in It’s a Wonderful Life. The movie would go on to become a beloved classic – celebrated far and wide for its positive, heart-warming message. But in reality, Stewart was hiding his own troubled backstory. Five years previously, you see, the star had signed up to fight for the United States Army during World War II. The charming and loyal actor rose quickly through the ranks, too. Yet he returned home a changed man who would never speak of the horrors he had experienced. So what exactly did Stewart do during that most deadly of wars?
Well, in September 1940 the threat of war was growing ever closer – and the United States began drafting young men into her armed forces. And over in Hollywood, the popular actor Stewart was keen to do his part. Coming from a long line of military men – and with a passion for aviation – he was seemingly determined to take on one of the biggest roles of his life.
So, in March 1941, Stewart enlisted with the U.S. Army Air Corps. And although his fame made him a novelty at first, the star soon proved himself an asset both on and off the battlefield. But by the time the war was over, the actor-turned-bomber-pilot had witnessed so many tragedies that his life forever took a darker turn. Yet Stewart never allowed his loved ones to glimpse the emptiness within him.
Born in the Pennsylvania town of Indiana on May 20, 1908, Stewart was the eldest child of Elizabeth and Alexander, who ran a hardware store. Military service was part of his heritage, too. The century before, in fact, Stewart’s grandfather had battled the South in the American Civil War. Other family members had taken up arms during the Revolutionary War as well. However, Stewart’s first love – rather than the army – was music.
Yet the young Stewart also developed an affection for aviation, spending hours making model airplanes and practicing chemistry after school. But then, in prep school, he was bitten by the acting bug. And when Stewart ultimately graduated from Princeton in 1932, he chose to take to the stage rather than pursue an academic career.
And after spending a summer performing in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Stewart relocated with a group of fellow actors to New York City. There, the star acted in many plays as well as his first movie role. This consisted of a brief appearance in the 1934 comedy Art Trouble. The up-and-coming actor had received several rave reviews, too.
Eventually, in 1935, Stewart was offered a contract with the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio. And that same year he appeared in his first Hollywood role, starring alongside Spencer Tracy in The Murder Man. It wasn’t until Stewart’s 1936 turn in Next Time We Love that the critics really began to pay attention, though.
For the next two years, Stewart appeared in many movies – both with MGM and while on loan to other studios. Then, in 1938, he cinched his breakout role in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You. Apparently, the director had been looking for a leading man with something unique to offer – and Stewart’s boyish charm fitted the bill.
Capra’s movie ended up winning the Oscar for Best Picture – and it secured Stewart a place among the big guns of Hollywood. So it’s no surprise that he worked with the director again for the following year’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This time, though, the part would go down in history as one of the actor’s most popular and critically acclaimed roles.
And with an award from the New York Film Critics Circle and an Oscar nomination for Best Actor under his belt, Stewart’s career went from strength to strength. In 1940, for instance, he shone in The Philadelphia Story opposite Katherine Hepburn. This time, too, the Academy finally gave Stewart his just desserts.
Yes, on February 27, 1941, Stewart earned the Oscar for Best Actor in a star-studded ceremony in Los Angeles. But by that time, the critically acclaimed actor had developed a passion outside of performing. Months earlier, you see, the United States had called upon young men to enlist – and Stewart intended to fulfill his duty.
The actor had actually first attempted to enlist back in November 1940. The army turned him away, however, on account of his slim build. So, according to reports, Stewart turned to a diet of milkshakes, spaghetti and beefsteaks to pile on the pounds. And eventually the movie star persuaded the doctors to approve his application.
Up until this point, Stewart had been pursuing his passion for aviation in his spare time – even earning a license to operate as a commercial pilot. So when the opportunity came to join the army, he was a natural candidate for the Air Corps. However, the star began his military career as a private in a training camp, like countless other young men across America.
For the popular movie star, it was quite the change. His monthly earnings dropped from around $12,000 to just $21, for instance. Yet Stewart found himself unable to leave his Hollywood reputation behind. So even as the actor worked his way through training, hordes of adoring fans turned up to gawk at him.
But as Stewart’s superiors puzzled over how to deal with this unique distraction, the course of history changed. On December 7, 1940, Japanese forces mounted a surprise attack against the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The U.S. had entered World War II. And just one month later, Stewart was called up to join the fight.
At first, army officials attempted to cash in on Stewart’s fame and use the star to lend an air of glamor to their recruitment drives. But the actor did not want to rest on his laurels and began pestering his superiors to let him take to the skies. Before long, then, the army found Stewart a role as a flight instructor, training others to tackle the combat that he so desperately sought.
Eventually, however, Stewart got his wish. In March 1943, you see, the star was assigned to the 703rd Squadron of the 445th Bomb Group – a squad of B-24 bombers based in Sioux City, Idaho. And just three weeks later, Stewart was promoted to the role of commander. According to Robert Matzen, who wrote about the actor’s wartime adventures in a 2016 biography, it was the realization of a long-term goal.
“He wanted to prove he was responsible enough, that’s the key with him,” Matzen told the Mail Online in 2016. “He wanted to prove he was responsible enough to be an officer, that he could handle this, he could make his dad proud of him.” Stewart and his squadron found themselves deployed to the English region of East Anglia, where they were tasked with bombing German territories.
And, according to those who fought alongside him, Stewart’s charm was not limited to the silver screen. In fact, he soon developed a reputation as a respectable officer and a man who truly cared about his men. The story goes that, at one point, Stewart was offered a promotion – but refused to accept it unless his juniors were also extended the same honor.
The other stories of Stewart’s military career could have come from a script to one of his blockbuster movies. On one occasion, for instance, the star followed a lost squadron directly into the line of enemy fire, saving numerous lives. And on another, his crew survived a miraculous landing in a plane torn apart by anti-aircraft fire.
As the war progressed, however, Stewart struggled to cope with the trauma of combat. Close to his men, the officer was hit particularly hard when some of them did not make it home. In an interview with the Mail Online, Matzen explained, “He was a perfectionist, and he was so hard on himself… It just got to him, and it got to him pretty fast.”
On one particularly tragic occasion, Stewart’s squadron took part in a raid over the German city of Gotha. This time, though, the officer was not flying alongside his men – and 13 of his planes went down. Another time, Stewart was charged with dropping bombs on a rocket-making factory in northern France – but the operation went drastically wrong.
It seems that Stewart’s navigation equipment failed, causing his squadron to bomb the wrong location. This had disastrous consequences for the city of Tonnerre. And even though his men tried to shift the blame from their commanding officer, the actor was forever haunted by the civilians who died that day. Despite this trauma, however, Stewart was promoted to the position of colonel in April 1945.
In that role, the actor was forced to remain at base and wait for his men to return home – a challenge that allegedly turned his hair gray with stress. However, Stewart did not have to test his nerve for long. The next month, you see, the Axis powers surrendered, and World War II finally came to a close.
In September 1945 Stewart arrived back in America, where Hollywood attempted to welcome him with open arms. However, he turned down the offer of an extravagant party to mark his return. “Thousands of men in uniform did far more important things,” the star is reported to have said at the time.
Aged, weary and battle-worn, Stewart simply attempted to return to his normal life. But the horrors of war had forever changed the formerly boyish leading man. According to Matzen, even the actor’s parents were horrified by the sight of their son, who appeared to have aged decades during his time away.
And while some Hollywood producers might have sought to capitalize on Stewart’s war-hero status, the actor soon put a stop to any such notions. From that point onwards, in fact, his movie contracts included a certain clause: that there would be no mention of his combat career. It’s said that the actor kept quiet about his experiences on the battlefield for the rest of his life, too.
But at a time when the world was glorifying the heroes of World War II, why would a Hollywood actor choose to keep quiet? According to Matzen, it was because the actor was suffering from what we know today as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Little was known about this complex condition at the time, however.
In his book Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, Matzen recounts a conversation with a man who had flown in the actor’s squadron during the war. The veteran described his superior as having gone “flak happy”: a term for mental illness named after the fire from anti-aircraft guns.
Matzen also claimed the pilot had told him that Stewart had been sent to the “flak farm” – presumably to receive treatment for his condition. And while the details of this incident are not known, it is clear that the actor returned from the war a changed man. It’s said that even Stewart’s father sometimes felt uneasy in the presence of his haunted son.
For a man who had built his career on wholesome good looks and charm, it was a disastrous development. Still only in his late 30s, Stewart had taken on the appearance of a much older man – an unlikely choice for any director’s leading star. Hollywood itself had changed, too, making it even more difficult for the actor to find work.
Adrift in Hollywood, Stewart even considered returning to his family home in Pennsylvania. However, he was then offered a life-changing opportunity by Capra, who invited him to take the lead role in It’s a Wonderful Life. In troubled protagonist George Bailey, the actor found an outlet for his trauma – and a role that would come to define him.
Compared to Stewart’s previous roles, Bailey, who considers killing himself on Christmas Eve, represented a far darker turn. In one scene in particular, the character experiences a mental breakdown as his family looks on. And according to Matzen, it was the actor’s wartime experiences that allowed him to channel those emotions of sadness and rage.
“I don’t think he had that capacity before the war,” Matzen told the Mail Online. “It enabled him to be ferocious and to have that raw emotion.” But whatever Stewart was going through in front of the camera translated into a stellar performance. And even today It’s a Wonderful Life is still considered among the best movies ever made.
“Jim came back from hell on Earth and groped around for a movie to make, and the only offer he had was for what would become the most beloved picture in all American culture,” Matzen explained. And with that, Stewart secured his place in Hollywood once more. Yet some believe that his past traumas continued to affect his choice of roles for years to come.
“You see it time and time again,” Matzen explained. “I think he would look for scripts where he could demonstrate that rage. I think that was the side of him that was in there all the time and that’s how he would let it out.” So, from his appearance as a troubled cowboy in Winchester ’73 to his turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, darker roles characterized Stewart’s later career.
But although this new, damaged Stewart was welcomed back into Hollywood, he did not completely turn his back on his military career. He remained a member of the Air Force until May 1968, in fact. And two years before his retirement, Stewart went into service as a pilot in the Vietnam War.
Unfortunately, though, tragedy was never far away for Stewart. And although the star survived his second war, his adopted son was killed in combat. Yet this did not color the actor’s perception of the military, and he remained a staunch supporter of the Vietnam War. And when he eventually retired, the former pilot received a Distinguished Service Medal in recognition of his services.
Stewart’s Hollywood career continued, too. The years after World War II marked some of his most critically acclaimed performances, in fact. And today he is perhaps better remembered for his roles in movies such as Rear Window and Harvey than he is for his earlier parts.
By the time Stewart died in July 1997, he had some 80 movie appearances under his belt. According to Matzen, though, the star remained haunted by what he had seen and experienced during World War II. Yet while he would never escape his trauma, however, Stewart did manage to channel it into becoming one of the greatest American actors of all time.
John Wayne was once seen as the quintessential all-American male, too. And while the star may not be held in as much esteem today as he was at the height of his career, he’s still undoubtedly a cultural icon. But even back in Wayne’s heyday, one question loomed large: why didn’t the actor serve in World War II? Well, the answer to that may come as a surprise.
Wayne’s lack of military service could have had a real effect on his career, too. In the ’40s, you see, men who were considered “draft dodgers” could well expect their peers to look down on them. And throughout his career, Wayne was actually surrounded by people who had enlisted and done their part for the war effort – Clark Gable, Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart among them.
But was Wayne really a draft dodger? Perhaps, by contrast, he did want to serve but was unable to? Or maybe he enjoyed the Hollywood lifestyle so much that leaving it for the military was virtually unthinkable? As with many things surrounding Wayne, the real reason for him not serving is somewhat controversial.
Furthermore, it could be argued that Wayne’s public persona was itself carefully constructed. As fans know, for one, the actor didn’t grow up with the moniker under which he became famous; instead, he was originally known as Marion Mitchell Morrison. The nickname “Duke” was given to him, too, after a childhood dog.
And young Marion was named after his grandfather, who, interestingly, was a veteran of the American Civil War. This first Marion Mitchell Morrison signed up for the Union Army when he was still a teenager. He later sustained several injuries in combat, apparently only surviving the 1863 Battle of Pine Bluff by playing dead.
The older Morrison apparently had a bullet embedded in his head for the rest of his life, which occasionally caused him headaches. And after he left the army, he married, settled down on a farm and ultimately had four kids. By the end of Morrison’s life, however, he was in such ill health that he was placed in a sanatorium, where the grandchild who bore his name would sometimes visit him.
Did the young Marion Morrison think about the horrors of war whenever he saw his grandfather? We may never really know. Yet the star didn’t only take his original name from a veteran, but part of his screen name, too. Specifically, the last part of that famous moniker was in honor of Revolutionary War general Anthony Wayne.
Wayne didn’t actually pick his own screen name; that came courtesy of The Big Trail director Raoul Walsh and Fox Studios head Winfield Sheehan. And prior to that, the actor was credited under the name Duke Morrison. Gradually, though, he settled into the persona of the man whom the world now knows as John Wayne.
And after performing in a lot of B movies, Wayne properly broke through with the John Ford film Stagecoach. Ford had insisted on casting Wayne, reportedly believing that he had what it took to become a major star. The director was right, too; Stagecoach was a massive hit and turned Wayne into an A-lister.
But no matter how famous Wayne became, there were those who were of the opinion that he had shirked his responsibilities during the war. Ford apparently wasn’t impressed, for one. Reportedly, the filmmaker criticized Wayne for pursuing his career as a film star while the war raged on.
There’s even a story that Ford was once sufficiently angry to humiliate Wayne in the presence of a movie crew. In the 1945 film They Were Expendable, Wayne plays a soldier – a role he hadn’t experienced in real life. And during filming, Ford allegedly said to his lead actor, “Duke, can’t you manage a salute that at least looks like you’ve been in the service?” In response to this slight, Wayne supposedly left the set in rage.
Yet given the realities of World War II, one may sympathize with Wayne’s seeming reluctance to fight. It was, after all, a hard and dangerous situation for a person to put themselves in, and many men who might’ve found themselves in Wayne’s privileged position may not have wanted to leave it for a battlefield.
Nevertheless, Wayne would go on to make comments that could be construed as hypocritical. At the height of the Vietnam War, for instance, he reportedly called the men who didn’t enlist “soft.” And while by then the actor was too old to fight in Vietnam himself, he seemingly pushed others towards serving via the medium of film.
In 1968, for instance, Wayne created and starred in a movie called The Green Berets. And it’s since been argued that the work is no more than propaganda – an accusation lent some credence, perhaps, by the fact that the Pentagon had authority over the script. Wayne also received approval from President Lyndon B. Johnson to make the film.
And as you may have guessed, the movie is devotedly in favor of American involvement in the Vietnam War. “What’s going on here is communist domination of the world!” a character even announces at one point. It’s up to Colonel Mike Kirby, as portrayed by Wayne, to convince everyone that the war is important and necessary, then. By the end, even a left-wing journalist is swayed.
But The Green Berets was, to put it mildly, not well-received by critics. The New York Times’ Renata Adler wrote, for instance, that the film “becomes an invitation to grieve – not for our soldiers or for Vietnam (the film could not be more false or do a greater disservice to either of them) but for what has happened to the fantasy-making apparatus in this country.”
Nor was The Green Berets Wayne’s only propaganda piece during the Vietnam War, as in 1970 he also hosted a documentary called No Substitute for Victory. And Wayne’s narration in the movie criticizes those standing against the conflict. Quoting Abraham Lincoln, the actor opens the film by saying, “To sin by silence when you should speak out makes cowards of men.”
Indeed, Wayne makes it very clear throughout the documentary where his sympathies lie. “The street demonstrators demand that we get out of Southeast Asia so that there will be peace. Where do they get the idea that there’ll be peace just because we quit?” he said. He also seemed to blame America’s losses on “the politicians and civilians that we’ve let stick their nose in it.”
Yet some have suggested that Wayne was gung-ho about Vietnam in order to compensate for the shame he felt over not serving in World War II. And his third spouse, Pilar Pallete, seemed to support this theory. She reportedly once wrote of Wayne, “He would become a ‘superpatriot’ for the rest of his life, trying to atone for staying home.”
But many different stories still circulate as to why exactly Wayne didn’t show up for World War II. And the tale seems to be a fairly complex one. At the time of Pearl Harbor and the U.S. joining the war, Wayne was excused from the obligation of serving in the military. He was 34 years old during the period and had four children.
Owing to Wayne’s situation, then, his status at the beginning of the war was 3-A, which meant family deferment. Yet there is a possibility Wayne wanted to enlist at that time. Indeed, in 1942 the actor wrote to Ford, saying, “Have you any suggestions on how I should get in? Can you get me assigned to your outfit, and if you could, would you want me?”
Yet if Ford ever answered the letter, there’s no evidence of it. It’s true, though, that Wayne applied to serve in the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) and was subsequently accepted into the Field Photographic Unit. The letter of approval went, however, to the home of his estranged spouse Josephine Saenz – and she kept it from him.
And in 2016 the website Den of Geek suggested the motive that Saenz may have had for keeping the O.S.S. acceptance from Wayne. “[Saenz] certainly would have had good reason to withhold the letter,” the article theorized. “If [Wayne] died in the war, she alone would be left to provide for their four children.”
It should also be noted, though, that the studio Wayne was signed to throughout the war was also determined to keep its star out of battle. And so when Wayne was eventually reclassified as eligible for combat, Republic Pictures intervened. In particular, studio president Herbert J. Yates told Wayne that he would be served a lawsuit if he joined up as it would be a breach of his contract.
So, Republic Pictures did apparently take significant steps to stop Wayne joining the army. Indeed, the company reportedly requested that its star actor should actually be excluded from combat “in support of national interest.” Still, this hasn’t stopped Wayne’s critics from suggesting that the performer himself may have had a hand in this decision.
And while there’s apparently no evidence that Wayne actually did anything to prevent himself being sent to war, it does seem like he didn’t try particularly hard to join up, either. For a start, a Hollywood studio had never actually followed through on threats of a lawsuit when one of their clients had left to be part of the war effort – meaning Wayne may not have really had much to fear there.
It’s possible, too, that Wayne wouldn’t have been able to serve in the military no matter what, as old football injuries may have prevented him being able to fight. However, the usual charge leveled against the actor is that he didn’t actually try particularly hard. Indeed, it’s argued Wayne could have simply gone to a recruiting station and signed up – but he didn’t.
Furthermore, there have been implications that Wayne may have felt serving as a private was beneath him. Allegedly, he once told Ford’s grandson Dan, “I felt it would be a waste of time to spend two years picking up cigarette butts. I thought I could do more for the war effort by staying in Hollywood.”
Then, in 1997 – nearly two decades after Wayne’s death – the BBC made a documentary about the star called The Unquiet American. Somewhat shockingly, the film suggested that one of the reasons Wayne had given for avoiding the war was because he didn’t have a typewriter with which to complete the appropriate forms.
And The Unquiet American’s producer James Kent spoke to The Independent at the time about Wayne’s avoidance of the war. “It was a purely careerist move. [Wayne] manipulated it so he didn’t have to sign up and could fill the vacuum left by the other Hollywood stars who did,” Kent claimed. “Later he found himself a flag-waver and arch Commie-baiter with no military record.”
In fact, Wayne’s legacy as an American icon has been significantly tarnished over the years – and not just because of his lack of military credentials. In particular, a 1971 interview he did for Playboy has become infamous since his death. In the piece, Wayne is quoted as having said, “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.”
Wayne’s racism didn’t end there, either. “We can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks,” he added. And on slavery, he said, “I’m not condoning slavery. It’s just a fact of life, like the kid who gets infantile paralysis and has to wear braces so he can’t play football with the rest of us.”
And while Wayne claimed that he had always tried to have racial equality in his films, his justifications were remarkably insensitive by contemporary standards. “I’ve directed two pictures, and I gave the blacks their proper position,” he said. “I had a black slave in The Alamo, and I had a correct number of blacks in The Green Berets. If it’s supposed to be a black character, naturally I use a black actor.”
Wayne also seemed to hold Native Americans in disdain. “I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them,” he said in the interview. “Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”
On top of all this, there’s also Wayne’s apparent homophobia to take into account. In the Playboy interview, he mentioned “perverted” films that he implied should not have been permitted to circulate throughout the United States. “Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy – that kind of thing,” he offered up as examples of such movies.
And, finally, Wayne shared his thoughts on the Vietnam War. The Playboy interviewer told the actor that many of the men fighting there had “never wanted to go to Vietnam in the first place.” Wayne answered, “Well, I sure don’t know why we send them over to fight and then stop the bombing so they can get shot that much more.”
Wayne announced, “I figure if we’re going to send even one man to die, we ought to be in an all-out conflict. If you fight, you fight to win.” Yet while the interviewer seemed unimpressed with Wayne’s opinions, he didn’t actually point out that Wayne himself had never been involved in the sort of war he was promoting.
The Playboy interview came to more widespread attention in 2019, when it spread across Twitter. Wayne was naturally slated for his views, while some people labeled him as a “draft dodger” – among other epithets – in order to slate him further.
Writer Glenn Greenwald was one of the most vocal critics, labeling Wayne as “one of the 20th century’s most deceitful and pitiful men.” In his excoriating verdict on the actor, Greenwald added that Wayne had been “[a] war cheerleader and moralizer who casually impugned patriotism and called people perverts while draft-dodging and having serial drunken affairs.”
In the Playboy interview, however, Wayne himself was asked what legacy he wanted to leave. To this, the star replied, “I hope my family and my friends will be able to say that I was an honest, kind and fairly decent man.” And while some relatives have indeed since spoken out in support of the actor, Wayne’s status as an American icon is undoubtedly in question these days.