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AIR FORCE PILOT, HERO AND MOVIE STAR – JIMMY STEWART AND THE NEED TO FLY

(Excerpt from the book)
Not long after his 1908 birth in Indiana, Pennsylvania, already nearing the end of its coal-mining prosperity, Jim Stewart knew that he had to fly. Something about the open environment in the sky suited his nature. Inherently reticent and modest as boy and man, a distinct speech pattern of part stutter and part slight pause showed both strength and vulnerability, an unexpected advantage during his years of success in movies.

Soon after the century’s first great war ended in 1918, barnstormers and flying circuses offered rides at a flat farm field in town to anyone with $10 for ten minutes or $15 for fifteen minutes. The pilots flew in the war for the Aviation Section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, and now demonstrated to an eager public a new way of warfare, and, soon, mass transportation. The shows had wing-walkers, stunt parachutists, mid-air wing to wing plane transfers, performers, and the daring pilots themselves who did barrel rolls, breath-taking spins and dives, even top-speed hurtles through open barns, although not always with a safe landing. The Curtiss JN-3 “Jenny” bi-planes they trained-on during the war cost the government $8,100 each, but were eagerly bought by the same pilots, now civilians, for as low as $1,000 each.

Taking time off from flying model airplanes on the roof of the family home, and building crystal radios with cereal boxes and wires, the reliable Jenny became not only the first aircraft that Jim saw, but the first he flew in as a pre-teen rear seat passenger. He saved for the first of four rides from wages earned at J. M. Stewart & Co, the hardware store owned by his father, Alexander. Alex served in both the Spanish-American and the Great War repairing ordnance equipment. Service to country ran in Alex’s family. His father, uncle, and father-in-law all fought in close combat for the Union in the Civil War.

In his bedroom Jim mapped every rapturous report describing Charles Lindbergh’s historic 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic, never imagining that thirty years later he would be type-cast as the shy and reserved “Slim” Lindbergh in the Spirit of St. Louis. Years later he described the freedom that he found in the air: “It was the ultimate feeling of being in control…and being alone. I’ve always been a loner…I enjoy being on my own.”

DISTANT SOUNDS OF WAR
After graduating from Princeton in 1932, Jim did summer stock with a Cape Cod theatrical company and became close friends with Henry Fonda, another aspiring actor. Along with Fonda and Joshua Logan – to become a celebrated stage and film director – and with periodic residency by actor Burgess Meredith, he rented a small apartment on Manhattan’s then scruffy West 63rd Street. By January 30, 1933, the day Hitler became Chancellor, Jim made his professional debut on Broadway in “Goodbye Again,” appearing 216 times as a chauffeur, to speak only two forgettable lines. By taking other secondary parts on Broadway he built a solid resume, leading to a 1935 screen test with MGM in New York. Metro signed Jim to a three-month contract at a very respectable $350 per week and he headed for Hollywood, to become established in 1937 in a series of secondary parts in B films.

Also by the end of 1937, a continent and two oceans away from Hollywood, Hitler had fully committed Germany to prepare for all-out war. That year Buchenwald opened, the first concentration camp in Germany. It later became an extermination site for anyone who disagreed with the goals of the Nazi revolution. The captive dissidents included actors, doctors, political prisoners, homosexuals, and, especially, Jews in any profession or occupation. By the end of 1938 Jim had appeared in 18 films, including the breakthrough Frank Capra directed, You Can’t Take It With You, which won 2 Oscars with 5 nominations.

In 1939, now an A list screen star, Jim made another Frank Capra film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, earning him the New York Film Critics award for Best Actor, with 11 Oscar nominations for the film. Britain’s second month of its six-year war of survival with Nazi Germany had scant notice at the movie’s October 7, 1939 premiere at Constitution Hall in Washington D.C.


(The book’s narrative then describes Jim’s continuing success as a movie star, his flying lessons and certification as a commercial pilot, induction into the U.S. Army on March 21, 1941, re-assignment to the Army Air Force, two years training on B-17s and B-24s, passage to England on the Queen Mary, posting to newly opened Tibenham Army Air Force base near Norwich, England (L), leading to his first combat mission as command pilot on December 13, 1943.)

MANY MISSIONS, LITTLE REST, MAJOR LOSSES

On November 24, 1943, the day the 445th and its four squadrons arrived in Tibenham, the runways Jim and the crew saw from above resembled a triangular ‘A’ frame, as did most of the scores of Eighth Air Force bases under feverish construction. With three converging concrete runways positioned for the prevailing winds, the main runway, or the bottom of the ‘A’, extended 6,000 feet, with two intersecting 4,200 ft. auxiliary runways. A 50ft. wide concrete perimeter track with 36 open “frying pan”, or at other bases, looping “spectacle” hardstands for two bombers, were dispersed along the perimeter to minimize damage from German attacks.

The 445th settled into their new surroundings for more classroom instruction in tactics and practice missions over East Anglia. They learned how to recognize the difference and locations of the navigational Buncher beacons at each base, and the numbered Splasher beacons along the coast. In a pinch, visual landmarks near Tibenham included an adjacent rail line and the bell tower of the 13th Century All Saints Church near the end of the main runway

Off duty, it didn’t take long to learn the easiest route on foot or bicycle, of which there were hundreds on base, to the Greyhound Pub and its two bars and log fireplaces. Since its opening in 1713, the solid brick building, always with an abundance of empty kegs near the entrance, had seen many young men off to war.

On December 13, 1943, three weeks after landing at Tibenham, Jim’s 703rd and other squadrons in the 445th BG squeezed on to narrow benches in the Ops shack for a pre-dawn briefing. After overnight servicing and arming by ground crews, trucks stood-by to bring crews to their aircraft. One of four simultaneous “maximum effort” missions this day, it would be the first major attack of the European air war and the first time that over 600 bombers would simultaneously hit multiple targets. As another milestone, it would also be the first mission shared by both B-17s and B-24s. For Captain Jimmy Stewart and the 445th, it would also mark the first time they flew in combat, and it wouldn’t be a “milk run.”

When the curtains opened in the blacked-out ops room, the lines extending from Tibenham on the big map showed that both the P-47 and P-51 fighters, the much appreciated “little friends,” would escort the bombers but only as far as the P-47s two internal fuel tanks and the P-51’s 255 gallon capacity would allow. The Mustang had longer range, more agility in climb and maneuver and had a streamlined look the Thunderbolt’s lacked, but the pilots who flew the heavy “Jugs” preferred their durability in a dogfight.

With 30 seconds between takeoff’s and about an hour to form-up, the group flew a twisting S to reach altitude, and then a racetrack pattern to await the others. Then they saw their assigned “Zebra,” a garishly decorated B-24, one of several stripped-down bombers serving as assembly points for different groups. After “joining-up” and now a combat wing, they flew as one formation for about 15 miles to the North Sea and across the tip of occupied Holland to cross the northern top of Germany. Some of the groups would hit the port of Bremen, while others, including Stewart’s 445th, would bomb the Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW) shipyard, and U-boat works and their pen shelters in Kiel. The U-Boat factories, bases, and aircraft assembly plants were the most heavily defended in the Reich and everyone knew it. Early in the war Hitler had correctly concluded that only by severing the convoy lifeline connecting Britain and North America, would he have any chance of winning the war. U-boats were essential to that goal.

With ten 500-pound general-purpose bombs racked on each Liberator for the long-range missions, the crews could only guess why the U-boat bases remained undamaged mission after mission, although from 25,000 feet they could see for themselves the lack of results even from direct hits. They couldn’t know that a kinetic weight of only 500 pounds exploding against the multi-layered reinforced concrete roofs of the U-boat armored shelters, had an effect akin to fragments being chipped from a pottery container. (Author photos present-day former Lorient, France U-boat base)

(The chapter narrative continues with a description of Jim Stewart’s missions, the horrifying losses of up to 88% returning from a mission, and Jim’s post-war resumption of his “wonderful life.” Rising 11 ranks from Private to Brigadier General after the war, James Maitland, “Jimmy” Stewart, movie star and war hero played his greatest role in the defense of his country.)

Return for additional periodic insertions of chapters from THE HIDDEN PLACES OF WORLD WAR II, to be published by Lyons Press, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group in March 2019, in recognition of the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in 2020.

LAUNCHING THE INVASION – SOUTHWICK HOUSE AND D-DAY – FIRST LOOK AT THE BOOK

General Eisenhower and his chiefs in and outside Southwick House and the same 1944 plywood wall map today

In spring 2019, as a preliminary to observing the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2020, a major work by the author will be released by Lyons Press/Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Each of 22-chapters will examine overlooked aspects of the war. The 87,000-word book, with scores of rarely seen photos, results from decades of investigation and includes author photos comparing the appearance of the same locales from then to now. Additional excerpts will be periodically added.

Coming soon to these pages in 2018 will be dramatic then and now photos and a chapter excerpt from THE USAAF IN EUROPE, and a return three quarters of a century later to the remains of the same bases from where the “Mighty Eighth,” the Eighth Air Force launched thousands of attacks on Nazi Germany. Hint: much more remains than previously thought.

(THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 11 – LAUNCHING THE INVASION – SOUTHWICK HOUSE AND D-DAY)

“HISTORY DOES NOT LONG ENTRUST THE CARE OF FREEDOM TO THE WEAK OR THE TIMID” (Dwight D. Eisenhower)
0500 SUNDAY 4 JUNE 1944 DELAY AND DISAPPOINTMENT
Shortly after a 415am weather briefing on June 4, General Eisenhower stepped-out for another smoke under the portico with the eight Doric columns of the immense 1841 three-story mansion near Portsmouth on England’s southeast coast. Into the first of up to four daily packs of Camels and fifteen cups of coffee, before dawn he and his subordinate commanders had already completed the first of two daily weather briefings with British meteorologist, Group Captain J. M. Stagg. Within the elegant interior, Stagg and his staff had just recommended a delay to the start of Operation Overlord, the liberation of the European continent from Nazi oppression. Ike had immediate major decisions to make.

Throughout the mansion’s spacious gardens were scattered numerous half-cylindered corrugated steel structures named after their inventor, Peter Nissen. Tents of various sizes and temporary housing extended from the surrounding woods almost to the mansion’s entry. For a brief time the ancestral home of the Thistlewaite family, Operation Overlord’s pre-assault naval communication center, would be the most important place on earth.

From where the stately home resided in the low hills above Portsmouth Harbor, Ike could almost see the water and part of the vast armada containing every type of naval vessel afloat. In addition to Portsmouth, eleven other British ports were equally laden with so many ships that it was almost possible to walk with dry feet from one vessel to the other, so closely were they moored. The supreme commander of history’s mightiest invasion force knew that every man from general and admiral to mechanic and rifleman, all 156,000 of them and millions more behind, awaited his command to instantly move from camps to landing vessels, or from the ships to the beaches. But it wouldn’t come that day and it wouldn’t come the next.

The first met report that June 4 – the second weather update would be at 645pm – painted a discouraging picture of high winds, low clouds, and reduced visibility predicted for June 5, the date of the invasion. Any one of the expected weather disturbances would hinder accurate naval gunfire and make certain the swamping of LCVP landing craft – the Higgins Boats – at the moment of dropping their bow ramps on the beach, if they even made it that far. Without fair visibility, erroneously dropping 300 paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Pathfinder teams, could fatally divert the 23,000 jumpers in the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to follow. Any expectation of air cover over the beaches on June 5, Ike had been bluntly told, would be “impossible.” The ceiling would be under 1,000 feet. Yet, on June 4 major elements of the naval forces were already at sea, and, as Churchill would later write, “the movement was as impossible to stop as an avalanche.”

…As Eisenhower asked around the room for opinions, General Bernard Montgomery told Ike of his keenness to go, but none of the others were as hopeful. Each had a reasoned objection to explain why his part of the invasion force faced operational hurdles if not defeat. On that June 4, 1944 pre-dawn, weather made the decision: the invasion planned for June 5 stood-down as a no go. While a disappointment, it was not yet a setback. At least two, perhaps three days remained within the window of ideal low tide and bright lunar conditions needed to launch the invasion. But if the elements continued sour, the next time the moon and tides aligned wouldn’t come until June 19.

Waiting another two weeks came with the potential of defeat at the water’s edge. Keeping men already at sea or fenced-in at temporary camps another fortnight risked discovery and a loss of the vital edge needed for soldiers approaching sudden combat. Fresh troops rotating into the camps expected to be vacated by the invading soldiers would have nowhere to go. Miles of pre-positioned equipment on roads and at supply depots throughout England would need to be re-situated, presenting a logistical muddle on the narrow roads.

Some of the 6,939 vessels of all types, including 59 convoys stretching over 100 miles, would need re-fueling or re-positioning. By then, German spies or overhead recommaissance might have concluded from the evidence of masses of troops at scores or camps, and lurking ships in all the harbors, that the invasion wouldn’t happen at the Pas de Calais as expected. Maybe, the German high command could have concluded, maybe the invasion would begin at an obscure location not as well fortified. Maybe it would begin in Normandy.

(NEXT – Buffeted by coils of lashing wind and rain – Ike returns to Southwick House in the pre-dawn hours of June 5 to make the decision of the century.)

“THE HIDDEN PLACES OF WORLD WAR II” COMING IN SPRING 2019. PRE-ORDER ON AMAZON


WHERE IKE MADE THE DECISION OF THE CENTURY

Less than a mile from one of the D-Day embarkation ports in Portsmouth, England, unchanged Southwick House is where General Eisenhower made the decision of the century – the go-ahead to invade the European continent. It is one of 22 chapters in a new book to reveal – often for the first time – the little-known or even fully ignored but essential people, places, and great events of civilization’s greatest war. A release date of spring 2019 is expected by Lyons Press/Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Group. To include scores of photos, many never before seen, the book will bring readers into the existing places essential to the conduct of the war and its outcome. It will connect the past with the present by bringing readers to the same places that time forgot. Reserve your copy on Amazon.com now for release on March 1, 2019.

Return for periodic insights, including portions of chapters including rare vintage and current photos by the author taken at the same locales where the history of our time was made. Regular previews here will include the considerable remains of the Eighth Air Force bases in England, from where thousands of attacks against occupied France and Nazi Germany were conducted. (The Eighth AAF had ten times the losses incurred by the U.S infantry.) The rarely-visited and virtually unknown remains of scores of bases are scattered throughout the East Anglia regions of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. Each chapter includes deeply researched historical insights and vivid then and now photos of the locales that changed the history of our time.