Jimmy Stewart Faced His PTSD While Acting In ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’
“There are more things in heaven and earth than in all of your philosophies, Horatio.”
This line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet came back to me when I ran across a story written by Ned Forney recently. Though there is a unique connection to my own history in part of this story, the history I encountered in Forney’s article was completely new to me. His article gave me a deeper appreciation of the man and Hollywood actor Jimmy Stewart and the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” And for his son, Lt. Ronald McLean, USMC. More on that below.
Being a “baby-boomer,” I, of course, knew that Jimmy Stewart was a WWII veteran bomber pilot, but Forney’s article revealed much more about Stewart’s military history than I had ever known. Here is some of what I learned.
In 1941, at the age of 33, Stewart was awarded an Academy Award Oscar as best actor for his role in the movie, “The Philadelphia Story.” But WWII had begun and shortly after achieving this highest honor in his profession, Stewart enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was asked why he enlisted at the time, given the fact that he was already at the top of his craft in Hollywood.
“The country’s conscience is bigger than all the studios in Hollywood put together, and the time will come when we will have to fight,” he answered.
One of the things I had not known was that Stewart was already and accomplished civilian pilot. As a result, he was commissioned a 2nd Lt. in the U.S. Army Air Force in 1942. Because of who he was at the time, he was assigned to making recruiting films, attending bond rallies, and to training younger pilots.
This did not sit well with Stewart, according to Forney’s article. He was frustrated. He wanted to get into the war, to fly combat missions. It wasn’t until 1944 that he was finally able to convince his superiors to let him be deployed to Europe. Their permission, as Forney explains, was reluctantly given.
Stewart was deployed to England with the 703rd Bomber Squadron. He piloted B-24 Liberator bombers over Germany for the next 18 months. Even there the higher ups wanted to keep him out of harm’s way, but Stewart would not have it. He volunteered himself for every mission he could. By the end of the war he was recognized as one of the most respected and decorated pilots in his unit.
Like so many who have survived the realities of combat, Stewart was not untouched by the experience of Post Traumatic Stress. According to Forney’s article, in the final months of the war, Stewart was “grounded for being ‘flak happy,’” a term that implied PTSD in that era. On one of the missions he participated in his unit alone lost 13 planes and 130 men to enemy fighters and anti-aircraft fire.
When Stewart came home he was clearly suffering the effects of PTSD. He had the classic symptoms: he had lost weight and looked sickly, was depressed, rarely slept and when he did he suffered terrible nightmares of planes getting hit and men screaming and falling from the sky. He lacked focus and would not talk about his experiences in the war with anyone.
Forney tells of how when Stewart got the part of George Bailey in the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, whenever he did the parts where George Bailey was breaking down in the movie, the film crew recognized that Stewart wasn’t acting. “His PTSD was captured on film for potentially millions to see.”
Stewart would remain in the Air Force Reserves for another 20 years and would retire at age 60 as a brigadier general. But this was not the end of the story, and this is where Jimmy Stewart’s story came close to mine.
I did not know that when he married Gloria McLean he had adopted her two sons. One of those sons, Ronald, was a Marine Corps Lieutenant in Vietnam. And here is where the connection to my own history came into the story. In 1969, Lt. McLean served with Alpha Co. 3rd Recon Bn., 3rd Marine Division out of the Marine base at Quang Tri, Vietnam. I served with Bravo Co. 3rd Recon, 3rd Mar. Div in Vietnam until February of 1969, leaving Vietnam shortly before he arrived for his tour with 3rd Recon.
While Lt. McLean and his team were on a typical recon, 6-man patrol in the I Corps area, they came under heavy attack from NVA forces. McLean is credited with having killed 8 enemy soldiers during the firefight, but was killed in action while attempting to save one of his wounded team members. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for his actions that day.
Since we are in the Christmas season the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” is, once again, being shown regularly on TV. I am going to make a point of seeing it again this year, but I imagine that I will be seeing and feeling things this time that I have never seen and felt before.
The Veterans Site is proud to tell this story about a very talented and well known person in the national memory. But it is prouder still to remember Jimmy Stewart for more than his considerably successful Hollywood career. He was a patriot and a hero of the highest order and his son, Lt. Ronald McLean, proved to be no less a man than his step-father. We honor their memories and offer our deepest respect and thanks to both of these fine American heroes.