Saturday, November 27, 2021

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe

Jimmy Stewart
1908 - 1997

Robert Matzen's Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe was published in 2016 (  Jimmy Stewart was a remarkable American actor and a remarkable man as well.  Stewart's family had a strong military tradition.  His grandfather, the original James Stewart, served in the Union army in the US Civil War with Phil Sheridan.  His father, Alex, had served as a doughboy in the American Expeditionary forces in WWI.

Jimmy Stewart seemed to be on an altogether different life path.  He attended Princeton University where he participated in theatrical programs.  He became a close friend of Henry Fonda.  This Pennsylvania native moved west to Hollywood to pursue a career in film acting.  Stewart shot to the top of his profession.  In 1941 he won an academy award for best actor for his role in The Philadelphia Story.

But the drumbeat of war did not escape the attention of Stewart who had trained as a pilot in preparation for war.  In March of 1941, months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Stewart received an ORDER TO REPORT FOR INDUCTION as a US Army reservist.  Though he was 33 years old in 1941 and considerably older that his peers in U.S. Army Air Corps but Stewart was determined to become an active duty pilot.  He even defied the wishes of his studio boss Louis B. Mayer who had hoped to keep Stewart safe and stateside making propaganda pictures during the war.  

B-24 Liberator Stained Glass
National Museum of the Mighty 8th Air Force
Pooler, GA

Stewart was training at Moffett Field in California when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  He later trained at Gowen Field in Idaho and Kirkland Field in New Mexico.

After his training, Stewart was posted to Tibenham in East Anglia in the UK.  Stewart piloted a B-24 Liberator bomber in the 445th Bomb Group of the "Mighty" 8th Army Air Force.  The B-24 was a notoriously difficult plane to fly.  Stewart mastered the tricky plane and flew in twenty combat missions over Nazi occupied Europe.  He served as a chief of staff for missions that bombed targets in occupied France prior to the Normandy invasion in June 1944.  Nor did he seek publicity for his wartime service while in the military.

Flying daylight bombing missions was incredibly hazardous.  The Germans sent up a cloud to flak from their AA guns positioned all over occupied Europe.  Luftwaffe pilots were usually experienced and well equipped.  The Fock Wolf 190 was a fast and capable interceptor.  The final stages of the war saw the introduction of German jet fighters such as ME-262 that could reach speeds of 515 mph.  Stewart's final mission involved bombing a jet fighter factory near Achmer.  

In addition to enemy action, simply flying the Liberator in formation could be extremely hazardous.  Accidents cost many lives in the course of the war.  The Sunflower Sue, for example, was lost with its crew of ten and four passengers while flying over the Caribbean en route from Puerto Rico to British Guyana.

Colonel Stewart
445th Bomber Wing

 Jimmy Stewart earned the silver eagles of a full colonel.  In that capacity he wrote many condolence letters to the families of downed airmen.

After the war was over and Stewart was discharged he refused to talk to the press about his wartime experiences.  He never sought to profit from his war service in any way.  He continued to serve in the reserve.  During the Vietnam War he rose to the rank of Brigadier General in the US Air Force.  He flew on a B-52 mission over Vietnam as an observer.

In 1946 Stewart starred as George Bailey in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life.  Ironically, Bailey, despite his severe wanderlust, stayed home and built up the Building and Loan while his brother went off to war.  The film received scant attention at the time but went on to become a Christmas classic.  Stewart had been a witness to the full horrors of war and these experiences unquestionably deepened and informed his acting. Matzen's book barely mentions the incredible work that Stewart did with Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo and Rear Window. But these dark haunting performances would have been unthinkable without Stewart's searing experience in WW2.

Matzen's book is not a balanced biography of Jimmy Stewart.  Clearly it focuses on Stewart's years of service in WW2.  It barely touches on his post war acting career or his marriage to Gloria Hatrick McLean.   Jimmy was a stepfather to Gloria's two sons.  The couple also had two daughters.  His stepson, Ronald McLean, was killed in 1969 Vietnam while serving as a Marine officer.  President Reagan promoted Stewart to the rank of Major General.

Matzen unaccountably neglects to mention that Walter Matthau (1920 - 2000) also served in the 453rd Bomber Group as a radioman-gunner.  But these are minor quibbles as Matzen's Mission is a Wonderful story about a truly Wonderful Life. 

National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force
Pooler, Georgia

Tourist Notes: Commander K. highly recommends a visit to the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Pooler, Georgia...

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Sunday, November 7, 2021

The General vs. The President


H.W. Brand's 2017 The General vs the President is a timely re-examination of the Truman / MacArthur confrontation that roiled the world at the outset of the Cold War (

MacArthur was no ordinary General.  He and his father were the only father / son team awarded a Medal of Honor in US history.  MacArthur was no intellectual lightweight -- he "ranked first in his class three out of his four years" at West Point.  He earned many medals for conspicuous bravery while fighting on the Western Front in World War I.  He accompanied French troops on trench raids to capture German troops behind enemy lines.  MacArthur was smart and he was brave.

That does not mean that he did no make his share of mistakes over a long and distinguished military career.  In the Philippines he allowed American planes to be destroyed on the ground immediately following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  This inexcusably and unnecessarily crippled the Philippine air defense.   He miscalculated the determination of the Japanese to hold on to Manila (see my review of Rampage... Korean War MacArthur badly underestimated the will and strength of the Communist Chinese.

Douglas MacArthur
1880 - 1964

But these failings should not prevent us from appreciating MacArthur's unique place in the panoply of American military figures.  MacArthur vowed that, "I shall return" to the Philippines; and return he did.  Winston Churchill declared, "Of all the amazing deeds of bravery of the war, I regard MacArthur's personal landing at Atsugo as the greatest of the lot."  MacArthur found the perfect tone when, on the deck of the USS Missouri, accepting the Japanese surrender he said, "It is my earnest hope, and indeed the hope of all mankind, that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past -- a world founded upon faith and understanding, a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish; for freedom, tolerance and justice."  MacArthur proved to be a remarkably successful Pro-consul for occupied Japan -- where he introduced women to the ballot box.

Brand notes that "the North Korean attack on South Korea took Douglas MacArthur quite by surprise."  But MacArthur seemed quickly to rise to the Communist challenge.  When South Korean and American forces were surrounded inside a narrow perimeter near the port of Pusan MacArthur plotted the United Nations' daring counterstroke at Inchon.  The amphibious invasion at Inchon turned the Communist flank, quickly liberated Seoul and was, perhaps, the most brilliant American use of military power of the post war era.  By December 1951 the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, was in the hands of UN forces.  Bob Hope held a celebration for the US GI's there.

But it was MacArthur's success led to his fatal hubris.  He dismissed reports of Chinese Communist forces massing north of the Yalu River.  Human wave assaults and massive numbers hit UN forces and drove them backwards towards the 38th parallel.

Harry S Truman
1884 - 1972

Appearances to the contrary, Harry Truman was no ordinary president.  He had served with honor in the artillery during World War I.  Brand neglects to mention that MacArthur, as head of the Rainbow division was, in fact, Truman's immediate boss during World War I.  Truman was largely an autodidact.  He read widely and he developed a reputation for incorruptibly despite his association with the Pendergast machine of Kansas City.  An ailing FDR chose him to be his Vice President in 1944. 

Though Vice President Truman had been told nothing about the atomic bomb prior to the death of FDR in 1945, he made the difficult but correct decision to use this tool to end Japanese resistance at the close of World War II.  He dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that killed over a hundred thousand people including most of whom were civilians.  Truman boasted that he "never lost any sleep" over these decisions. (I would submit that had Truman not unleashed the horror of atomic warfare in 1945, there is a high degree of probability that the US or SOME OTHER NATION would have utilized a future iteration of atomic power causing far more more deaths including perhaps the start of World War III.)

Rainbow Division WW1
MacArthur was Truman's boss first!

Truman and MacArthur collided when MacArthur veered out of his lane on account of his soaring political ambitions.  MacArthur saw himself, not merely as a hugely successful American field commander but also as a near Messianic savior against godless Communism.  MacArthur was very good in his perceptions of the working of the Oriental mind.  But he was very weak in his appreciation for the dynamics of domestic American politics.  Fatally, MacArthur disregarded the chain of command.  He made obtuse comments to the press and sympathetic veterans' groups.  At the end of the day, Truman was Commander in chief.  He had a constitutional duty to be the final arbiter of American foreign and military policy.

The Korean War degenerated into a brutal grinding stalemate along the 38th parallel.  Neither side could win.  America lost over 36,000 killed and far more wounded over the course of about three years.  The Republic of Korea and many other UN nations suffered as well.

Truman, like MacArthur, made a number of grave miscalculations in Cold War strategy.   Brand fails to point out several of Truman's blunders...1) that Truman abolished the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) mainly on account of his distaste for "Wild Bill" Donovan.  The CIA would have to be rebuilt from scratch starting in 1947.  2) Truman, bowing to domestic pressure, proceeded with a rapid and steep demobilization of US military forces following the conclusion of WW2.  American military power was not just trimmed but cut to the bone.  This gravely weakened US military capabilities prior to the outbreak of the Korean War.  These vulnerabilities would be exploited by the Communist forces.

Truman's firing of MacArthur is widely approved of by Brand and many other commentators.  But Truman COULD have run for re-election in 1952.  His treatment of MacArthur made him hugely unpopular at the time and led to his decision to not seek a second elected term.  As Brand accurately notes, "Truman's bold stroke in firing MacArthur ended his own career as surely as it terminated MacArthur's."

Dwight Eisenhower
1890 - 1969

In the end the American electorate got it right.  1952 and the crisis of the Korean War called for an experienced military leader at the helm.  But that leader was Eisenhower and not MacArthur or Truman.   Ike, the architect of D-Day, had a broader global perspective and greater diplomatic skills than either MacArthur or Truman.

Truman and his minions painted MacArthur's stated threat to use atomic weapons against the Chinese as sheer lunacy.  Yet it was precisely this same veiled threat, delivered by Ike through Indian intermediaries, that ultimately led to the fragile peace in Korea that endures to this day.

Finally, Brand's flawed but worthwhile book has a curious relevance to our 21st century.  In 2021 we seem to have experienced a "MacArthur moment" when General Mark Milley defied the orders of a duly elected president by undermining his policy in regard to China. 

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare


Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is great fun (  If you admire Winston Churchill, as I do, you will likely enjoy this book.  If you have an interest in exploring offbeat aspects of World War II you will enjoy this book.  If you enjoy history you will enjoy this book.

This is the story of the SOE -- the Special Operations Executive.  This was a bland name for a spicy unit that  took on extraordinary risks in WW2.  Following the fall of France, amidst some of the darkest days of the war, Winston Churchill conceived the SOE.  They would be trained in the dark arts of guerrilla warfare.  They would strike deep behind enemy lines.  They would use cutting edge technology.  And they would take enormous risks to strike back at an Axis that seemed to have a firm grip on the European mainland.  Churchill, frustrated by his inability to win a conventional war, asked them simply to "set Europe ablaze" by unconventional means.   Giles Milton's volume shows us exactly how they responded to Churchill's request.

"Set Europe Ablaze!"

Collin Gubbins was the intrepid head of the SOE.  In August of 1941 he saw off "Operation Postmaster" that set out in a fishing trawler with the Bondian name "Maid Honor" to fence with German U-boats off the coast of West Africa.  This expedition, led by Gus March Phillipps did not sink any U-boats.  Instead March-Phillipps led a daring cutting out expedition with two tugboats that captured an Italian ship (Duchessa d'Aosta) and two German vessels in Spanish-controlled equatorial Guinea in the dead of night.  The Italian captain of the captured ship had been drinking with his German colleagues in the nearby Casino Terrace restaurant.  Gubbins' crew scattered Free French kepis into the waters before they made off in order to muddy the waters.  British diplomatic authorities, concerned about the neutrally of Franco's Spain, lied through their teeth about the raid -- "in no way responsible for what happened prior to the capture of the enemy vessels on the high seas."  Milton neglects to mention that March-Phillipps was sadly killed the following year while leading a commando raid on the coast of occupied France.

This book is full of hair raising tales.  SOE trained agents were responsible for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Czechosloavakia.  Brutal Nazi retribution followed in the wake of this incident.

SOE even managed to persuade the owners and managers of the Peugeot factory in Sochaux France that it would be better for their factories (manufacturing tanks) to be sabotaged rather than bombed from the air.  An earlier air raid on the target had killed around 125 civilians.  In November 1943 Rodolphe Peugeot agreed to have his own factory destroyed!

The SOE (along with the American OSS and French Resistance) played an important role in the widespread sabotage prior to and immediately following the D-Day invasion of June 1944.  These activities slowed German attempts to mount an effective counterattack to the Allied beachhead.  See also the Art of Resistance...

Vilette Szabo
 1921 - 1945

Giles Milton neglects to mention Violet Szabo, an SOE operative, who was killed by the Nazis in 1945.  2021 marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of this amazing and courageous woman.

This book offers another reason to admire Churchill and all of those who fought in defense of Freedom in the World War II.

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