Attaboy Jimmy: Winning Your Wings – with a little Rowing

Airmen chums – film stars Jimmy Stewart (left) and Clark Gable. Different sources give different dates when this meeting took place. To confuse the matter, these sources also give Stewart and Gable different ranks, all from both being lieutenants to lieutenant colonel (Stewart) and major (Gable). In either case, Stewart outranked Gable.

24 May 2019

By Göran R Buckhorn

Would Göran R Buckhorn have joined the Army Air Forces?

As regular readers of this website know, HTBS contributors have a knack for finding rowing in the oddest places. How about this one for being strange: in a Second World War recruiting film for the U.S. Army Air Corp with film star Jimmy Stewart!

If you look for Jimmy Stewart in the “Rowers/Sculler/Coxswains Who Became Famous”, a list compiled by rowing historian Bill Miller on his Friends of Rowing History website, you will draw a blank. While Bill’s list includes some actors – the most famous one being Gregory Peck, who rowed at ‘Cal Berkeley’ – Stewart’s name is not on the list, although he could have rowed, as he went to Princeton University, but there Stewart went into acting.

What, then, did Stewart have to do with rowing – and in a recruiting film for the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF)? Well, let’s take a closer look at his military career.

With 28 films under his belt, Stewart was inducted into the U.S. Army in March 1941, the first major American film star to put on a military uniform. He joined the Army as a private eight and a half months before the attack on Pearl Harbor (7 December 1941), which otherwise was the major event for Americans to sign up for military service. Two other film stars also joined the U.S. Armed Forces later that year, Stewart’s close friend, 37-year-old Henry Fonda who enlisted in the Navy, and the biggest star in Hollywood at that time, Clark Gable, who joined the Army Air Corp at age 40. As Stewart had an early interest in flying – he took a private pilot certificate in 1935 and a commercial pilot license in 1938 – he applied for an Air Corps commission. Stewart received his commission as second lieutenant on 1 January 1942.

It was in early 1942, Stewart was asked to participate in a short recruitment film, which aimed to recruit some 100,000 airmen to the Army Air Forces. In the film, Winning Your Wings – one of the directors was John Huston (full cast and crew here) – the gangly looking movie star appears in a pilot’s flight jacket, and with the slow drawl which was characteristic for Stewart, he tells the on-lookers about the need for more airmen. From whatever walk of life, you could become an airman, maybe even a pilot. Soon you will be doing ‘aerobatic maneuvers: loops, barrel rolls and snap rolls,’ according to Stewart.

Lieutenant James Stewart in “Winning Your Wings” (1942).

Winning Your Wings went up in the movie theatres nationwide on 28 May 1942 and became an instant hit. It’s said that the film led to 150,000 new recruits for the U.S Army Air Forces.

The entry for Winning Your Wings on Wikipedia.org also mentions that

Due to racial segregation policies of the U.S. Army Air Forces, there are no African Americans depicted in the film, although, at the time of the film’s creation, the first black aviators had already begun serving in the military, mainly the Tuskegee Airmen program.

In the film, Stewart makes the case that boys and young men in high school and college can sign up for the ‘reserve’ and when they have graduated, they will be accepted as USAAF cadets. The USAAF needed 15,000 captains, 40,000 lieutenants and 35,000 flying sergeants.

At 4:26 in the film (which is 17 minutes 32 seconds long), Stewart mentions some typical American sports that would be to the young men’s advantage to have played: ‘Basketball, (American) Football and Baseball or… – [here football is shown in the film till 4:30] … ‘some activity where coordination, control and the ability to work together with the rest of the team, that’s, that’s important’ [and here two eights with shirtless oarsmen are seen rowing from 4:31 to 4:36]. Okay, only five seconds of fame for these boats, probably two college crews, but when did you last see a propaganda film with a rowing scene?

Here is the full Winning Your Wings

Jimmy Stewart did go on combat missions with different Bomb Groups and would rise in the ranks during the war. His official tally of mission credits was 20, but it is known that he did many uncredited sorties. Stewart received several military awards, including the French Croix de Guerre and the U.S. Air Medal. For a full list of his military awards (and film industry awards and honors), go here. He was promoted to full colonel in March 1945. Stewart belongs to a small group of Americans who rose from private to colonel during the Second World War.

Stewart continued to play a part in the Army Air Force Reserve after the war (the U.S. Air Force was established as an independent service in 1947). In July 1959, he was promoted to brigadier general. In February 1966, Brigadier General Stewart flew as a non-duty observer in a B-52 on a bombing mission over Vietnam.

Brigadier General James Stewart, the 1960s.

When President Ronald Reagan awarded Jimmy Stewart the Presidential Medal of Freedom in May 1985, Stewart was also promoted to Major General on the Retired List.

It is easy for us today, almost exactly 77 years after Winning Your Wings was shown for the first time, to dismiss it as a corny propaganda film. However, I’m not sure I could have resisted in 1942, as a 20-year-something, to not say: ‘Okay, Jimmy, sign me up.’

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