“This is not Jimmy’s story. This is the story of the real guy, a quiet, high-strung loner who fought feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt.” – Robert Matzen
As I begin this review, I am in awe of the amount of research that went into writing this book. As with Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 and Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II,” Robert Matzen spent years researching, conducting interviews, gathering first-hand accounts of events, and visiting actual locations where those events took place. All that work became Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. This is a book worth reading. I am so grateful for the research that Matzen did to bring this story to the world.
The book begins with a forward by film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. He describes Mission as a “compelling narrative” and “groundbreaking.” Maltin references Matzen’s ability of “getting inside his subject’s head and recreating specific moments in the heat of preparation for combat.” I was already excited about reading Mission. Leonard Maltin’s words only served to feed that excitement.
Robert Matzen begins by telling about Jimmy Stewart’s upbringing. The reader quickly gets a sense of Jimmy’s duty to serve his country. After all, he grew up with stories of the Great War from his father, who left college just weeks before graduating from Princeton to join the Spanish-American War, although he saw no action. Jimmy’s paternal grandfather joined the Union Army and served under Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan and Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer. Sgt. Steward was at Appomattox when Gen. Lee surrendered to Gen. Grant.
In addition to his paternal ancestors, Jimmy Stewart’s maternal grandfather was a colonel in the Eleventh Pennsylvania Reserves and witnessed history at Gettysburg. He became a general by the time the Civil War ended. It seemed military service was Jimmy Stewart’s destiny.
Mission does not just talk about the military life of Jimmy Stewart. The reader gains a thorough understanding of Jimmy’s religious roots, his struggles to get through high school and attend Princeton (following his father’s footsteps), as well as the challenges he faced as he pursued acting and his life after he got to Hollywood, and even the struggles he encountered when he returned home from Europe.
Before reading Mission, I had this preconceived notion that Jimmy Stewart could choose where he went and what he did when he joined the Army. After all, he was Jimmy Stewart, the big-time movie star. I could not have been more wrong! Jimmy loved to fly, and he knew this war would be fought in the air. He was determined to be part of it. He earned his pilot’s license and accumulated as much flight time as possible. When he joined the Army, he had no idea what a fight it would be to get to Europe. Hollywood executives pulled strings to keep him stateside for fear of losing their star. Washington leaders wanted him kept stateside for fear of what a prize he would be if he was shot down and taken captive by Axis forces. Nevertheless, someone saw Jimmy’s determination and resolve. Going against all the notes in Jimmy’s records, he gave Jimmy orders to ship out to Europe and join the US Army’s Eighth Air Force. No one could have prepared him for what was in store.
Most people should understand that war is a horrible thing. No one in his/her right mind would want to go to war. Jimmy Stewart did not want to go to war. However, when war broke out, he did want to serve his country, and he knew his flying abilities would serve as an asset for the Allied Forces. He was correct. Not only his flying abilities but also his leadership skills would prove invaluable to the US Army’s Eight Air Force.
Jimmy Stewart was a man on a mission, and he flew many missions over Europe. He also watched as other flight crews took off to the air over Europe, some never to return. He felt a great deal of responsibility for all those men. Robert Matzen goes into detail to make the reader better understand what life was like for all these men, not just Jimmy Stewart. Matzen writes as if he was telling the story from first-hand experience. His imagery is that vivid.
Mission also includes the story of a young girl born in Germany as Hitler is coming into power. She did not understand, and could not understand, how growing flowers was dangerous. That is what her nice neighbor did before he was taken away to a concentration camp so he could not hurt anyone. Her mother took her to town so she could see history, but she saw burning synagogues and glass scattered about where businesses were destroyed. She stood in a crowd with her parents and listened to a man everyone revered. He frightened her. Years later her father’s diary would give insight into what Germans were being told – and what they were not.
Mission also includes stories of loss and stories of survival against all odds. It is easy to forget that Robert Matzen was not actually there. He has such a thorough understanding of what happened – some from actual survivors themselves. Their stories need to be told just like the stories of those who never returned. No one tells their stories better than Robert Matzen.
Before I retired, I was a high school history teacher. I have learned more from Robert Matzen’s books than I ever taught my classes. His books would be required reading for my students if I were still teaching. When discussing these books with a fellow history teacher, I discovered that he, too, was surprised by some of the information contained in these books. For instance, he had no idea that temperatures would fall to thirty or forty below zero in the airplanes as they flew over Europe. Ice would often form over oxygen masks and oxygen tanks. If flight crews did not pay attention, they could suffocate from ice. Robert Matzen’s books tell what the history books do not. He does not sugarcoat the horrors of war or downplay the nightmares people lived during the war – some continued living those nightmares long after World War II was over.
Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe is an in-depth look at a man who loved his country. He was known all over the world as the laid-back actor everyone loved. However, his happiest time was spent serving his country. Ironically, his happiest time was also the time of his life that left him shaken and forever changed – a time he would not discuss with anyone ever again.