News, WW2

Did Jimmy Stewart Suffer PTSD From WW2

James “Jimmy” Stewart (1908-1997) was one of the most beloved and popular Hollywood film icons from the “classic” film era of the 1930s to 1960s. But he was also a highly decorated war hero, serving in the United States Air Force during World War Two.

When, in April 1946, he began filming perhaps his most famous flick, the Christmas time favourite, “It’s A Wonderful Life”, he was less than two years away from the highly intense active service operations he had seen with B-24 bombers over Europe.

He completed twenty official combat missions (and several unofficial ones) and was highly decorated, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Croix de Guerre and the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal. He rose from second lieutenant to full colonel in four years.

There are suggestions that, as a result of his military experiences, Jimmy Stewart suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or some other form of combat-related stress and that this might have been evident when he returned to his film career, post-war.

Brigadier General Stewart
Brigadier General James ‘Jimmy’ Stewart in 1968 (U.S. Air Force photo)


PTSD, as a formal medical diagnosis, did not exist during the Second World War, but combat stress was certainly recognised, if not entirely understood. Infamously, US General George Patton slapped two men suffering from combat fatigue during the Sicilian campaign in 1943. Patton was nearly sacked for it and General Eisenhower made him apologise.

Read More: Vietnam Tunnel Rats – The Underground War

This incident led many to to distrust and despise Patton. Generally, attitudes were becoming more forgiving of combat-induced mental health issues – you were certainly much less likely to be executed for cowardice. Expressions such as “flak happy”, “shell shock” or “combat fatigue” pointed towards slightly more sympathetic and understanding approaches.

Emphasis among the non-Russian Allied forces was given, where practicable, to withdrawing people from the frontline or at least ensuring people were rotated regularly. It was understood that eight hours sleep, a shower, a hot meal and a respite from shelling could have a powerfully restorative effect of morale.


Downed B-24
A B-24M of the 448th Bombardment Group shot down over Germany. Scenes like this were often witnessed by Stewart on his many missions.

We at MilitaryHistoria take the myth-busting aspect of our work very seriously. We do not want to present information that is inaccurate, dubious or acquired from questionable sources. If we are uncertain, or simply do not know the answer, we will say so.

But it is common for myths to have some grains of truth. So let’s dig in to the James Stewart war record and see what comes up.

War record

His grandfathers having fought in the American Civil War, and his father in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and WW1 France, James Stewart came from a family tradition of military service.
Stewart himself was a keen aviator, acquiring a private pilot’s license by 1935 and a commercial one by 1938. By the time war came to America in late 1941, he had clocked up 400 hours of flying time, had taken part in cross country races and gained an Oscar for “The Philadelphia Story”.

Read More: The Longest Day: John Wayne ‘punished’ Darryl F. Zanuck for Publicly Insulting him

He was one of the first Hollywood movie stars to enlist after Pearl Harbor. But he didn’t have to enlist: he could have stayed in the US and made recruitment films.
In summer 1942 he was posted to New Mexico as an instructor and then an Operational Training Unit with the 29th Bombardment Group in Idaho. He converted from the B-17 to the B-24 “Liberator”, also known as the “Flying Boxcar”.

Stewart had been concerned that he might get side-lined off into a tour of duty in the United States. He badgered his CO, who had no problem in recommending him to an operational bomber squadron as a squadron commander. Stewart had demonstrated all the leadership and management skills necessary: he and his unit were going to England.

Stewart’s Squadron

A squadron of B-24 bombers usually comprised sixteen aircraft, each with a ten man crew, making 160 men in total. A two week gruelling flight took them via Florida, to Brazil, the Atlantic and Dakar and finally, in November 1943, to Norfolk in eastern England. He lost one of his aircraft and crew during this transfer, meaning his first job on arrival in UK was to write condolence letters to fourteen separate families.

Once settled at RAF Tibenham, Stewart and his crews, as part of the 445th Bomb Group (comprising Stewart’s squadron, the 703rd, and three others), prepared to take part in the USAAF’s daylight bombing campaign against Nazi Germany.

Read More: Heart of Darkness: The Man who Inspired ‘Apocalypse Now’

They did not have long to wait. The 445th commenced operations on 13th December, taking part in air raids against German targets, including Bremen. “We were all terrified”, Stewart reportedly said.

On 7th January 1944, Stewart, on only his fourth mission, but already respected for his leadership skills, was made the bomb leader for the 445th, leading around 64 B-24s as part of a 400+ bomber force against German industrial targets on the Rhine. There was plenty of flak on the run in. One of Stewart’s Liberator engines packed up.


Navigational errors from the group they were following back took them over Paris and into some aggressive German fighter attacks. Stewart’s ruthless emphasis on maintaining a tight formation largely saved the day. Over the French coast, a second engine failed. Making it home safely, Stewart received a letter of thanks from the CO of the 389th for sticking with them and almost certainly reducing the level of casualties overall.


Jimmy Stewart
James ‘Jimmy’ Stewart during WW2 at his UK airbase in Norfolk. Note the damaged B-24

In February 1944, the pressure intensified. The 445th Bomb Group lost 13 aircraft in one raid over Gotha. Stewart did not fly every mission. But he would have been intensely busy managing his squadron, flying missions, training, and ensuring every crew member was up to the task they were given. He would also be writing condolence letters to the families of those of his squadron that did not make it back after a mission.

After receiving flak damage over Nuremburg, his aircraft broke in two on landing in the UK. As he stood on the runway surveying the wrecked plane, he wryly observed: “somebody sure could get hurt in one of those damned things”.

Read More: American Fatalities in the Bloodiest US Wars

Stewart continued operations. At the end of March 1944, he became operations officer for the 453rd Bomber Group. On 1st July he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and became Executive Officer at 2nd Bomb Wing.

Full Colonel

It was standard for crews and individuals to be found other jobs – administration, training, or promotional and recruitment tours around the United States – once twenty combat missions had been completed. Many officers – Stewart included – were promoted and were able to bring their hard-won experience to bear in higher headquarters. His formal combat operations were over and he finished the war as a full colonel.

After the war, he returned to Hollywood. He was nominated for an Oscar for the 1947 release of “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

But Stewart remained in service in the Air Force Reserve, rising to Brigadier General in the fifties and serving briefly in the Vietnam War as an observer on B-52 raids, before retiring, age 60, in 1968.

Mental health allegations

James Stewart clearly and undeniably took part in some highly intensive and stressful combat situations. As a squadron leader, he had many responsibilities: administrative, leadership and personal, with the ever present threat that either he, or his crews, would not return safely.

His aircraft was hit on several occasions, including a near miss strike by the cockpit. Stewart would have witnessed other aircraft from the 445th going down in flames and experienced the anxiety of being hit himself or counting for the parachutes as fellow compatriots baled out.


Jimmy Stewart
PTSD or not, Jimmy Stewart ended WW2 a changed and troubled man.

Throughout the centuries, many men in positions of combat leadership have buckled in the heat of battle or subsequently, as the cumulative toll of the stresses became too great and they struggle to re-adapt to civilian life.

It is a cliché that every man has his own limitations: a breaking point, beyond which he is no longer likely to perform effectively in battle. In the modern world, such strains are much more clearly understood, sympathised with and treated.

Read More: Vietnam War Veterans Demand Pay-out for Agent Orange Disaster

But here we have the analytical challenge. Interviews and analysis of veterans of the Second World – on all sides of the conflict – routinely finds that they are unwilling to talk about emotional or mental problems in other than the broad and the general.

Stewart Died in 1997

Robert Matzen’s biography of James Stewart, published in 2016, focused on Stewart’s military service over Europe. Matzen suggests strongly that Stewart had PTSD.

But clear evidence is pretty sparse and anecdotal. Stewart died in 1997. He hardly ever spoke about his wartime experiences. He refused to make any war films. There are no reports about any erratic behaviour.

No medical records, damning diary entries or family interviews have turned up. It is tempting to conclude that books that produce an exciting new revelation about a movie star tend to sell better.

We can only confidently note that James Stewart certainly experienced extreme stress as a result of the combat situations he faced between 1943 and 1945. This is entirely understandable.

It is likely that he returned to the US a changed man because of these experiences. It is also plausible that he may have experienced mental health problems either during the war or once he had returned to civilian life as an actor. But, after what is admittedly a fairly brief survey, we can find no convincing evidence of PTSD or any other similarly serious mental health condition.

All in all though, James ‘Jimmy’ Stewart certainly did ‘Do his bit’.