Remembering The Quintessential American Hero -- And His Son - On Memorial Day

We remember Jimmy Stewart as the amiable Hollywood icon who appeared in many classic movies. Few Americans today know that Stewart was also a bona fide hero who served in World War II. Fewer still know that Stewart, in time, would also endure the grief of all families who lose a child to war.
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We remember Jimmy Stewart as the amiable Hollywood icon who appeared in such classic movies as "Harvey" and "Vertigo," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and "Anatomy of a Murder."

Few Americans today know that Stewart was a bona fide hero who served in World War II. Even fewer know that Stewart would also, in time, endure the grief of all families who lose a child to war.

Like a lot of Americans in 1940, Stewart was certain that the country would soon be going to war with Nazi Germany.

Stewart was then an on-the-rise Hollywood star. But at heart he was still a kid from small-town Pennsylvania who had worked in his family's hardware store.

Stewart's father fought in World War I, and other relations had done battle for the Republic all the way back to the Revolution.

To Stewart, patriotism was a shared ideal. Even the wealthy and well-connected had the sacred duty to stand up and fight for their country.

So Stewart prepared for war. He logged more and more hours piloting his airplane. He hired a trainer to help him bulk up.

In March 1941 -- nine months before Pearl Harbor -- Stewart, who had just won an Oscar for "The Philadelphia Story," was sworn into the Army ... as a private.

After the Pearl Harbor attack, the Air Force wanted Stewart to sell war bonds, contending that he was too old (mid-30s) and too famous to risk flying combat missions.

But he pushed and wrangled and charmed until -- finally -- he was sent to England and put in command of a squadron of B-24 Liberator bombers.

The B-24 was a fast but ungainly beast poorly suited to formation flying, and had the dubious reputation for breaking up during hard landings. Joe Kennedy Jr. died when his B-24 exploded during a test flight. Louis "Unbroken" Zamperini's B-24 malfunctioned and crashed in the Pacific.

Stewart piloted these death traps over Germany and Occupied Europe -- braving flak bursts and fighter attacks -- more than 20 times.

And even though aircrews were suffering the highest casualty rates of all American combat units, Stewart found a loophole that allowed him to fly more missions than Air Force regulations allowed.

By the time the war in Europe was over, James Stewart had been promoted from private to colonel.

His leadership and courage under fire earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross. His devotion to his men earned their lifelong admiration. And no pilot wore his cap any better.

But -- as it did to so many young American men and women -- the war changed Stewart.

He had no illusions about the barbaric reality of "strategic bombing." Many times he had experienced the terrors unique to aerial combat. He had premonitions of his own death. And he carried the emotional burden of those who survived when so many others did not.

Stewart drifted back to Los Angeles, but he was restless and uncertain. Somehow in his absence the Golden Age of Hollywood had slipped away. He wasn't sure he could even be an actor anymore.

One day, director Frank Capra called up Stewart and pitched him a movie idea. Before the war, they had collaborated on two big hits -- "You Can't Take It With You" and "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington."

Legend has it that Capra's pitch did not go well. The idea was convoluted -- the whole thing seemed to be told in flashback. There were fantasy elements. And its tone was all over the place - serious one moment, funny the next.

With Stewart's interest slipping, Capra tried a different approach. He too had served -- producing the "Why We Fight" documentary series to promote the war effort. Capra was well aware of the darkness brooding within returning veterans. Perhaps he sensed it in Stewart.

So Capra said, "You'd be playing a guy who's very depressed, and you decide to kill yourself on Christmas Eve."

Stewart needed no more persuading. He was in.

"It's a Wonderful Life" was the first movie Stewart made after the war and, to the end of his life, it was his favorite.

Stewart's career blossomed. He went on to make dozens and dozens of movies and television shows, including brilliant collaborations with directors Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann.

But for all his many and varied roles, Stewart declined to make big studio war pictures. (He appeared in only one -- an obscure, genre-defying anti-war film called "The Mountain Road".)

His contracts always forbade the studios from using his wartime service to publicize his movies.

When interviewed for the seminal 1970s documentary series "The World at War," he was identified as "Squadron Commander James Stewart" and spoke only of the bombing campaign.

Even with the demands and distractions of movie stardom, Stewart remained committed to his patriotic service. He stayed on in the Reserve, and even tagged along on a combat mission or two over Vietnam.

He retired from the Air Force in 1968 with the rank of general. But history was not done with James Stewart.

After graduating from college in the mid-1960s, Stewart's adopted son Ronald McLean joined the Marines. His parents were thrilled -- as demonstrated in a photograph of Stewart, beaming with pride, pinning Lieutenant's bars to Ronald's uniform.

In June, 1969, Lieutenant McLean took charge of a recon unit in Central Vietnam.

It was a year after the Tet Offensive had exploded across American TV screens; a year before President Nixon's Cambodian "incursion" expanded the conflict.

Change was all around in the summer of 1969. It was the season of "Easy Rider," the Miracle Mets, and the Apollo moon landing. But in Vietnam, the war continued to grind on as it had for five years already.

Lt. McLean's recon squad was inserted by helicopter into the jungles of the DMZ. Right away the patrol hit trouble when it found itself surrounded by a much larger force of North Vietnamese soldiers.

The patrol's request for extraction was denied -- hardly an uncommon response by American commanders in Vietnam who so often seemed determined to refight the Alamo.

In his war memoir "Dispatches," Michael Herr described the prevailing mindset: "The belief that one Marine was better than 10 (Vietnamese) saw Marine squads fed in against known NVA platoons, platoons against companies, and on and on, until whole battalions found themselves pinned down and cut off. That belief was undying, but the grunt was not."

For two days Lt. McLean's six-man squad -- a couple of them still teenagers -- fought point-blank against the enemy.

While the firefight raged around him, Lt. McLean broke cover to help one of his wounded men. He was shot in the chest by a sniper and died beside the jungle trail.

Eventually an American relief force broke through to the recon patrol and the NVA troops fled. Lt. McLean was the only American soldier killed. It had been his first patrol; his squad-mates barely knew him.

The death of Ronald McLean devastated his family. But if James Stewart was angered or embittered by the loss of his son, he never showed it publicly.

With dignity almost inconceivable with today's emotionally-vampiric media, Stewart bore his grief as he seemed to do everything -- with humility, grace, and quiet strength.

James Stewart died in 1997. His memorial was attended by thousands of admirers, and he was mourned by millions more who remembered him as -- for a time, anyway -- the quintessential American hero.

He was buried beside Gloria, his beloved wife of 45 years. Close by is the modest grave marker of their cherished son, Ronald -- a stoic reminder that fame and fortune are no guarantee against sorrow and tragedy.

Ronald Walsh McLean was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for his courage during the fated patrol. His name is etched on Panel 23 West, Row 113, of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

A commemorative tracing of Lt. McLean's name may be requested via the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

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