During World War II, most Americans felt it was their duty to help the war effort according to their individual talents. Factory workers retooled their machines and made a large variety of instruments of war such as airplanes, tanks, ships, and bombs, just to name a few. School children led scrap metal drives to aid in the recycling and remanufacturing processes. Actors sold war bonds to raise money for munitions. Everyone, it seemed, had some special talent that could aid in the war effort.
Maitland had his own talent. As a child, Maitland daydreamed about flying airplanes. He had read newspaper accounts of Charles Lindbergh’s flying career as a U.S. Air Mail pilot and of his first solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis. His father, however, had other plans. Following high school, he wanted Maitland to attend Princeton University and to return home to take over the family’s hardware business. When he graduated in 1932, rather than return to the family business, Maitland moved to New York and began a different career.
War loomed on the horizon. Maitland earned enough money from various jobs and he became a licensed pilot. All of the hours he had spent daydreaming about flying had come true. In November, 1940, Maitland tried to enlist in the United States Army Air Corps., predecessor for the Air Force. The Army rejected him because, at 32-years-old, he was over the maximum age requirement for cadet training and his weight was lower than their minimum requirement. Maitland’s father had fought in the Spanish-America War and World War I, and both of his grandfathers had fought in the Civil War. Maitland was determined to do his part in the conflict.
Maitland was not one to give up easily. In February, 1941, he tried to enlist again. The Army needed pilots, and Maitland was a college graduate and, more importantly, a licensed pilot. The Army ignored his age and low body weight, and on March 22, 1941, enlisted Maitland as a private. In January, 1942, less than a month after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the Army promoted Maitland to second lieutenant and sent him to train cadets at Kirtland Army Airfield in Albuquerque, New Mexico. While stationed at Kirtland, Maitland was one of many soldiers who appeared in a recruitment film for the Army. “Winning Your Wings” played in theaters across America, and the Army estimated that the film was responsible for an estimated 150,000 new recruits.
Maitland trained pilots for nearly two years but he felt his talents could be of better use as a combat pilot. In November, 1943, Maitland appealed to his superiors to be sent to active duty. He had proven his worth as a flying instructor but the Army had many other good pilots who could train the new recruits. His commanding officer reluctantly granted Maitland’s request and transferred him to England to join the 445th Bombardment Group as a B-24 Liberator pilot.
On January 7, 1944, Maitland led the 445th Bombardment Group on a bombing mission to Ludwigshafen, Germany. Maitland and the 445th joined up with the 389th Bombardment Group. After bombing their targets, the two groups turned to join up with the main formation for their return to bases. Maitland realized that they were flying thirty degrees off course, which meant that they were flying toward an area of German occupation and away from the protection of the main formation. He radioed the leader of the 389th and told him of the error. The leader of the 389th disagreed with his calculation and said he would continue on his heading. Maitland had a tough decision to make. He could make the thirty-degree correction and, if his calculations were correct, lead his men to the safety of the main formation. His other option was to stay with the 389th and face the German fighter planes. Maitland realized that if he and his men abandoned the 389th, they would have almost no chance of survival against the German Luftwaffe. Maitland stayed the incorrect course.
Within minutes, German radar operators noticed that the two groups of bombers had become separated from the larger formation and scrambled fighter planes to intercept them. When the men of the 389th and 445th saw the German planes, they tightened their formation. The German fighters began firing at the American bombers and the B24 gunners returned fire. Maitland could see most of the bombers of the 389th in front of him. He watched helplessly as German fighters destroyed the lead plane of the 389th. The pilot of the downed bomber was the officer who disregarded Maitland’s course correction. Maitland took command of what remained of the 389th and made the course correction he had suggested earlier. Maitland was right. Within a short time, they rendezvoused with the main formation. Seeing the vast number of bombers and fighter escorts, the German fighters retired from the fight. The 389th lost seventeen airplanes and their crews. The 445th group, Maitland’s men, suffered no casualties.
Maitland’s actions, his superiors concluded, had saved the 389th from what would have been total annihilation. Maitland was promoted to major and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the French Croix de Guerre, and the Air Medal. A year and a half later, Maitland earned the rank of full colonel and became one of only a few soldiers who rose from private to colonel in four years.
On May 8, 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally and the war in Europe ended. On August 15, 1945, Japan surrendered following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. World War II, the deadliest conflict in human history, was over. In the Fall of 1945, Maitland returned to the United States and to his pre-war career. He continued to be an active member of the Army Air Forces Reserve. On July 23, 1959, Maitland earned the rank of brigadier general. In February, 1966, he flew as an observer in a B-52 on a bombing mission in Vietnam. On May 31, 1968, Maitland retired from the Air Force when he reached the mandatory retirement age of sixty. For his service, he received the Distinguished Service Medal.
You probably know Maitland more for his non-military career. Maitland became the highest-ranking actor in American military history with a career which spanned more than fifty-five years. He starred in more than eighty films including such titles as “The Philadelphia Story,” “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” “Vertigo,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “Rear Window,” and the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Many airmen owe their lives, and we, Americans, owe our freedom in part to Maitland. You see Maitland was the middle name of … Jimmy Stewart.
Matzen, Robert. Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: GoodKnight Books, 2016.
McGowan, Sam. “Jimmy Stewart’s Rise from Private to Colonel.” WarfareHistoryNetwork.com. Accessed July 10, 2020. https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/2016/10/19/jimmy-stewarts-rise-from-private-to-colonel/.