These kinds of decisions were always difficult to make. A man’s career was on the line and it was up to him, Colonel James, to make the final decision. As commander of the eighth Army Air Force bomber squadron, he had been called upon to make quite a few difficult decisions. You do not become command pilot, flying combat missions over Europe, without having to call some tough ones, and this was a tough one.
Walter, a young Sergeant under Colonel James’s command, was not really a bad soldier; he was just a bit of a discipline problem. His latest infraction, however, could get him a dishonorable discharge. The other officers wanted the Sergeant shot, but that was probably a bit drastic. Colonel James wasn't sure what to do. Maybe there was another answer.
Colonel James had never considered the command aspect of Army life. When he was a boy growing up in his hometown of Indiana, PA, where he was born on May 20, 1908, he dreamt of flying someday. He even constructed a homemade plane in which he nearly broke his neck. But he hadn't planned on a career in the Army Air Corp. He was leaning toward a career as an architect, having graduated Princeton University with a degree in architecture in 1932. He pursued various interests for the next few years, spending time in New York and in California.
Then along comes W.W.II. With his interest in flying, the Army Air Corps was a natural choice. He enlisted in 1941 as a private. After learning to fly, and being commissioned as an officer, he began flying combat missions.
But here he was now, holding the fate of a man in the palm of his hands. Sending a good man home wouldn’t help the war effort at all. But keeping a bad man in the Army could put a lot of other men in danger.
Colonel James made his decision. He issued the order. Sergeant Walter would not be sent home. He would be given detached duty instead. Perhaps the rigors and discipline necessary for detached duty would do the young Sergeant some good. Colonel James believed that there was a lot of potential in the young man, and hoped that by putting his trust in him, Sergeant Walter would someday soon discover his real calling in life.
Colonel James never regretted that decision. It's for certain that Sergeant Walter never regretted it either. The Sergeant managed to make it through the rest of the war without getting shot - by either side. He even earned a number of commendations and decorations, including six Battle Stars.
After being discharged at the end of the war, Walter even manage to find his true calling, and he found it in a place called "Hollywood".
You know Sergeant Walter, although you probably never knew about his close call with a dishonorable discharge. You have seen him in such hits as "The Odd Couple", "The Bad News Bears", and "Grumpy Old Men". That's right - Sergeant Walter Matthou.
You might also be interested in knowing what happened to Colonel James. He flew a total of 25 combat missions as command pilot. He earned a number of medals of recognition for his service to his country, including the Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war, he spent 20 years in the Air Force Reserve, retiring as a brigadier general.
If you are wondering if Colonel James ever ran into sergeant Matthou after the war, the answer is "yes". They actually became good friends.
You see, it's funny the way things work out. It seems that the army wasn't Colonel James true calling either. He made a few movies himself. Actually, he made more than 75 of them. He won one Academy Award and was nominated for three others. But don't look for "Colonel" anywhere in the movie credits. You will find him listed under James - James Stewart.