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Tuskegee Airman addresses Rotary Club

Retired Lt. Col. Harry T. Stewart, Jr., one of America’s most decorated Tuskegee Airmen from World War II, chatted with the Rotary Club of Oxford last week. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
December 14, 2011 - When one hears that a Tuskegee Airman is going to speak about his experiences in World War II, the expectation is there will be many gut-wrenching stories about the injustices of segregation and racism.

But that clearly wasn't the case with retired Lt. Col. Harry T. Stewart, Jr., a Bloomfield Hills resident who is one of America's most decorated Tuskegee Airmen.

"I had a great time," said Stewart during his visit with Rotary Club of Oxford last week. "I couldn't have asked for a better time."

Stewart told a delightful variety of stories about his days with the 332nd Fighter Group, an all-black unit of the U.S. Army Air Corps, who were later dubbed the Tuskegee Airmen because they all trained at the Tuskegee Air Field in Alabama.

At age 17, he passed a military exam designed to identify potential pilots. As a result, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet and trained at Tuskegee Air Field.

"There was no difference in the training whatsoever, except we were training on a segregated basis," he said. "We operated from the same playbook as the rest of the Air Corps."

Contrary to how the Tuskegee Airmen were portrayed in the 1995 HBO television movie about the unit, Stewart said his experience was "a delightful one." In his opinion, the film wasn't very historically accurate.

"I would say it's about 5 percent docu(mentary) and about 95 percent drama," he said.

For instance, the movie portrayed the white instructor pilots as "some kind of Simon Legrees," according to Stewart, who was referring to a cruel slave owner from the classic 1852 novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

"That's not true," he said. "They did really a fine job in training the pilots down there."

That was evidenced by the fact that of the 992 graduates of the Tuskegee Army Flying School, 450 pilots went into combat overseas and only 66 were killed in action, "which was about the ratio for combat pilots at the time," according to Stewart.

Thirty-two of them were shot down and became prisoners of war in German camps.

"The Germans treated the African American pilots no differently than they did the white pilots that they captured," Stewart noted. "This is a fact. Whether they get a pat on the back for it or not, I don't know."

Seven other Tuskegee Airmen were shot down, but managed to elude capture by escaping or living among the natives.

As for Stewart, he was only 19 years old when he was awarded his pilot wings and commissioned as a second lieutenant.

In 1944, he was sent to Italy for combat operations as part of the 15th Air Force. He flew 43 combat missions in the P-51 Mustang.

During one mission on April 1, 1945, Stewart is credited with downing three German fighter planes, a feat which earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Two of them he shot down.

The third one was a different story. The enemy got on his tail and Stewart admitted he "panicked."

"(I) dove for the ground and started maneuvering very, very close to the ground," he said. "(The enemy pilot) evidently had a high speed stall and went in. I was given credit for a third kill."

Although Stewart and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen shot down 12 enemy aircraft that day, he considered it "quite a devastating mission" because of the losses on his side.

"There were seven of us that went on this fighter sweep and three of us got shot down," he said.

In addition to his war stories, Stewart shared a couple funny anecdotes with the Rotarians.

While training in South Carolina, Stewart, who was flying a P-47 at the time, engaged in mock combat with a mystery pilot who suddenly appeared.

"Inside of three turns, this person is on my tail. I give up. They shot me down," he said.

Afterwards, Stewart and the mystery pilot both returned to base and it was there that he got the shock of his life.

The mystery pilot's helmet came off and "this flaming red hair falls down around her shoulders."

"I had just gotten my butt beat by a woman," he said.

The female pilot was a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (or WASP), a group of civilian female pilots employed to fly military aircraft under the direction of the U.S. Army Air Corps during WWII.

"They, like the Tuskegee Airmen, were really not too much wanted at the time," Stewart said. "They were sort of segregated and they weren't treated too nicely.

"They were doing a fantastic job. A number of them lost their lives. Unlike the Tuskegee Airmen, they had no status as far as the military was concerned. They had no retirement to look forward to or anything like that. It wasn't until just recently, that they were given . . . the congressional gold medal and recognized for the work that they did."

Stewart also told a story that involved the "relief tube" pilots used to urinate during long flights and his tendency to roll his plane over in midair in order to relieve the pressure on his lower back caused by sitting for so long.

As can be expected, the two activities didn't mix very well.

"There was this splash," Stewart said. "(It was) all over the place."

Stewart's best story happened after the war.

He was on maneuvers in Kentucky on Palm Sunday in 1948 when he ran into some nasty weather and his plane experienced engine failure. He lost control and the plane crashed about 100 yards from the Butcher Hollow family home of country singer Loretta Lynn.

Lynn, who was 13 years old at the time of the crash and had just gotten married in January 1948, was not yet a famous country star.

Stewart didn't think too much about the incident until about six years ago when an historian from Van Lear, Kentucky called him in an attempt to separate fact from rumor.

According to this historian, the local rumor was "a black man stole a B-52 (plane) and was making a bombing raid on the town here (when) he was shot down by these American planes."

Stewart told the Rotarians he literally fell out of his chair laughing.

Two years after that call, Stewart served as the grand marshal of a parade in Van Lear, where he met Lynn and her entire family.

In May 1949, Stewart and two other Tuskegee Airmen competed in the inaugural "William Tell" National Gunnery meet at the Las Vegas Air Force Base (now Nellis AFB). The meet would later become the equivalent of the Navy's "Top Gun" competition.

Stewart and his team's skills as combat pilots earned them first place in the conventional fighter class.

He considered this ironic given a 1925 military report had deemed blacks "not competent" for combat.

One of the reasons cited was an "inability to master complicated machinery."

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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