75 years after the end of World War II, the ranks of the so-called Greatest Generation are dwindling. Among those still able to tell their stories, is Lieutenant Colonel Harry Stewart Jr.
Turning 96 on the Fourth of July, Stewart was a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen and is featured in National Geographic’s coverage of the 75th Anniversary of the end of World War II in the June 2020 issue, which is available at newsstands May 26. WAMC’s Jim Levulis, the producer of A New York Minute In History, spoke with Stewart, who began by describing December 7th, 1941.
Stewart: I remember when I was coming from Sunday school, I guess it was on that fateful day, or infamous day, and I was living near LaGuardia Airport, New York at the time and these aircrafts, fighter aircrafts are taking off. They were P-39 Airacobras, taking off from the LaGuardia Airport. There were 30 of them. They got into formation and they were flying very, very low over the city of New York there. And I was curious as to what was going on. But when I did get from Sunday school, I went upstairs. And of course, the news was on at the time then that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. I immediately felt that it wouldn’t be long before I would be called into the service because the draft had started. Even though I was only 16 or 17. At the time, it wouldn’t be long before the draft would call me up.
Levulis: And you were eventually drafted. Is that correct?
Stewart: That’s correct. Of course. I I tried to determine where I would be assigned in going into the service because if you were just drafted, you could be placed anywhere by any part of the services that there was. The Army, Navy, or the Marines. So I wanted to be a pilot, and I wanted to take pilot training. So I took an examination for pilot training, I passed the examination and as a result, when I was called into the service, I was called in specifically to take training as an aviation cadet.
Levulis: And why was it that you wanted to fly, wanted to be a pilot?
Stewart: You know, I think it was something that was built in my system from early childhood. My folks used to tell me that when I was two years old, we lived in Virginia at the time near Langley Field. And when my parents who would put me out in the crib, they told me that when the Army planes were flying over, I’d crane my neck looking at them and sort of coo at the planes there. And then later on, we moved to New York City near LaGuardia Airport. And there was at that time that I used to go over to the airport and stand by the fence on the periphery there and watch the planes take off and fantasize about my being the pilot flying that plane there. So I think it was just an acquired I guess you would call it desire that I grew up with as a child.
Levulis: Could you take us through your training as a Tuskegee Airman?
Stewart: Well, the training was out of the same playbook as the as the Air Corps throughout the United States, even though I went into the service into a segregated group down at Tuskegee, Alabama. We operated from the same Air Corps playbook. It started out with my going through the college training detachment and I spent six months in college getting attuned to subject matter that would be appropriate for the future studies that I would be taking on the airbase that I was going to. Then I started the actual cadet training, which was four phases. It was preflight for two and a half months, primary flying for two and a half months, based flying for two and a half months, and then the final phase was advanced flying, which was another two and a half months, at which time I graduated and I received my wings as a certified military pilot and also my gold bars as a second lieutenant.
Levulis: Is it correct that you learn to fly a plane before you knew how to drive a car?
Stewart: Yes, that is correct. You know, and in New York with the rapid transit system that they have there, there was really no need for a car between the buses, the ferries and the L, the trains, that they had taxi cabs. It was easy, pretty easy to get around the environments of the city there. So there was no need for my family having a car at the time, even though I don’t think we were probably as well off financially to buy a car but anyway, yeah. As you go in say, I got my wings in the service there with without knowing how to drive a car at the time there.
Levulis: Which one was more difficult to learn, how to fly plane or drive a car?
Stewart: Oh, I think the training and flying was very, very concentrated and the total number of hours I got in flying there was something like, before I got my wings just in training was about 200 hours. So and to learn to drive a call boy, I imagine a week of training, or 10 days of training, or something that that wouldn’t be that difficult, which would be about 10 hours. So certainly flying the plane would be the learning process would be more difficult
Levulis: Not too comparable.
Stewart: Not to comparable. One of the things that I did in in flying which, you know, we used to use these go karts when we were a kid and the way in controlling the go karts, you know there’s a cross bar by your feet there and that you would push your right foot in to go ahead and turn left and you would push your left foot forward in order to go right and in the plane that was just the opposite. And that was what they call the negative transference. I had a difficult time at first trying to overcome coordinating and using the proper foot for the for the rudder pedals there, but I soon overcame that and got to get the hang of it.
Levulis: As a fighter pilot, you flew 43 combat missions over Europe and you were awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross. What went through your mind when you were in the air in those moments?
Stewart: Well, it was a sort of a love of flying there. When I first went overseas I was flying formation and the first couple of missions that I had, I had no idea of what was going on except that I was keeping close to my leader at the time there. But soon after I started getting acclimated to being up in the combat zone there, being flying in large formations with the other aircrafts. I got to really enjoy the idea of the panorama, I would say, of the scene I would see before me with the hundreds of bombers and the hundreds of fighter planes up there and all of them pulling the condensation trails, and it was just the ballet in the sky and a feeling of belonging to something that was really big. I must say that even though it was war time, I found it exciting and enjoyable.
Levulis: During one of those missions, you’ve said that you were in the crosshairs of a German fighter. Do you recall having time to think in that moment, or did you just act?
Stewart: I just acted that time there. All my previous training came to fore, and my whole effort at the time there was to get out of his crosshairs because he had been, he had me dead to right. And it was a very frightening situation. And I thought that he had really had me because I was in his crosshairs there, but I went into a very, very steep dive, I guess what they call a split S and was fairly close to the ground at the time there, and I was making some very, very tight turns, trying to shake them off of my tail while I was down near the ground there and evidently, whether he was an inexperienced pilot or what but he went into a high speed stall. In other words, he lost control of the plane itself and he crashed, and I did get credit for destroying his aircraft even though he was wrong. I tailed there.
Levulis: One of your fellow fighters, Walter Manning, was shot down over Austria. Can you share with us what happened to him?
Stewart: Yes, Walter was shot down. And there were seven of us at the time, we were over in Austria. And we were on what was known as a fighter sweep, looking for targets of opportunity and we ran into a horde of Fw 190s. They were German fighter planes there and a big fight ensued and three of us of the five were shut down. One made it back to Yuogoslavia and was able to get back to friendly territory the same day. Another was killed instantly. He was shot down, and Walter Manning, I didn’t know what happened to him at first. I know that he, he did bail out, but we didn’t hear anything from him or about him until years later. And an investigation had taken place many, many years after he had gone down and they found out that he landed safely in his parachute, but he was picked up by a mob that delivered him to the local jailhouse and waiting the military to pick him up and take him to the prisoner of war camp. While he was waiting there, two nights later, another mob came and broke into the jail, took Walter out and lynched him. They hung him from a lamppost.
Levulis: Lieutenant Colonel, in your mind, was Walter Manning lynched because of his race or because he was an American?
Stewart: Both and I would go on to say that he was not the only American, or I should say Allied airman, that was lynched in Austria. There were a number of them, but to get the crowd worked up by eyewitnesses that were there, they testified that the Nazi soldiers were working up the emotions of the Austrian people and telling them stories about racial epithets about Walter Manning, and that he should be lynched. That’s what they would do in his country. And that’s exactly what the mob did.
Levulis: So World War II ends in 1945. You continued to serve in the Army Air Forces until 1950. Can you describe to our listeners what you did after your service?
Stewart: Well, yes, I got out of the service because of the large reduction in force at the time there, the budget constraints on the on the military. But when I got out of the service, I decided, well, let me see, even though I know there was prejudice and discrimination as far as employment in the airlines at the time, realizing that I had accumulated a large number of flying hours and while I was in the service there, I applied for at two airlines as a as a pilot and was rejected summarily rejected. I decided that it didn’t look like I would be able to get a job as a pilot in airlines so I went and took a fallback position and decided to go to school and get my degree. I got a degree in mechanical engineering from New York University and stayed in the civilian field as an engineer. But I’m so happy to say that even though I was not able to read realize my ambition as far as flying for the airlines was concerned, is that not many years after, I guess it was around 1970, about 20 years after I had initially applied there, that African Americans were being accepted as pilots in the airlines until today every major airline that we have in the country we have airmen and air ladies who are flying the aircraft. So United, American, Delta, the a lot of the service companies like Amazon, all of those so it was just a natural timing and a matter of things becoming better that African Americans would be able to enjoy getting employment as a crew members in the airlines.
Levulis: As you mentioned, you grew up in New York City, attended NYU. That’s an area hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic right now. Do you still have family or friends in the area?
Stewart: I do. I do. And I keep in contact with them. And they are all of them have been safe, the only person, well, yes, they’re all safe and all doing well and pray it’ll stay that way.
Levulis: With the exception of September 11, perhaps the last time there was an event that impacted the entire nation on such a scale as this coronavirus pandemic was World War II. And I’m wondering that with your experiences, do you see any similarities between the national call to action in the 1940s to what is happening today?
Stewart: Well, I would say there was a, sort of an esprit de corps that was in the nation back in the 40s there. I think our young men, and women but they didn’t offer the opportunities and service for women as they did for the men at the time there, but it seems as well in school and in our daily activities there is we talked about going into the service and actually trying to volunteer to go into the service. Our patriotism, I just remember it was you know, very, very strong at the time I remember in school is that every day that we go to school, the first class, we’d stand beside our desks and replace our right hand over a heart and say the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States of America. And it just seemed to be a lot more cohesiveness in the country than we have today.
Levulis: And because of part of what you described, your generation is often called the Greatest Generation. Is there anything you’d like those who are not part of that generation to know about what you and others did?
Stewart: Well, I think if history tells, this generation, what that generation did, and the reasons behind it and what we were fighting for, and the unification that we had there, even though we had our prejudices and there was discrimination, and it’s more hurtful than it is today is that we pushed some of those feelings aside there in order to fight the onerous and the dictatorships of the Nazis and the awful Empire of the Japanese nation at that time there. So I think through history, and through telling the stories of these people of that generation, there just was what was happening at that time may serve to inspire and inculcate in the youth of today, some feelings of patriotism similar to what we felt back during World War II.
Levulis: Well, Lieutenant Colonel, I didn’t know if there was anything else you wanted to add or mention anything that I didn’t ask.
Stewart: No, I can’t think of it. I did say just one thing is that I did after I retired, I had the fortune to start flying again. I renewed my license and I had a chance to take up the flying again and at a local airfield around here and I spent a number of years in my 80s up until close to 90 or 89 year, taking up neighborhood children and flying them around, and trying to orient them to the aircraft, and orient them to flying in the air and hoping that maybe someday, one or two of them might decide that they would take in piloting as a vocation, and which they did. And there are a couple of kids that I had flown during that time now who are currently flying with the airlines.
That’s incredible. That’s incredible. From 18 to the 80s. In the air.
Levulis: Lieutenant Colonel Harry Stewart Jr. of the Army Air Forces and a member of the Tuskegee Airmen. Thank you for your time, sir. And your service.
Stewart: Thank you.
A New York Minute In History is a podcast about the history of New York and the unique tales of New Yorkers. It is hosted by Devin Lander, the New York State Historian, and Saratoga County Historian Lauren Roberts. WAMC’s Jim Levulis is the producer. A New York Minute In History is a production of the New York State Museum, WAMC Northeast Public Radio and Archivist Media.
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