Bloomfield Hills — It was his first trip to the Deep South, and the young man from New York City was unprepared.
He was traveling by train to learn how to defend his country in WWII, and ultimately, become a decorated war hero. His dream since childhood was to become a pilot.
“I was 18, and had volunteered to join the U.S. Army Air Corps,” said Lt. Col. Harry Stewart Jr. in his immaculate home near a Bloomfield Hills cul-de-sac. Back then, he had not yet learned how to drive.
“I was traveling with some of my colleagues to Keesler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi, and we were excited to be going to basic training,” he said.
Until a train conductor pointed him out.
“You,” he said sternly. “Get to the Jim Crow car.”
Surprised and humiliated, Stewart, who is African American, rose from his seat and his buddies, who were white, followed suit.
The conductor stopped Stewart’s colleagues.
“No, not you,” he said. “Just him,” again pointing at Stewart.
Stewart, now 94, is one of only 12 living combat pilots from the legendary Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. He is a widower and lives with his daughter, Lori Collette Stewart.
Born in Newport News, Virginia, and having moved with his family to Queens when he was a toddler, Stewart was now on his way to train to defend his country and possibly sacrifice his life in the segregated United States military.
It was only one of too-many-to-count injustices Stewart said he was subjected to as an African American enlisted man. But he went on to fly 43 combat missions in Italy with the 301st Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group in 1944, including taking down three German Focke-Wulf 190s on April l, 1945. The feat took place while on a mission to escort and provide cover for B-24 bombers on a raid over Linz, Austria. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for the effort, and earned a place in the history books.
A day before Memorial Day, Stewart recounted his experiences as a combat pilot, which are detailed in a new book "Soaring to Glory," written by award-winning local aviation writer Philip Handleman. The book will be released on June 4.
Despite the honors and accolades bestowed by the military, trying to find a job as a pilot after being honorably discharged in 1950 was impossible.
He described how he pursued an ad in the newspaper for airline pilots at now-defunct Trans World Airlines, dressed "impeccably and immaculately." Read the entire amazing the story
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