‘I just want them to be remembered as good citizens’ who helped protect their country ‘even in the face of discrimination.’

Harry T. Stewart, Jr., Tuskegee Airman, U.S.

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A handcrafted model of a P-51 Mustang holds powerful memories for Harry Stewart, who flew 43 combat missions in just such an airplane.

‘I just want them to be remembered as good citizens’ who helped protect their country ‘even in the face of discrimination.’

Harry T. Stewart, Jr., Tuskegee Airman, U.S.

Nearly a thousand African-American pilots who served in World War II learned to fly at Tuskegee, Alabama, the only U.S. military airfield that trained black cadets. Just 10 of the famed Tuskegee Airmen remain today, and retired Lt. Col. Harry T. Stewart, Jr., who turned 95 last Independence Day, is one of them.

Growing up in Queens, New York, Stewart would wander over to a nearby airfield to admire the mammoth aluminum birds and fantasize about flying. He would finally realize his dream in 1944, when he began escorting American bombers to their targets across Europe.

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During one mission, Stewart—the grandson of a man born into slavery in Alabama—shot down three enemy aircraft while escorting American bombers. He was 21 years old and had never driven a car.

During one such mission on Easter Sunday 1945, Stewart and six squadron mates were flying 5,000 feet above Nazi-occupied Austria when suddenly they found themselves outnumbered by Luftwaffe planes. Deadly dogfights ensued, Stewart squeezing off burst after burst from his P-51 Mustang’s six .50-caliber machine guns. Landing back at his base in Italy, he was greeted with fanfare and credited with downing three enemy aircraft—a feat for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

But the rookie fighter pilot was thinking of three fellow aviators shot down in the battle. One died instantly, one managed to crash-land in Yugoslavia, and one bailed out, his body reportedly discovered in Austria after the country was liberated from the Nazis two weeks later.

HARRY STEWART, TUSKEGEE AIRMAN

After the war Stewart stayed in the Air Force—President Harry Truman mandated racial integration of the military in 1948—and won the inaugural “top gun” competition with two fellow Tuskegee pilots in 1949. A year later, postwar budget cuts forced thousands of officers, including Stewart, out of the Air Force. He earned his commercial pilot’s license on the GI Bill and applied to fly for Pan American and Trans World Airlines. They rejected him. They didn’t hire black pilots then.

The loss of his wings and dignity seeped in. But Stewart had a history of overcoming obstacles. He applied to New York University and earned a degree in mechanical engineering. He found employment and success as an engineer, traveling around North America, the Far East, and Europe. His last job took him to Michigan, where he rose through the ranks at one of the nation’s largest natural gas pipeline companies and retired as a vice president.

In 2018 Stewart traveled to Austria for the first time since the war, this time as a guest of the Austrian government. Researchers investigating the fate of downed Allied pilots had determined that Stewart’s squadron mate Walter Manning, the one who had bailed out during the bloody Easter mission, had been captured alive.

While awaiting transfer to a prisoner of war camp, the 24-year-old had been lynched by a mob incited by racist Nazi propaganda. Exactly 73 years later, Stewart and his daughter looked on as Austrian dignitaries apologized for the atrocity and dedicated a memorial.

Stewart says he never expected to see the Tuskegee Airmen acknowledged in museums and memorials, and written into history books and Hollywood films. His hope for their legacy? “I just want them to be remembered as good citizens—good Americans who felt duty-bound to join in protecting their country during times of need, even in the face of discrimination.”

Hear more voices from World War II.