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.
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.