By Ralph Hood
Oh, I had an exciting event last week …
I had a telephone interview with Lt. Col. Harry Stewart, Jr., one of the last living members of the Tuskegee Airmen.
The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of black pilots who were chosen, taught to fly, and sent off to Europe to fly combat missions in World War II. They did a great job.
Back when I was selling airplanes in Montgomery, Alabama – a hop, skip and jump from Tuskegee University – I met several Tuskegee airmen.
You young folk can’t possibly imagine how prejudiced and segregated we were in the 1940s, particularly in the southern United States.
Harry Stewart, the future Tuskegee Airman, traveled by train from New York to Tuskegee University in Alabama. Two years later, he was flying P-51 fighters against the Germans in Europe.
Just imagine – he learned to fly, received the coveted silver wings, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He was at the time only 19 years old, and not yet licensed to drive a car!
The Tuskegee Airmen did a great job flying in WW II. They won honors. Stewart was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He flew 43 missions and once shot down three German airplanes in one day.
They were heroes. They did all this knowing full well that if they were shot down and lived, they – unlike white pilots – could not hide among the white population on the ground – they would be killed.
They were heroes – until they came back home after the war.
Stewart had always wanted to be an airline pilot. He said he quickly learned that no airline would hire a “colored person” as a pilot.
Stewart remained in the military a few more years, rising to the rank of Lt. Colonel. Then he retired from the military, went back to school at New York University, earned a mechanical engineering degree, and went to work for a large company, ANR Pipeline. When he retired, he was vice president of the company.
Obviously, the man is a winner in any arena.
After his second retirement, Stewart took young people flying in a sailplane, hoping to inspire them for great things in their future.
Col. Stewart will be 95 years old on July 4 – what a patriotic day to be born! – but he’s still moving forward. He has a book out, “Soaring to Glory: A Tuskegee Airman’s Firsthand Account of WW II,” written by Lt. Col. Harry Stewart and Philip Handleman (Regnery History, June 4, 2019, $29.99).
Col. Stewart will be flying by airline to California to introduce the book. I wonder if any passengers on the flight will realize that a true American hero is onboard.
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