For more than a half-century, friends and family of Peter J. Stewart waited for the opportunity to give a formal goodbye.
Late Monday morning at St. Matthew Catholic Church, they were finally afforded that opportunity. Stewart, a colonel in the U.S. Air Force and a devout Catholic and family man, was remembered with full military honors 52 years after being shot down during the Vietnam War.
“There’s only one thing that I can begin by saying and that’s ‘welcome home, Peter,’ ” said the Rev. Nicholas O’Brien, who led the funeral services. “What a blessing. The other thing is to thank our country. For 52 years, they were looking for you.”
Stewart’s F-4C Phantom fighter jet was shot down over North Vietnam on March 15, 1966. He was 48. For years, the family looked for answers as to what had happened to their fallen colonel. Those answers finally came in April.
“Over the last few days, the amount of people who came to honor my father has been overwhelming,” son Jim Stewart said. “Today — almost 53 years later — I can still hear his voice and laugh, and sometimes his presence. His legacy is more than just his six kids, but the airmen he served with.”
All of the late colonel’s six children were present Monday, as was his 94-year-old widow, Marnie Stewart. Although he never got the chance to meet them, Col. Stewart would have more than a dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“They never got a chance to meet him,” Jim Stewart said. “He would have loved them and they would have loved him. He is our hero and our hero is home. Even though this is about Dad, he would want me to thank the men and women in uniform.”
Peter Stewart emigrated from Scotland and grew up in the New York City borough of Queens, his son said. He went to college there and initially planned on being an accountant, but the younger Stewart said that didn’t suit his father. In 1943, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and flew 70 combat missions in World War II.
“At the end of World War II, he wanted to serve his country,” the son said. “It was at Bartow Air Force Base where he met the love of his life.”
“Moving from base to base was hard,” Jim Stewart added. “I can’t tell you how many schools we went to. We loved being Air Force brats.”
For 52 years, Jim Stewart never gave much thought to buying a Father’s Day card, but according to O’Brien, that changed this year.
“His father is home,” the reverend said.
During the funeral mass, O’Brien read from Romans and talked about the importance of hope. O’Brien noted that 57,000 lost veterans remain unaccounted for.
“We never walk in darkness when we believe in Jesus Christ,” O’Brien said. “When we have that light, we never have to walk in darkness. Peter walked in the light his entire life. He wasn’t supposed to be flying that day, but he substituted for someone else. He sacrificed for him and for me and for you. That’s why we must thank the military for all that they do.”
The MacDill Air Force Base Bomber Squad provided the flyover following the mass, which included a 21-gun salute. Each of Stewart’s six children and his widow was presented a flag to honor the late colonel.
“I think the experience has been surreal,” said Margaret Stewart, 24, a granddaughter. “For my family, it was well-deserved. Everyone is just so proud and honored to welcome him home.”
Prominent city and county officials, members of law enforcement and military were in attendance Monday to pay their respects to a military colonel who called Winter Haven home. Although the grandchildren never got to meet the colonel, Margaret Stewart said his reverence throughout the family remained strong for “an all-around good guy”.
“It’s a very bittersweet time for the Stewart family,” she said. “It was one of the most special and emotional moments of my life. I think it’s going to bring a lot of peace for my family moving forward.”
Incense was burned around Stewart’s casket during the ceremony. The rosary that laid on top of the casket was his own. O’Brien said that when the colonel was stationed in Thailand, he attended mass every day.
“As difficult as today might be, we can finally let go fully — no more wondering,” O’Brien said. “Maybe that’s what Peter is trying to do also. Peter has been given eternal life. I truly believe that on this day, Peter is with our God, praying for us.”
© 2018 The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.)
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