God was Harry Stewart’s co-pilot. He swears by that.
He survived 43 combat missions during World War II and is one of only a dozen remaining Tuskegee Airmen from the famed “Red Tails” fighter group still alive.
He turns 95 on July 4 and said he’ll never forget his days escorting B-17 and B-24 bombers over Italy, Germany and Austria, taking on enemy fighters in his P-51 Mustang.
“It was very cold up there and the missions were tiring because they were quite long. They lasted anywhere from five to six-and-a-half hours, and when we got back to the base all we could think of doing was hitting the sack and getting some rest and being prepared for the next day’s mission,” the retired lieutenant colonel said.
Being shot down and captured was not an option. The black Tuskegee Airmen were showing the world bigotry didn’t belong — except down below.
On April 1, 1945, hate showed its face once again.
“There were seven of us and we were going after targets of opportunity in Austria,” he said of the day his squad got into a dogfight with German fighter pilots.
“Three of us got shot down. One was able to make it back to friendly territory before he crash-landed, one was killed outright when he was shot down and the third one, his plane was damaged so badly that he had to bail out,” said Stewart.
That pilot was captured and lynched three days later by an angry mob.
“The crowd, after being agitated by the SS troops, they broke into the jail and took this downed pilot out and they beat him badly first and then hung him from a lamppost. His name was Walter Manning,” Stewart said. “He was a very dynamic person. He was, I remember, a great swimmer. Lord knows what he would have done had he been able to survive the war.”
Stewart — one of the Heroes of a Generation the Herald is chronicling — almost faced the same fate that day over Austria.
“I realized (as tracer bullets whizzed by him) somebody was shooting at me. A German fighter plane was on my tail and I thought sure that I had had it,” Stewart said.
He dove for the ground, pulling up at the last second as the German fighter on his tail crashed nose-first in a ball of flames.
“Somebody was with me. I guess it was God as my co-pilot there because that guy should have had me,” he added. “I was about to give up the ghost.”
Stewart lives in Michigan now but once trained in Massachusetts at Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee and flew with fellow pilots from all over New England. He has a book coming out next week about his days as a Tuskegee Airman. It’s called “Soaring to Glory.”
It’s a fascinating tale of a teenage boy in a segregated America defying the odds and proving himself 30,000 feet above the Earth as the world was at war.
“I subdued those feelings that I might have had about racial prejudice and committed to the mission,” he said of escorting bombers. “There were 10 lives on board each of those bombers that we were protecting. So anytime we intercepted an enemy fighter and stopped them from shooting the bomber down, we potentially saved 10 lives, and that was 10 American lives, fellow Americans and I was not thinking about some of the segregation that was going on at the time back in the states.”
As the story goes, the men on those bombers quickly came to love seeing the Red Tails pull alongside.
“We were like their guardian angels,” Stewart said.
Those long missions, he added, were exercises in perseverance — a shared trait of all the Tuskegee Airmen.
“It was cold … maybe 50 to 60 degrees below zero. … And you’re trapped in the cockpit and you cannot really move,” Stewart said of his single-seat Mustang. “Sometimes coming back from a mission … I would invert the plane, turn it over on its back then so actually I was hanging by my safety strap.
“That was such a relief, to go ahead and hang from the safe strap. It was like somebody rubbing your back,” he said, remembering like it was yesterday. “I couldn’t stay in that position for too long, it was only for a second and then turn the plane back over upright again.”
Stewart is retired now from his mechanical engineering job with a pipeline company. He was recently invited back to Austria, where the townsfolk of Linz honored the memory of his fellow Tuskegee Airman.
“They wanted to make amends for what had happened, what the civilians had done to Walter Manning, and they were doing a commemoration and setting up a very nice memorial for him,” Stewart said. “It was very inspirational.”
His days as a Tuskegee Airman come back to Stewart in a dream, he said. But he’s most proud that he showed the world that patriotism transcends race.
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