When fighter pilot Harry Stewart Jr. joined the Army Air Corps in 1944, some in the military believed he and nearly 1,000 others like him were mentally and physically incapable of operating fighter planes.
But Stewart, 86, went on to fly 43 missions over Germany after graduating from a segregated military flight school as one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American aviators in U.S. military history.
During his World War II stint, Stewart destroyed three German planes and received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.
In 1949, Stewart and two other African-American pilots from the 332nd Fighter Group competed in the first Air Force gunnery meet against 11 other teams, all white. Stewart’s team won.
“I think it proved that we were just as good and just as innately qualified as the other pilots,” he said.
Stewart, a retired Bloomfield Hills mechanical engineer, and four other
members of the celebrated all-black aviation unit will be honored this evening during an annual dinner and fundraiser hosted by the Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Museum in Detroit and the Detroit Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc.
The event begins at 5:30 p.m. at MotorCity Casino and Hotel. Tickets are $100.
The U.S. Army Air Corps began training African-American aviation cadets in 1941 at the urging of President Franklin Roosevelt, who had been influenced by his wife Eleanor’s visit to a civilian flight school at the historically black Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, said Brian Smith, the museum’s president.
The “Tuskegee Experiment” was established to train African-Americans, who had been disenfranchised at all levels of society, including the military, to fly and maintain combat aircraft. Thousands of African-American men from across the country enlisted.
Though estimates vary, roughly 990 were trained in Tuskegee from 1941 to 1946 as pilots. Many more were trained at other U.S. military bases as navigators, bombardiers, and maintenance and administrative staff.
The national museum was established in 1987 on Detroit’s southwest side at the Historic Fort Wayne to preserve and showcase the contributions of African-American aviators to the war effort; and expose Metro Detroit youngsters to aviation and aerospace science.
“It opens up their career opportunities or they can do something they’ve always dreamed about, like flying an airplane,” Smith said.
Stewart said flying was “glamorous and very exciting” and his military service allowed him to fight for the rights afforded other Americans: fairness, equality and the ability to control his own life.
Still, his freedom flights may have been predestined. “I was born on the 4th of July,” he said.