Tuskegee Airman recounts tales of segregation and valor for Memorial Day

Shawn D. Lewis

Bloomfield Hills — It was his first trip to the Deep South, and the young man from New York City was unprepared.

He was traveling by train to learn how to defend his country in WWII, and ultimately, become a decorated war hero. His dream since childhood was to become a pilot.

Lt. Col. Harry Stewart Jr., one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen, next to a model of the P-51D Mustang plane he flew in WWII.

“I was 18, and had volunteered to join the U.S. Army Air Corps,” said Lt. Col. Harry Stewart Jr. in his immaculate home near a Bloomfield Hills cul-de-sac. Back then, he had not yet learned how to drive.

“I was traveling with some of my colleagues to Keesler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi, and we were excited to be going to basic training,” he said.

Until a train conductor pointed him out.

“You,” he said sternly. “Get to the Jim Crow car.”

Surprised and humiliated, Stewart, who is African American, rose from his seat and his buddies, who were white, followed suit.

The conductor stopped Stewart’s colleagues.

“No, not you,” he said. “Just him,” again pointing at Stewart.

Stewart, now 94, is one of only 12 living combat pilots from the legendary Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. He is a widower and lives with his daughter, Lori Collette Stewart.

Born in Newport News, Virginia, and having moved with his family to Queens when he was a toddler, Stewart was now on his way to train to defend his country and possibly sacrifice his life in the segregated United States military.

A photo of the 1945 class 44-F at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Alabama.

It was only one of too-many-to-count injustices Stewart said he was subjected to as an African American enlisted man. But he went on to fly 43 combat missions in Italy with the 301st Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group in 1944, including taking down three German Focke-Wulf 190s on April  l, 1945. The feat took place while on a mission to escort and provide cover for B-24 bombers on a raid over Linz, Austria. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for the effort, and earned a place in the history books.

A day before Memorial Day, Stewart recounted his experiences as a combat pilot, which are detailed in a new book "Soaring to Glory," written by award-winning local aviation writer Philip Handleman. The book will be released on June 4. 

Despite the honors and accolades bestowed by the military, trying to find a job as a pilot after being honorably discharged in 1950 was impossible.

He described how he pursued an ad in the newspaper for airline pilots at now-defunct Trans World Airlines, dressed "impeccably and immaculately."

"I had been back less than a year after being discharged, and walked into the building and announced myself to the receptionist, telling her I was responding to the ad in the paper," he said. "She looked at me and then looked away before saying, "We're not taking any applicants."

What did he do?

"I walked away," he said. "I didn't want to let her see she had gotten to me and made me have this awful feeling."

But a gentleman nearby overheard the exchange.

"He approached me saying he was from human resources," said Stewart. "He tried to defend their policy of excluding blacks saying, "Picture yourself as a passenger on the aircraft. How would you feel if you saw this black man in a pilot's uniform walking down the aisle to the cockpit. It would destroy the confidence of the passengers."

Years later, the airline industry tried to make amends. He received an honorary captain's award from American Airlines in  2018 and an award from Delta Airlines in 2015.

"I understand what they were trying to do," he said.

Stewart was surrounded Sunday in his living room with models, large and small, of the P-51D Mustang plane with the red tail he flew, hence the name of the movie "Red Tails," the American 2012 war film.

He said it took a lawsuit to give him and other African Americans the right to risk their lives for their country.

"At the beginning of the conscription, there were African Americans who volunteered to become pilots but were denied the opportunity because of their color," said Stewart, whose mind remains sharp. The Army Corps was segregated and their excuse was they had no segregated facilities to train African Americans."

The government began training African Americans to become pilots on a  segregated basis."

He said the Tuskegee Army Air Field was constructed and designated to be the training base for African American pilots. But he did not allow segregation to derail him.

"I wanted to go into the service and felt this was my country," he said. "And even though some forces in the country would deny me full citizenship, I felt I had just as much ownership in this country as anyone else. And should it become my turn to fight for my country, I would certainly do that with as much pride, honor and vigor as anyone else."   

 Stewart made his mark early.

"I graduated and got my 2nd Lieutenant bars and my wings at 19, and I didn't even know how to drive a car," he said.

While serving with the Tuskegee Airmen, he was one of the bomber escorts for the B17s and B24s.

"They all had white crew members, and our job was to protect them from enemy aircraft," he said.

But despite the brilliant the maneuvers, it always came down to the color of his skin.

"I always was treated as a second-class citizen," he said. "I was called into a segregated service and after the war was over, I went back into a segregated civilian life."

A photograph of Lt. Col. Harry Stewart Jr., right, with fellow Tuskegee Airman Leon Spears from Denver during a leave in Naples, Italy, in 1945.

Stewart said most of the jobs available for black servicemen included street cleaners, dishwashers and garbage collectors.

He returned to school to get his high school diploma and then his degree in mechanical engineering and got a job as a junior draftsman in a municipal engineering firm.

After earning a degree in mechanical engineering from New York University, he retired as vice president of the ANR Pipeline Co. in Detroit, a company that operates of one of the largest interstate natural gas pipeline systems in the U.S. 

"After I graduated, I worked for a number of companies, but always was in pursuit of advancement and I was offered a much higher position in Detroit, unsolicited, so I took the job," he said. "In a year, I had advanced to vice president of administration."

Rick Sinkfield, spokesman for the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. in Tuskegee, Alabama, said, "The historical significance of the Tuskegee Airmen is that among them were the first black pilots in American military history, and by performing well in combat, proved that they fully deserved the same opportunities offered to white pilots and servicemen. They proved to be just as capable as the white pilots and lost significantly fewer bombers than the other groups in the Fifteenth Air Force protecting the lives of countless bomber crews."

Stewart will be at the Rochester Hills Barnes & Noble for a presentation at 1 p.m. June 15.