There are just 11 surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen, a legendary all-black military unit that flew combat missions during World War II.
Ninety-four-year-old retired Lt. Col. Harry T. Stewart, Jr., who lives in Bloomfield Hills, is one of them. His life is the subject of a new book from aviation writer Philip Handleman titled “Soaring To Glory: A Tuskegee Airman's Firsthand Account of World War II.”
Stewart was born in Newport News, Virginia, but moved with his family to Queens, New York, at the age of two. On his 18th birthday, Stewart volunteered for the Army Air Corps, where he says he managed to hide from military doctors a heart murmur and the fact that he’d had polio as a child.
Stewart then got on a train at Penn Station and headed for training in Alabama. He says he had his first encounter with institutional segregation when he crossed the Mason-Dixon line.
“When we got to Washington, the conductor came into the car that I was in — and I happened to be with some kids from my neighborhood at the time, they were white. The conductor pointed to me and he said, ‘You go up to the Jim Crow car in the front,’” Stewart said.
After he completed his pilot training in Tuskegee, Alabama, on June 25, 1944, Stewart was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Forces. He was then sent to Italy as part of the 332nd fighter group, known as “The Red Tails.”
When Stewart was honorably discharged from active duty in 1950 at the age of 25, he’d flown 43 combat missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his valor with the Red Tails. Upon returning home, he says he wanted to pursue his dream of becoming a commercial pilot.
But when he applied for positions at Pan Am and Trans World Airlines, Stewart says he was dismissed as unqualified due to the fact that he is African American. By the time those airlines reversed that position and began hiring black crew members and pilots, Stewart had already moved on to a career as a mechanical engineer.
On a recent flight that departed from Detroit Metro Airport, Stewart says he had an experience that brought tears to his eyes.
“When I entered the plane, I looked into the cockpit there and there were two African American pilots. One was the co-pilot, and one was the pilot. But not only that, the thing that started bringing the tears to my eyes is that they were both female,” Stewart said.
Stewart was eventually made an honorary pilot by Delta and American Airlines. In 2007, then-President George W. Bush honored the Tuskegee Airmen by presenting them with a Congressional Gold Medal for their service.
Click through the slideshow above to find out more about the life of Lt. Colonel Harry T. Stewart, Jr.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas.