Tuskegee Airman Harry Stewart Didn’t Let Racism Stand in the Way of His Dream


“I used to look at planes as a youngster and fantasize about being within the cockpit.”

AT 95, HARRY STEWART is sharp-minded, amiable, and talkative. There’s a kindness in his voice that belies his achievements: 75 years earlier, Stewart was flying P-51 Mustangs over Europe with the fabled “Pink Tails,” the 332nd Fighter Group made up of African American pilots within the then-segregated U.S. navy. He flew 43 fight missions—scoring three kills, all in someday—whereas escorting and defending heavy bombers to their targets. Whereas Stewart encountered racism all through his flying profession, he has maintained a optimistic perspective that helped propel him to high positions as an engineer and firm government. Stewart is the topic and collaborator of a brand new guide by Philip Handleman, Hovering to Glory: A Tuskegee Airman’s Firsthand Account of World Warfare II.


Fighter pilot Harry Stewart at Tuskegee Military Airfield in 1944. (U.S. Air Power by way of Harry T. Stewart Jr./Courtesy of Regnery Historical past)

Have you ever all the time needed to fly?

My mother and father instructed me that once I was two years outdated in Virginia, I might crane my neck in my crib to have a look at planes taking off from close by Langley Subject. They stated I might coo as they glided by. My people later moved to the borough of Queens in New York Metropolis. We lived a couple of mile from North Seashore Airport, now generally known as LaGuardia. I used to go over there as a youngster and watch the planes. I might fantasize about being within the cockpit. I didn’t notice then that a couple of years later I might be sitting within the cockpit of an actual aircraft. It was the fortune—or misfortune—of warfare that introduced that about.

Have been you drafted into the navy?

I needed to beat the draft and get into the Military Air Corps as a pilot trainee, my coronary heart’s want. I took the examination for aviation cadet in 1942 once I was 18 years outdated. After fundamental coaching at Keesler Military Airfield in Mississippi, I went to the segregated air base at Tuskegee, Alabama, and continued coaching there. A yr and some months later, I used to be sitting within the cockpit with my second lieutenant’s bars, flying my aircraft.

Segregation and racism had been part of the navy and society again then. How did you take care of it? 

After I joined the military, I used to be crossing the Mason-Dixon Line going from New York to the South on a practice. The conductor pointed to me and stated I needed to go within the coloured automotive. It was a tough factor to swallow, however I did as a result of I had my eyes on the prize—and that was getting my wings. There could have been some bumpy roads previously, however I all the time look towards the longer term.

My first unit was the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the U.S. Military Air Forces’ first African American fighter squadron. I acquired to fly with the Pink Tails—the 332nd Fighter Group, beneath the Fifteenth Air Power—in January 1945.

The Pink Tails had a fame for staying with their bombers. Why was that?

That was the results of our commanding officer, Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr., an African American who retired in 1965 as a lieutenant common. He was later promoted to four-star common. On the time, he admonished us on almost each mission to stick with the bombers: “Gents, you shield the bombers and people folks onboard them. You’re to interdict with any plane coming in, however then you definately return to the bombers.” It was beneath the penalty of court-martial when you determined to sizzling canine to get some enemy kills.

You scored three kills on one mission. Inform us about that day.

That was a day I can’t neglect. It was April 1, 1945, which occurred to be Easter Sunday and likewise April Fools’ Day. We had been on a bomber escort mission into Austria. We got permission by Colonel Davis and the Fifteenth Air Power Command to go away the bombers after they delivered their payloads so we may destroy targets of alternative: river barges, rolling inventory on the roads and rail strains, and fascinating enemy fighter plane.

We went on this sweep and ran right into a horde of German Focke-Wulf 190-Ds—a really fantastic plane. Three of our seven planes had been shot down. One of many pilots made it again to pleasant territory, one other was killed immediately, and the third, Walter Manning, managed to bail out of his crippled plane. When he alighted on the bottom close to Linz, Austria, he was captured. Then a mob beat him severely and lynched him from a lamppost. It was horrible, however it was not distinctive. The Austrians hanged quite a few Allied airmen. Not solely American, however British, Canadian, South African, and others. The Austrians suffered horrible bombings, and so they needed revenge.

What occurred to you?

I managed to sneak up behind two Fw 190s and hit each of them, one after the other. I don’t assume both one noticed me. With the third plane, I noticed these tracers come by and realized he was behind me. I believed I had had it. He had me useless to rights. I panicked and dove to the bottom. I used to be pulling my plane in and making some extraordinarily tight turns, harmful maneuvers. The German pilot, in making an attempt to observe me, over-controlled and hit the bottom. His plane was destroyed and the Fifteenth Air Power determined to present me credit score for it, though I didn’t shoot him down.

What was it like flying a fighter in fight?

An ace pilot was requested that query. “Sheer boredom interspersed with moments of terror,” he stated. That’s description. My biggest worry was being trapped within the plane when it was on hearth. That gave me nightmares. Being a long-range escort, we had been loaded down with gasoline. We had two 110-gallon exterior gasoline tanks, 90-gallon inner gasoline tanks in every wing, and 85 gallons within the fuselage sitting proper behind you. On takeoff, all the things trusted the Mustang’s Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. One miscue and also you go down in an enormous orange mushroom and it’s throughout.

How did the Mustang fly?

It was thrilling. It was such as you had been driving a jalopy round and any person comes up and asks, “Would you wish to get on this Maserati?” It was lovely. It was actually a pilot’s plane—very conscious of instructions. It was like an extension of your personal physique. The wings turned your arms and the rudder pedals your legs and the fuselage your physique. It was such as you had melded into one machine.

Stewart (far right) and fellow pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group won the piston class of the 1949 Fighter Gunnery Meet. (U.S. Air Force)
Stewart (far proper) and fellow pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group gained the piston class of the 1949 Fighter Gunnery Meet. (U.S. Air Power)

The place had been you when the warfare in Europe ended?

I used to be in my tent in England and I heard it on the radio. I stated, “Properly, I suppose my subsequent tour will likely be Okinawa.” The Tuskegee Airmen at dwelling had been being skilled to fly B-25 bombers. I feel there was a grasp plan to transform us to a mixed group of bombers and fighters and ship us to Okinawa, the place we might fly to Japan and the fighter pilots of the 332nd would function escorts. We in all probability would have been flying the F-82—the Twin Mustang. It had an amazing vary. We’d have flown the P-47N Thunderbolt. Each these planes had possibly a 13-hour endurance, which was sufficient to take us to the Japanese mainland and again once more. However, after all, they dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and that ended any prospects of us being despatched to the Pacific.

What occurred after the warfare?

The crowning glory was in 1949 when Hoyt Vandenberg, the air power chief of workers on the time, stated he needed to resurrect a contest held earlier than World Warfare II, the Fighter Gunnery Meet. He directed that every one fighter teams within the continental United States would ship three pilots to compete within the deserts close to Las Vegas.

The Tuskegee Airmen competed in aerial gunnery at 10,000 and 20,000 toes, strafing, skip-bombing, dive-bombing, rocketry. We had been divided into two teams: one was the jet class and the opposite was the piston class. There have been seven fighter teams represented within the jet class and 5 within the piston class. The Tuskegee Airmen gained the piston class. We had been the primary Prime Weapons, postwar, so far as the piston class was involved. We had been flying P-47s towards P-51s, and we had been capable of greatest them! The large factor it demonstrated was that the African American pilots had been on par with the opposite pilots, and having a segregated group was wasteful so far as manpower went. One month after that, the 332nd Fighter Group was fully disbanded and personnel had been despatched to all 4 corners of the Earth. Since then, the U.S. Air Power has been fully built-in.

You needed to turn out to be a industrial airline pilot, however racism ended that dream.

I did apply to the airways once I acquired out of the service in 1950 however was turned down. It was possibly a decade later that the airways recanted their coverage and took on black aircrew members. Not too long ago, I used to be flying someplace and I occurred to look within the cockpit. Lo and behold, the pilot and copilot had been African American—and each had been feminine! That introduced tears to my eyes. 

You resumed flying while you had been in your sixties. Did you ever fly a P-51 once more?

Simply final yr, I used to be at an air present and any person had a two-seater P-51 with twin controls. The pilot took me up and stated, “You bought it.” I believed, “Properly, he’s the pilot. If I get in hassle, I do know he can get me out of it.” I did a roll, a loop, and an Immelmann flip. These three maneuvers took all the mood out of me. But it surely was like bicycle driving. I felt fairly comfy up there. At 95, it nonetheless feels good! ✯

This text was revealed within the April 2020 subject of World Warfare II. 

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