This week’s America250 salute is Air Force Veteran Harry Stewart Jr..
Harry Stewart Jr. was born in Newport News, Virginia, but moved to New York City at a young age. His family lived near LaGuardia Airport in Queens. Stewart remembered that when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, he saw unusual activity at the airport. “[The aircraft] were P-39 Airacobras, taking off from the LaGuardia Airport,” he remembered in a 2020 radio interview. “There were 30 of them. They got into formation and they were flying very, very low over the city of New York there. And I was curious as to what was going on.”
Stewart joined the Army Air Corps to qualify as a pilot. He went to Tuskegee, Alabama, where the famous African American pilots called Tuskegee Airmen trained. He received his wings in June 1944. Stewart then commissioned as a second lieutenant and learned to fly P-40 and P-47 fighter aircraft at Walterboro Army Air Field in South Carolina. After combat training, Stewart served with the 301st Fighter Squadron as part of the 332nd Fighter Group, known as “The Red Tails.” He then went to Italy with 15th Air Force. Stewart escorted B-17 and B-24 bombers over Italy, Germany and Austria.
“It was very cold up there and the missions were tiring because they were quite long,” he later stated in a 2019 Mercury News article. “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.” He particularly remembered one bomber escort mission into Austria in April 1945.
“We were given permission by Colonel Davis and the Fifteenth Air Force Command to leave the bombers after they delivered their payloads so we could destroy targets of opportunity: river barges, rolling stock on the roads and rail lines, and engaging enemy fighter aircraft,” he recalled in a 2020 History Net article. “We went on this sweep and ran into a horde of German Focke-Wulf 190-Ds—a very fine aircraft. Three of our seven planes were shot down…I managed to sneak up behind two Fw 190s and hit both of them, one at a time. I don’t think either one saw me.”
Stewart successfully completed 43 missions during World War II and is one of only four Tuskegee Airmen to have earned three aerial victories in a single day of combat. When the war in Europe ended, Stewart and his comrades expected to go to the Pacific. But after the Japanese surrender in August 1945, Stewart returned to the U.S. In 1949, he served as part of the team from the 332nd Fighter Group that won the first ever “Top Gun” fighter gunnery competition.
He left active duty a year later but remained in the Air Force Reserve for several years after. Stewart ended his service as a lieutenant colonel. He received many honors for his service, including a Distinguished Flying Cross.
Still wanting to work as a pilot after he left the service, Stewart applied to work as a pilot at two commercial airlines but they rejected him due to his race. He later attended college and earned a degree in mechanical engineering from New York University (NYU) in 1963. At NYU, he served as the president of the student council and chair of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Stewart later worked for the ANR Pipeline Company in Detroit, Michigan, one of the largest interstate natural gas pipeline systems in the United States. He retired as vice president of the company.
In his retirement, Stewart maintains an active interest in aviation.
“Just last year, I was at an air show and somebody had a two-seater P-51 with dual controls,” he said. “The pilot took me up and said, ‘You got it.’ I thought, ‘Well, he’s the pilot. If I get in trouble, I know he can get me out of it.’ I did a roll, a loop, and an Immelmann turn. Those three maneuvers took all of the temper out of me. But it was like bicycle riding. I felt quite comfortable up there. At 95, it still feels good!”
Thank you for your service!
VA is highlighting 250 Veterans leading up to July 4, 2026, which marks 250 years of independence. Learn more about the count down to 250 years of the American spirit at https://america250.org/.