Bill Stewart received a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from the University of Minnesota on December 18, 1941 (See Pt. 2). That was 11 days after Pearl Harbor was bombed.
I went directly to induction into the military at Ft. Snelling MN. Military service was not completely strange to me because I had two years of ROTC [Reserve Officers Training Corps] in high school. I passed through three training schools. The first in Tulare CA, next at Taft CA and the last at Phoenix AZ. There were “wash outs” but we never knew who or what; they simply disappeared.
I had a great sense of accomplishment when I made my first solo flight. My wings were pinned on me by my flight instructor in Phoenix. I was one of a group of P38 pilots sent up to Everett WA on a train. No sooner were we off the train than we were sent on another train to Orange County CA airport. Our job was to defend Southern California. Ha! The Air Force was trying to determine where we were needed most.
After two weeks in California we were flown to New York and put on a “banana boat” for shipment to England. The interior of the ship had been modified to accept bunks rather than produce. My good friend Andy Winter and I were standing on the stern of the ship when the gun crew on the deck above decided to let go with three inch deck guns.
My ear drums were blasted at that impact. The ship was sunk later in the war at the Straits of Gibraltar with all personnel lost.
We docked in Scotland. Some of us pilots were stationed at Ayr – a rehabilitation area for exhausted RAF pilots. These were seasoned fighter pilots; we were supposed to learn from them. The US command apparently didn’t know what to do with us. That first day at Ayr we heard that a US pilot had flown into a mountain in the north of Ireland with an Admiral on board.
In London I worked in US fighter command headquarters for one month. While there I prepared an accident chart for General Hunter. This was a simple bar chart comparing pilot error accidents with mechanical failure accidents. Most accidents, I confirmed, were caused by pilot error. The General was pleased with my work.
Then I was sent to another air base in England to learn to fly all the different airplanes. There is a use for pilots in many different aspects of war. By that I mean flying in gasoline, bombs and ammo and flying out wounded to hospitals. We didn’t have helicopters for flexible use as are commonly available today.
Discipline was a bit lax in the squadron I was in. But one day when a pilot from Oklahoma came to flight line for duty wearing his western boots, he was very firmly corrected. There was, however, a gradual change in jackets that was not in any of the manuals.
A pilot named Costa reported for flight duty in a handsome jacket none of us had ever seen before. It was of Air Force uniform material with generous shoulder width and a slim waist The jacket, professionally made by a London tailor, was cut off at the waist and patterned after a Cuban dinner jacket. The jacket was so becoming that it soon became popular with other pilots who could afford to have one tailored. The senior officers knew something had to be done before the situation got out of hand. But what to do?
Apparently the senior officers liked the unauthorized jacket so much that they decided to go to the top: General Dwight D. Eisenhower. They wisely named it “The Eisenhower Jacket” and it must have been readily approved.
Pilot Costa was thought to be from a family of Cuban diplomats. He was part of our squadron because he was one of the few men to have experience in a B17. Costa was flying one of the original B17s in the Pacific when Pearl Harbor was attacked.
* See English Channel 1944 for section Bill wrote here.
Squadron Operations Officer
After several months of service, I was made squadron operations officer. But when pilots crashed, disappeared or were transferred, I was not told what happened to them. However, I was asked on several occasions to write letters to the families of deceased pilots.
Another problem for me was the lack of instructions. For example, I was sent to investigate and report on crashed aircraft. I did not feel qualified to properly do this job but probably was better qualified than the other pilots. Did I have the authority to go on another air base and question the ground crew of the crashed airplane? I made a natural assumption that the pilot was the ultimate person to determine whether a plan was flyable and not the ground crew.
Preparing for a flight of P38s from England to Africa, one pilot objected to the flying readiness of the aircraft. The ground officer of the departure field threatened to bring charges of insubordination against him. I was one of the pilots, not the squadron leader, so I had no jurisdiction over the situation. The pilot apparently ran out of fuel over the Straits of Gibraltar and crashed. He died.
Later a general asked me if I wanted to lead a squadron of P38s on a flight to Africa. I said I did not. The general did not take kindly to this response. Several weeks later I was reprimanded verbally by another general over the phone.
I still think that I am correct that the pilot determines the flying readiness of an aircraft. All aircraft are not in proper condition all the time. In Germany I had 21 stretcher cases and one or two nurses and one engine was missing fire. I immediately turned the aircraft around and landed.
Among my memorable experiences is the flight where I had a planeload of British prisoners captured at Dunkirk. So they probably had been in France or Germany almost seven years. The ex-prisoners would come up to the cockpit and look ahead to the land of England and cry. I helped them a little bit on this one because I cried too. Their teeth were in deplorable condition but they were so happy. These men were still fairly young.
I also had the opportunity of flying repatriates from Buchenwald concentration camp. I did not even turn off the motor of the airplane. Someone else directed the loading and bench seating along the sides of the plane. Then I quickly took off. During the war the pilots did not know what was going on on the ground, such as the concentration camps and crematoria. We knew nothing about that. The leadership knew but intelligence told us only what they wanted us to know.
I wish to mention one other incident because of the unusual severity of the situation. In the summer of 1944 Andy Winter and I were flying a B17 from England to Oklahoma City. At approximately 2 a.m. we took off from the Pan American air base at Belem, Brazil.
It was my turn to pilot on this leg of our journey. We immediately entered an intense rainstorm. I had never before seen or experienced rain of such volume and force. No lightning, no thunder. Just rain and turbulence. This was above the estuary of the Amazon River. I was flying by hand since we had no operating automatic pilot. The B17 was acting like one of those twenty five cent bucking broncos at fun places! I was surprised that the airplane could take it. But it never missed firing in this deluge. I was exhausted when we landed at Puerto Rico.
Commercial Pilot’s License #283070
I was honorably discharged from the service 22 Oct 1945. I had earned the rank of Captain sometime in 1943 and probably had flown about twelve different heavy aircraft. Upon discharge I was awarded a Commercial Pilot’s License to fly multi-engine aircraft. License number 283070: I held in my hand what I had worked toward for so many years.
I had accomplished my lifetime goal. But my values had changed. I had to make a decision. Did I want to continue flying and being away from home? Or did I want to seek a non-traveling job? By this time I had been away from friends and loved ones more than nine years, which had a profound effect on me and my ultimate decision.
I loved my family and, by now, a pretty girl named Marji. I placed a stable family life and marriage above a flying career with its financial rewards and recognition.
Thanks and Apologies
I appreciate the Air Force teaching me to fly. The feeling of unbounded freedom in the sky does indeed increase one’s confidence. I needed that. Also there is that spiritual bond to one’s creator when you know that the only thing between you and death is a higher power.
My profound thanks to the British people. I was there three years. Although I had very limited time for personal contacts or sightseeing, I appreciated their courtesies and their strengths.
And my apologies to the new PX in Germany for an incident sometime in 1945. If it was my plane that brought you a planeload of cups – A, B, C and D – I had nothing to do with choosing brassieres instead of paper cups!
We in Bill Stewart’s family are very grateful to the men who fired the deck guns on that transport ship. The ear damage Bill sustained prevented him from becoming a combat pilot. Their life expectancy in WWII was 4 weeks.
My professor and friend Dr. George Park was a US combat pilot who, thankfully, did survive. He said he loved flying. So I asked if he’d thought about becoming a commercial pilot after the war. No, he laughed, the kind of flying he’d learned didn’t translate well. Wouldn’t make for a reassuring flight for civilian passengers.
Next: Life on Civvy Street.