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Friday, July 08, 2005

WWII pilot to revisit site of Kentucky crash

Over Van Lear, Tuskegee pilot bailed out in '48By Lee MuellerEASTERN KENTUCKY BUREAU VAN LEAR - The last time Harry T. Stewart Jr. dropped in on Eastern-Kentucky, 9-year-old Callie Daniels looked up into a cold March sky in 1948 and mistook his billowing parachute for a white eagle. She yelled for her daddy, who came out just in time to see Stewart disappear over a hilltop behind his house. At about the same time, 5 air miles away, Loretta Lynn's little brother, Herman Webb -- riding in the bed of his father's pickup truck -- felt an explosion unlike any in the history of this Johnson County coal camp. Stewart's empty P-47 Thunderbolt fighter plane sailed across Webb's family cemetery and crashed into a hilltop overlooking his now-famous homeplace on Butcher Hollow, leaving a crater 10 or 15 feet deep. Stewart, a decorated-member of the Tuskegee-Airmen, a famous all-black World War II fighter plane squadron, is coming back to Eastern Kentucky in August. This time, he will be riding in a car as the grand marshal in Van Lear's 20th annual Town Celebration on Aug. 6. "There's a couple of things left undone," said Stewart, 80, who now lives in Bloomfield, Mich. "One thing, I'd like to let the Lynn family know I didn't desecrate the family plot," he said wryly. "And two, I'd sure like to give special thanks to Callie for pointing out the white eagle." 'A mighty big bird' Callie Daniels Johnson, 67, of Hagerhill, a retired elementary school cook, says her memories of Stewart's plunge into her life are vague -- but she is certain of two things: It was the first time she ever saw a parachute or, for that matter, a black person. "I had no idea what it was," she said. "If it was a bird, I thought, it was a mighty big bird." It was her late father, Lafe Daniels, she said, who went searching for Stewart on horseback and found him beneath a rock cliff, with a broken leg. Daniels, then 38, put Stewart on his horse and took him to his wife, Mary, who cleaned and bandaged his wounds. Daniels eased Stewart's pain with a clear, all-purpose mountain remedy that Stewart had mistaken for water. The true story of the events of March 20, 1948, had been lost in local lore here until this year, when Danny Keith Blevins, a Johnson County teacher and president of the Van Lear Historical Society,-decided to track down the truth. He found Stewart, fresh from his first solo fight in a power glider across southern Michigan. "I'm very much alive," he e-mailed Blevins. Stewart laughed when Blevins told him that according to stories he heard growing up in Van Lear, the plane crash on Butcher Hollow occurred when the Air Force shot down a B-52 bomber that had been stolen by a black man. "They didn't even make B-52s in 1948," Stewart said. The real story, he said, is much more interesting. Prepare for take-off Stewart, who was born in Newport News, Va., on July 4, 1924, grew up in Queens in New York City and became-interested in aviation at an early age. African-Americans were barred from becoming fighter pilots until 1940, when-President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the Army Air Corps to form an all-black flying unit. After World War II began, Stewart, at 18, volunteered and applied for the Aviation Cadet Corps. He went through flight training at Tuskegee Army Field at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, quickly earned his wings and became a 19-year-old second lieutenant. Later, Stewart became a member of the 332nd Fighter Group in the 15th Air Force: the Tuskegee Airmen. The-pilots painted the tails of their planes red and emerged from the war as the only U.S. fighter group that never lost a bomber while escorting it to and from its target. Stewart flew 43 combat-missions over Europe, mostly escorting B-17 and B-24 bombers, and was credited with shooting down three-German fighters. He was awarded the Distinguished-Flying Cross and the Air Medal with six oak leaf clusters. After the war, Stewart-became one of the first Top Gun instructors and in 1947 married Queens native Dephine Stewart at Lockbourne Air Force Base near Columbus, Ohio, after a 11/2-year courtship. (The couple had one daughter, Lori, who works as a technician on CBS' Survivor.) Cabin pressure The family was still living at Lockbourne in March 1948 when Stewart and four other Tuskegee Airmen began flying to Columbus from Shaw Air Force Base in Greenville, S.C., during simulated armed-reconnaissance. "We were flying in formation over Eastern Kentucky, passing through a thunderstorm, when I had engine failure at 20,000 feet," he said. "I rode the plane down to 10,000 feet, but I was still in the clouds, and I knew there were mountains in the area." Rather than risk plowing-into a hillside, Stewart said he decided to bail out of his-sputtering plane, something he'd never had to do before and hasn't done since. The P-47 did not have an ejection seat, Stewart said, so he slid the canopy back and took off his seat belt. "I trimmed the nose forward so that when I let go of the stick, the nose would dip and eject me forward," he said. "Unfortunately, the slipstream hit me and I flew back, hitting my left leg on the tail of the plane, breaking it in two places between the calf and ankle." Stewart was still in the clouds when his chute opened, he said. When he could see the ground, it was covered with a mountainous forest. Pilots hate bailing out over mountains, he said, because you never know what's waiting below. "Luckily, I landed in the top of a dead pine," he said. "My parachute bloused over the top of the tree while my body fell through the dead branches, which broke my fall." The parachute, draped over the tree, left him dangling 2 feet above the ground, Stewart said. "I'd lost my shoe on the leg I broke, which was bleeding profusely," he said. "I must have been in shock, because I remember wondering why I had got up that morning and put on one red sock and one brown one." The notion shook Stewart awake. He took off his white silk flying scarf and improvised a tourniquet for his bleeding leg. Then he began to wonder, seriously, how he was going to save himself. "Just then, I heard a voice from afar, yelling out, 'Hello, hello!'" Stewart said. "Of course, I replied with a frantic 'Hello!' of my own. I didn't want to take a chance on them not hearing me." Man 'n' the moonshine Years have blurred some-details, Stewart said. He remembers one man coming to his rescue; Callie Johnson says an older brother and maybe others accompanied her father. Stewart said Daniels got him on the horse and they rode down the hillside to Daniels' house, which was located near Odds -- then a post office at the head of Daniels Creek in-remote Johnson County, now a new subdivision across a four-lane highway (Ky. 3) from a federal prison. At some point, Daniels, who gave Stewart moonshine to numb the pain, put him back on the horse and rode him out of the hollow to the late Kennel Collins' store on the main road, which was mud and gravel. He was placed in a pickup truck and driven to the Paintsville Clinic. "The next thing I knew, they had washed me and put me in bed," Stewart said. The doctors gave him-morphine for his pain, Stewart said, and "the combination of moonshine and morphine put me in another world." "I remember people lined up outside the door to see this apparition, this phenomenon," Stewart said. The mayor came in and introduced himself, he said, and then the police chief, county sheriff and a reporter from The Paintsville Herald. Blevins said a story in the local paper about the crash on March 25, 1948, did not mention that the pilot was black. "I guess I caused a little bit of a commotion there," he said. "All in all, the townspeople seemed to be receptive to this apparition, so I still feel a debt of gratitude to the entire-community." About 1 a.m., someone from the Air Force base in Columbus arrived in Paintsville and-transported Stewart back to Ohio without any formal-goodbyes, he said. Dephine Stewart said she was not told her husband's plane had crashed until he arrived home. Scraps to souvenirs Stewart left active duty in 1950 but remained in the Air Force reserves and retired as a lieutenant colonel. He then earned an engineering degree from New York University, worked for Bechtel, the defense contractor, and later retired from American Natural-Resources Corp. "I had no idea what-happened to the plane until Danny told me this year,"-Stewart said. "He said it was scavenged." Wreckage was strewn all over the mountainside, Webb said, but by the time Air Force officials showed up to-investigate the crash site,-nearly every scrap of the-fighter plane was gone. At the time, Van Lear was still a busy coal camp of 5,000 people, built in 1912 by-Consolidation Coal Co. and named for Van Lear Black, an associate of Paintsville coal agent John C.C. Mayo. The road up Butcher Hollow, about a mile from town, was still mostly in the creek bed, Webb said, but area hillsides had been clear cut for mining-timbers, making it fairly easy to reach the crash site. "The whole town went up," said Jim Kelly of Prestonsburg, who was 7 at the time. One resident got there-almost too quickly. "I had eight .50-caliber-machine guns on that plane, and I understand some of the ammo exploded on impact," Stewart said. Not exactly on impact.-Farris Castle, a World War II veteran, had almost reached the site when the burning-bullets started exploding, Webb said. "He hid behind a rock-until the shooting stopped." Kelly remembers Doolittle Lynn -- Loretta Webb's-husband -- driving past him with the plane's propeller lashed to the side of his Jeep. The machine guns were-destroyed in the crash.-Neighborhood boys later picked up a sack full of unexploded shells, said Webb, who had a three-foot section of a steel-ammo belt hanging on his front porch for several years.-Military officials told his friends to get rid of their-machine-gun shells, Webb said, so they dropped them off the Van Lear bridge into the river. Finally, some residents hitched three little bank mules to the wreckage and hauled the entire plane off the hill, Webb said. Four men loaded it onto Kelly Butcher's big cattle truck and drove it to Ashland, where they sold it as scrap metal for $60 or $70, he said. Webb said he does not-remember what his sister Loretta was doing during the crash, but he said an uncle-later made rings out of the stainless steel nuts that came off the plane. One of Kennel Collins' daughters found Stewart's bloody silk flying scarf, washed it in a stream and still has it, Blevins said. Someone else claimed to have found the flyer's cap, which he had stowed in the plane. Another man said Stewart's missing shoe landed on his house, Webb said. "I look forward to meeting this guy," said Webb, who lives near the crash site. "I went up there the other day with a-metal detector and found-another shell." Reach Lee Mueller at (606) 789-4800, or e-mail


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