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Nearly 60 years later, WW II vet receives Purple Heart

by Staff Sgt. Randy Redman
Thunderbolt editor
photo by Staff Sgt. Randy Redman
Retired Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Stewart (left) with his family after he finally received the medal he has been waiting nearly 60 years to receive. Stewart's plane was shot down in Germany during World War II.

His bomber formation was the first to arrive on target and was heavily engaged by flack and fighter aircraft.

"All the other planes had been called back due to bad weather,"

recalled retired Staff Sgt. Robert D. Stewart. "But we had a one star (general) who said we were going for it."

When enemy fire tore apart the B-17's number one engine, Stewart and the other crew members were forced to bail out of the plane. The injuries he sustained from the 20 mm shell fragments were just the beginning of his troubles that bleak winter day nearly 60 years ago.

"I landed in a creek and lost one of my sheepskin boots," explained Stewart with a far-away look in his eye. "Snow was covering me up to my waist when I finally just hid under a pine tree."

Stewart was captured by the Germans placed in a cell underneath an old barn. Since he was denied access to medical supplies, he was forced to use his own first-aid kit to remove the shrapnel himself.

Stewart was recently approved to receive the Purple Heart medal for injuries sustained as the Left Waist Gunner and Medic on a B-17 "Flying Fortress" while on a bombing raid over Germany on Jan. 11, 1944.

Over the past few years, the Air Force Personnel Center has processed numerous awards earned during World War II, and the Korean and Viet Nam wars - but only recently were they approved. For these newly approved awards, the AFPC forwards the decoration to the nearest military installation, which offers the recipient an opportunity for a formal presentation.

Because Stewart now resides in Bradenton, Fla., MacDill was selected to present him with the oldest U.S. military decoration in the world still in use and the first American award made available to the common soldier. It was initially created as the Badge of Military Merit by General George Washington. His appreciation of the importance of the soldier in any endeavor compelled him to recognize outstanding valor and merit in deserving individuals.

Stewart gratefully accepted his long awaited medal from Brig. Gen. (Sel) Snyder, 6th Air Mobility Wing commander, in a special ceremony at the 6th AMW headquarters Tuesday.

"I'm sorry that it took so long for the nation to recognize your service," said Gen. Snyder. "But we want to be sure that your sacrifices will never be forgotten."When he was finally rescued and returned to the U.S., the only thing on Stewart's mind was returning home to be with his family. "When they asked him at the out-processing station if he had been wounded, he told them no so he could just come home," said Mrs. Genevieve Stewart, his wife, who attended the ceremony along with several other members of Stewart's family. That "white lie" made it nearly impossible for Stewart to receive a medal no one could deny he earned. Even today he still carries shell fragments he was unable to remove. The Board of Correction of Military Records at AFPC required multiple documents and testimonies from people who knew Stewart and were familiar with the events in 1944 in order to award him the Purple Heart. One of those testimonies came from James Baker, a prisoner with Stewart in Germany, who also attended the ceremony.

The Purple Heart is awarded to members of the armed forces of the U.S. who are wounded by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy and posthumously to the next of kin in the name of those who are killed in action or die of wounds received in action. It is specifically a combat decoration.

The "Military Order of the Purple Heart" was formed in 1932 for the protection and mutual interest of all who have received the decoration. Composed exclusively of Purple Heart recipients, it is the only veteran's service organization comprised strictly of combat veterans.

What Washington wrote in his orderly book in 1782 still stands today; "The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all. This order is also to have retrospect to the earliest stages of the war, and to be considered a permanent one."

 

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