PROVO -- A resurgence of interest in World War II will lead to honoring American heroes of the past at this year's Freedom Festival.
Among them is 81-year-old Col. Walter T. Stewart (USAF-ret.) who with his wife, Ruth, lives on a century-old ranch his grandfather built in Benjamin, a southern Utah County community named after his uncle.Stewart, a popular public speaker, said he has noticed increased interest in World War II the past few years, following the half-century observance of America's involvement in the war.
"It seems after 50 years have passed all of a sudden there's more activity. There's a wave of interest in WWII. I get phone calls and letters from people from everywhere."
While soldiers who fought in the war are being honored, Stewart credits the Americans who stayed behind and supported the fighting troops for the successful war effort.
A decorated war hero -- including the coveted Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with four oak clusters -- Stewart recalls May 29, 1943, the day 13 B-24 bombers flew out of southern England to bomb a German factory in Bordeaux, France, on the Bay of Biscay. The factory was being readied to build transport aircraft that would have made possible a paratrooper invasion of England.
"The number 13 is significant.
Thirteen B-24s were all we could get," Stewart recalled. All leaves were canceled two weeks before the planned Bordeaux mission to piece together the long range bomber fleet. The Germans thought they were safe in Bordeaux -- they didn't think the U.S. Air Force had bombers that could fly that far, he said.
The bombers flew from their base to an airstrip on the southern tip of England the night before, then took off the next day and bombed the factory, taking heavy flak, Stewart said.
"We lost four planes, but we hit the target and returned to the base in southern England. I came in on three engines," he said.
But because of the war effort at home in America, manufacturing plants that turned out peacetime products were rapidly converting to a military manufacturing machine, he said. One year and one week later, an air force that could muster only 13 bombers now flew 13,000 sorties on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
"Nobody believed we could do that," he said. "The marvelous production of the American people was amazing." Many of the workers were women, older people and people with a 4-F designation that kept them out of the military, he said.
"But they rendered a priceless service in preparing us. Candy factories and file cabinet makers converted over (to making parts for bombers). It had to be a huge effort far beyond the fondest hope anyone could have."
On the Bordeaux mission, the bombers had no fighter plane escort protection. But by 1944 "precious P-51s, P-47s and P-38s were brought in daily. From then on we had fighter pilot protection."
Stewart went on to fly numerous important bombing runs, including a mission over Ploesti, Romania, in a B-24 he dubbed "Utah Man," which is depicted in the documentary film, "On a Wing and a Prayer." It was on that mission that his friend Hugh R. Roper of Oak City, died when his B-24 collided with another in a thick cloud bank. Roper died on his 25th mission, the number required before airmen could return home.
"We flew 18 missions together," Stewart said. He had been Roper's co-pilot in a B-24 dubbed "The Exterminator" until Stewart was assigned to "Utah Man." Shortly after he left "Utah Man" after flying more than 30 missions, the bomber was shot down in November 1943, killing all but two of his crew.
The Utah National Guard will honor Stewart at a reception at the Little America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Wednesday where he will receive an award.
Stewart will also be honored with three others on Friday at the Freedom Festival Awards Gala with a Freedom Award at the Wilkinson Center on the Brigham Young University campus. The others are Robert E. Bush and Lloyd Kilmer, both World War II veterans, and Stephen R. Covey, a best-selling author and motivational speaker.
On Saturday, Stewart will be honored at the Stadium of Fire event where a clip from the film, "On a Wing and a Prayer" will be shown.
On Sunday, Stewart and his wife will be given special seats at the Patriotic Service at BYU Marriott Center. And finally, on Monday, Stewart will ride front and center in the Fourth of July parade with Kilmer.