Coworkers uncover veteran’s history

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jarrod Grammel
  • 23d Wing Public Affairs
When two volunteers with the Citizen Observer Program in Orlando, Fla., walked into another volunteer's home to pick him up, they were amazed and heartbroken at what was hanging on the wall.

One of the volunteers there that day had worked with him for a year and a half and had never known about what his fellow volunteer had done 71 years ago.

The volunteer they were there to pick up that day was retired Lt. Col. Harold Stuart, a former 76th Fighter Squadron P-40 Warhawk pilot.

"It broke my heart," said Julio Velgara, Citizen Observer Program volunteer. "We went into his house and he has all this on an old towel with tape on a wall. I told Dex we have to do something. We took them all down, we cleaned them all, and then had them framed."

Velgara and the other volunteer, Dex Dexter, saw the medals, awards and historic artifacts hanging on the wall and Velgara immediately recognized the Flying Tigers emblem.

Velgara began researching the Flying Tigers of World War II and soon found out that Stuart earned an aerial victory by shooting down a Japanese plane on Nov. 27, 1942 over the Sea of Japan.

"He did tell me that he came down upon the plane and shot it," said Dexter. "As soon as he hit it and smoke started, he cut off. He said he remembered looking back and seeing it going down. I asked him if he saw a parachute, and he said no."

Stuart was drafted in 1942, and was sent all over the U.S. for flight training that ended with qualifying in the P-39 Airacobra and finally the P-40. While assigned to the 76th Fighter Squadron, he was sent to Kunming, China, then Kweilin, China, and finally Lingling, China before returning home.

"Primarily it was to defend the base at Kunming: that was the big mission," he said. "Occasionally, we would go on an escort mission with the bombers and sometimes just recon to see if there was any activity."

For Stuart, this meant always being ready to fly and intercept any enemy aircraft in the area.

"Normally, our mission was to get up early, have breakfast, get to the flightline and wait," said Stuart. "They had a very unique way of notifying us. They had people throughout China with phones. They would see a flight of airplanes and call it in.

"If there was bad weather, they would estimate the sound of the aircraft, call it in and give the possible location," he added. "Then we would take off and try to intercept them."

Although the 94-year-old Stuart's memory is fading, there are times when he can recall his experiences with detail. Even after 71 years, he still remembers the first time he encountered enemy aircraft.

"On my first mission, I pulled a goofy," he said. "I could see them approaching in the distance, and it started getting dark in the cockpit. I couldn't see. Something told me to dive and dive I did. Well, I hadn't put on my oxygen mask. So that day the enemy got one and I got zero."

After World War II, Stuart flew P-51 Mustang's over Korea before the start of the Korean War.

"We were based at Kimpo (Air Base, South Korea) to just sort of keep the enemy on their side of the line," Stuart said. "That was 1947 to 1948.

"There was a threat of North Korea invading then," he added. We left Korea, I think, in February (1950), and the combat started in June."

When Stuart left the Air Force, he didn't stop flying, and worked flying cargo aircraft out of Miami for airlines. He also opened up a Mexican restaurant in Orlando about 20 years too soon, Dexter joked.

For now, Stuart continues to patrol as a volunteer for the Orlando Police Department once a week with Dexter and Velgara. They try to keep him sharp by looking for expired license plate tags.

Dexter and Velgara also plan to begin video recording Stuart talking about his life, from as early as he can remember to his days flying over China and after he retired.