Walter T. Stewart was born in Benjamin, Utah, in 1917. During World War II he was a B-24 pilot, flying 236 hours of combat. Of the 32 combat missions he flew, the most historic was the low-level bombing mission to the oil refineries of Ploesti, Romania, on August 1, 1943.
Operation "Tidal Wave" was Lt. Stewart's 31st combat mission. He was assigned as Deputy Lead of the 93rd Bombardment Group despite his rank and because of his reputation and experience. Five groups took off from Libya for the 2,000-mile round trip to their target, which was supplying nearly one-third of all oil used by Nazi Germany.
After weeks of practice at flying low level, they intended to bomb the refineries from "about 50 feet above the stacks" in concentrated waves of bombers. However, after crossing into Bulgaria, the formations entered weather and became separated. Their navigation was also disrupted by the loss of the lead navigators due to enemy fire on the way to the target. A critical turn point was misidentified and the bombers were forced to ingress through the most heavily defended area around Ploesti rather than circling in from the northeast, as planned.
During the ingress, Lieutenant Colonel Addison Baker, who was leading Stewart's group, was shot down. Lt. Stewart assumed the lead and continued on, guiding the 93rd through the intense flak to deliver the first bombs on the target.
The attack turned to chaos with bombers from the different groups attacking from all quadrants, but the oil refineries were severly damaged. The B-24s were under heavy attack from flak and fighters on their egress and return flight as well. Of the 178 aircraft that took off on the most decorated mission of World War II, 54 were shot down; 532 of 1,726 men did not return.
Lt. Stewart's plane, named "Utah Man," came back with 365 holes in it. The damage the aircraft suffered was so severe that they had to reduce airspeed and nearly ran out of fuel. The plane landed two hours after most of the other aircraft had returned to base. The USAAF's next raid on Ploesti was six months later and flown at 25,000 feet.
Lt. Stewart flew one more combat mission after Ploesti, then was re-assigned to the United States where he toured facilities supporting the war effort. After the war, he continued flying with the Air Force Reserve. He retired as a Colonel after thirty-six years of service. Among his many decorations are the Distinguished Service Cross, which was not awarded until 1995 due to clerical errors; the Silver Star; Distinguished Flying Cross; and Air Medal with 4 Oak Leaf Clusters.