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An Army Air Corps pilot recalls training for World War II.
Though this December 7 marks 79 years since the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Dave Stewart remembers the attack by Japanese air forces on the Hawaiian naval base like it was yesterday.
“It was very early in the morning and I was lying in bed, listening to my radio, when I heard the news of the attack,” Stewart recalls. “I had a friend stationed there so my thoughts immediately went to him. I was in shock and scared and I woke my mother up to tell her.”
Stewart’s friend was safe but an existing desire to fly intensified to help his country.
Stewart, who was born in 1924, is the son of Alton Stewart, the first licensed pilot in North Carolina. Interestingly, it was Orville Wright who signed Alton’s pilot’s license.
“When a Wright brother was a family friend, needless to say, planes have been my passion since I was a toddler,” Stewart says. Though his father died in a tragic Christmas Day plane crash when Stewart was 5 years old, he says his father’s death “only made my dreams of flying stronger.”
“I always knew I’d be a pilot,” Stewart adds.
Two years after the devastation of Pearl Harbor, when World War II was in full swing, Stewart—who had just graduated from Durham High School’s class of 1943—enlisted in the Army Air Corps in the hopes of joining the fight.
“I was both elated and nervous about the possibility of joining the war effort overseas,” Stewart recounts. “All I ever wanted to do was become a pilot and now I was getting my chance.”
Stewart headed down to basic flight school in Alabama, where he trained in a Vultee BT-13A (also known as a Vultee Vibrator) at Gunter Field. The Vultee was the most common plane used to train American pilots during the war.
“For me, being in the air is like being in heaven,” Stewart says.
Stewart was set to leave for Europe to join his fellow servicemen in the war efforts when news of the Allied invasion of Normandy—better known as D-Day—arrived.
“I was proud of our troops when I heard that the war had ended, and happy that our nation’s efforts were successful,” Stewart says.
But he was reluctant to give up on his dream of flying, so Stewart earned his commercial pilot’s license as well as his commercial glider pilot’s license. Then, after learning about the G.I. Bill—a law that provided benefits to service members including a college education—Stewart decided to enroll at NC State University. Soon after, Stewart met his wife, Corrine, and he put his days of flying behind him.
“Flying was the time of my life but I knew that if I went on to be a commercial pilot, I’d be away from my young family, and I certainly didn’t want that,” he says.
Instead, Stewart began a career with the Kirby Company selling vacuum cleaners in 1951. In 1973, he started his own franchise which grew to be the largest Kirby distributor in the world.
Now, at 96 years old, you’ll still find Stewart sitting behind the Kirby counter at his service and parts center on West South Street, greeting customers, neighbors and guests who stop in to hear his stories.
“I’ve been all around the world, seen and met many wonderful people,” Stewart says. “I think about what my life would’ve been like had I gone over to the war but I know that God has always had a beautiful plan for me. My life has been full and wonderful.”
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