War stories gush from him like blood on the beaches of Normandy 70 years ago. Remembering, even after all these years, his eyes glisten with tears.
At 94, his mind remains as keen as it was when all those awful things were happening. Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge aren’t events you ever forget, no matter how hard you want to.
More than anything, it’s the starving children that haunt him.
On military paper, he’s William Ewar Stewart, Company F, 327th Glider Infantry, 101st Airborne Division. In Boone County, around Hernshaw, everybody just calls him “Pete.”
He started out poor, went to war, worked 35 years at DuPont and became, in his quiet way, a prominent and respected community volunteer and, in his familiar Purple Heart hat, a vivid symbol of history.
People who research these things tell him he’s likely the last survivor out of 200 men in Company F. He still has shrapnel in his leg. Every day, he thanks the angels who got him home alive.
“I grew up in Boone County, Racine. When I was about 6 or 7, everyone started calling me Pete. They still do.
“We had an apple orchard, a peach orchard, a cow, chickens, hogs and a garden. But my dad was unable to get work. He said, ‘Son, what are we going to do?’ So I didn’t go to high school.
“I volunteered for the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). I was about 20. Every kid that came in was from a poor family. I got $10 a month, and my parents got $35. One of the biggest lakes in West Virginia, Sherwood Lake, we helped build that. We milled the road in White Sulphur [Springs], about an 8- or 10-mile right-of-way.
“We had to work every day. At Neola, if it was zero or below, we could stay in. If it was one degree above zero, we had to go out in the field and work.
“Later on, our first sergeant decided to leave for another job. The next day, the company commander came in and made me take his job. He called the company together and said, ‘This man is Lord Jesus Christ in this company, and you are his disciples and whatever he says, you’d better do.’
“A couple of months after that, I volunteered for the Army. They sent us to Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, for training. We were the 82nd infantry division.
“It was so hot, every morning you would get up and you could wring water out of your clothes. We took 25-mile hikes three times a week. Up and back. They were trying to get rid of all the old people. In these hikes, they would fall out. When we got ready for combat, we didn’t have any old people.
“They sent us to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Before we left North Carolina, they split it up and made part of us the 101st Airborne Division. You rode the gliders or were a paratrooper. I rode the gliders. When we would pull that glider on the runway, some of the younger boys would start crying. They were scared to ride that glider. It didn’t bother me at all.
“We got to England. We would fly halfway across the channel to see if the Germans would intercept us. We had fighter support. But they never did intercept us. We were ready for combat, the Normandy invasion.
“They didn’t have enough gliders for all of us. The rest of us stayed on the ship until that evening. We got off right where the combat was going on. The paratroopers had already dropped down. They were shooting everywhere. Scared? Of course I was. But I made it fine.
“At every big field, the Germans had a pole set up to keep a glider from coming down. But we landed in a different spot and were to hold it open until the rest of the troops got in.
“They decided our division should take the port of Carentan, where the big ships came in. It was rough. A half mile in, they started shelling us. After that, they sent us back to England.
“The next time, we landed 35 miles behind the German lines. The British troops were supposed to be up to us in 48 hours, and they were to go down the other side of the Rhine River and start defending on the other side. After seven days, they still hadn’t gotten up to us.
“There was a big apple orchard and a railroad track running through it, and right out here was a ditch. The Germans were in the woods and could see every move we made. I got my squad across, and I got up to go, and they started firing. Ninety-nine times out of 100, I would have jumped in that ditch, but I hit the ground, and the shell hit the ditch and it knocked me out. I’ve still got shrapnel in my leg.
“They put me in this house and said they would send the medics. But later on, the captain and two men captured a German, and they came in this house to dry their clothes. A medic came and gave me a shot. There was a wheelbarrow there. They put a mattress on the wheelbarrow and put me on top of the mattress and made this German wheel me back to this big house where they were taking all the wounded.
“They gave me another shot, and when I woke up, I was in the hospital. On my arm they had a big bandage. The nurse said the bandage held the shrapnel from my leg. She said they had to leave five pieces in there.
“They sent me back to England. I was there about a month. They said if I never walked again not to be surprised. I stayed two more months. The Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne came up. They made me go.
“It was tough. Snow was this deep. It was zero or below. We were in a big foxhole. Close to me was one man and a medic. Over from them were two boys in a hole. A shell hit the tree and cut off one boy’s leg. To make room for the medic to get in, that other boy had to come over in the hole I was in. Another shell hit the same tree. The boy who was in the hole all the time, it hit him in the head and killed him. I didn’t get a scratch. From then on, it was just moving and fighting, moving and fighting.
“Another time, we were moving up and we got to the road. The road ran under the railroad track. The Germans started shelling us. In 15 minutes, 20 percent of our company was wiped out. I could look anywhere and there was a parachuter either dead or wounded. Again, I didn’t get a scratch on me.
“Later on, in Germany, there were two big houses. Our company went in one. This woman had two little girls, 7 and 9. She had about 10 bushels of potatoes. Some of our boys took those potatoes. She came out to me and said, ‘Those potatoes are all we have to eat. If you take them, we will starve.’
“The company commander called the company together and said, ‘In 10 minutes, that woman better have those potatoes back.’ When we left, we gave them one of our K rations.
“Then we moved to the bridge that ran across the Rhine River. That night, we had chocolate pudding and threw what was left in the garbage can. I looked out, and little kids were down in that garbage getting that chocolate. That’s all they had to eat.
“I’ve had opportunities to talk to groups, and every time I started telling all of it, I start crying. I still see those little kids without anything to eat. I’ll never forget it.
“Going into France, on the German border, they were killing all the Jews. They had a ramp leveled off, and they would bring a Jew up and help him off into the fire. We knew exactly where this was happening. They lined us up one afternoon. The next day, they were going to make us land where they were doing that, and we were going to be shot at.
“But a wonderful thing happened that night. Patton and his tanks overran it and got them all down. We were supposed to fall right down on top of it.
“My son has pictures I gave him from France, dozens and dozens of houses, all leveled. Everything.
“The war ended, and we didn’t know it until the next day. We were guarding a motor pool run by the Germans. This man had coal piled in his basement. He dug some champagne out of there for us, but we were afraid to drink it for fear it had poison in it.
“Right after the war, part of our outfit was guarding Hitler’s hideout up on the hill. In the basement, Goering had two trains. We were guarding those trains, but we were afraid to move, because somebody might push a button and kill us. That lasted about a month and we got out of there.
“Back home, I put my application in at the coal company in Marmet, the glass plant and at DuPont all the same week. A couple of weeks later, DuPont, the coal company and the glass plant all called me. I worked at DuPont for 35 years in the civil engineering crew.
“I’ve tried to help out. I’ve been on the board of the fire department for 40 years. I’ve helped the Scouts, and I’ve been a member of the church for 60 years — Reynolds Memorial Methodist in Marmet.
“I have a paper here that says, ‘William E. Stewart, Company F, 327th Glider Infantry, 101st Airborne, you are the only survivor out of F Company.’ We started with 200 men.
“If I told you everything, I would start crying. I’m just thankful I could help our country and that I was one of the few that came back. Seeing those little kids going hungry hurt me the most.”
Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.