New Years Day is a holiday all over the World. January 1, 1945 was a Monday, giving participants an opportunity to enjoy a three day weekend. But not everyone gets to celebrate.
During the Second World War, New Years Day January 1, 1945 was business as usual – more missions, more death, more destruction. First Lieutenant Robert D. Stewart was no stranger to any of it. Having enlisted nearly two years earlier on January 27, 1943, Stewart had seen plenty of action and had demonstrated plenty of heroism.
Stewart had already received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, which is the equivalent of being awarded the medal four times.
Lieutenant Stewart was a pilot in the 369th Bomber Squadron. He flew the famous B17 bomber, known as the Flying Fortress. The Fortress was known for its durability. While equipped with four engines, it could fly on just one.
But the idea that this plane was some kind of fort was a misnomer. The aluminum skin on the aircraft was oil can thin. Any sort of ordinance would pass right through, be it anti-aircraft fire or bullets or cannon from enemy aircraft. It wasn’t uncommon for B17s to return with hundreds of holes through the airframe. Bomber air crews suffered some of the highest casualty rates in the war.
No one knew it at the time, but the war in Europe would be over in just 127 more days – just over four months. The Battle of the Bulge was still raging and would continue for another 24 days. The Germans were thought to be a defeated foe. This surprise attack caught the Americans unprepared.
The Bulge would end in an American victory, but not before handing the US its highest casualties of any battle in the war.
On January 1, 1945, a war that seemed almost over a few weeks ago seemed endless now. Therefore, it came as no surprise to Stewart that he would be spending the holiday over Germany on another mission. But this mission would be different from the others.
Having cheated fate on numerous occasions, this time Stewart wouldn’t be so lucky. His plane was damaged by flak over Germany. Stewart did all he could to bring his riddled craft back to England, but ultimately crashed into the North Sea. All nine crew were lost.
Word reached home January 25th when the Milwaukee Journal reported Lieutenant Stewart MIA. His son Gary was born two weeks earlier, on January 13th. Lieutenant Robert D. Stewart is memorialized on the MIA Wall at the Cambridge American Cemetery in Cambridge, England.
First Lieutenant Robert D. Stewart