At left, Marnie Stewart, the widow of Vietnam War pilot Col. Pete Stewart, seen inset, receives the American flag that was draped on her husband’s coffin during a Mass June 18 at St. Matthew Parish in Winter Haven. Sitting next to her are some of her children. At right, son Jim Stewart places a crucifix and a rosary on the casket of his father. The son had kept his father’s rosary for five decades and wanted to return it to his father. (FRANK HALE | COURTESY)

After 52 years, pilot finally comes home

OCALA | When Marnie DeHaven married the love of her life, Pete Stewart, she envisioned a long life of growing old together. As any new bride would think, she saw a future of happy memories.

“They were married Nov. 11, 1944, in a Catholic ceremony in Winter Haven,” said Bill Stewart, the couple’s son.

Almost 74 years later, Col. Peter Stewart’s funeral Mass was celebrated at St. Matthew Parish in Winter Haven June 18, just after Father’s Day. The Mass included full military honors.

But the couple never spent those 74 years together.

In August 1965, Lt. Col. Stewart, an F-4C Phantom II aircraft pilot, left for Vietnam. Shortly after, he was promoted to colonel. While he was in Vietnam, the family, like so many others, faced uncertainty and a feeling of dread of whether soldiers would return from war.

Everything changed for the Stewart family when they got word that Pete’s plane was missing.

“It was March 15, 1966, and we were living in Virginia at the time,” Bill said. His father’s plane was shot down during a reconnaissance mission over North Vietnam, and was declared missing in action.

After 22 years of marriage and six children, Marnie was left in limbo. After the school year ended in 1966, Marnie and the family moved back to Winter Haven, where she still lives.

“It was hard for them to cope with the fact that they may or may not have a parent or husband. The not-knowing was difficult,” said Margaret Stewart, Bill and Sloan Stewart’s daughter.

But then the call came this year — 2018. Pete’s remains were identified and he was coming back to Winter Haven. Margaret said God’s presence was definitely felt during the long weekend, in anticipation of the family’s receiving the remains of their loved one. His remains were flown from Hawaii and arrived in Tampa June 16.

“It was impossible not to recognize God’s hand in my grandfather’s homecoming,” Margaret said. “It was no coincidence that he got to come home on Father’s Day weekend, the first time in 52 years that his children got to celebrate with their father. And his wife got to welcome him home at 94 years old. It was so special for us to be with her.”

There was a remembrance table at the church during the Mass that included personal possessions belonging to Pete. Among the items on the table were photos, a newspaper clipping and many of the medals he received during his service. There was also his St. Christopher medal that was found with his remains. The rosary was also Pete’s, but was kept all these years by son Bill.

There was also a flyover by the U.S. Air Force at the funeral. The formation of jets that flew over was the missing man formation — an aerial salute in memory of a fallen or missing comrade, with an empty space in the formation where a jet would normally be. The formation was composed of four F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft from the 93rd Fighter Squadron, Homestead Air Reserve Base.

Many remembrances were brought up at the funeral. Pete originally wanted to be an accountant, but before he met Marnie he wanted to be a priest. And while he was stationed in Thailand, he went to Mass every day. “I learned that during his funeral Mass and loved that,” Margaret said.

For the Stewart family, there is finally a sense of closure now. After 52 years, there will be no more wondering and anxiety about their loved one.

Being married to a career Air Force lieutenant would bring many surprises and turns in life. This is a typical pattern of military families. The Stewarts had six children: Maggie, Jim, Kandi, Beth, Bill and Susie. Along with Winter Haven, the family lived on many Air Force bases, including Itazuke, Japan; Alexandria, Louisiana; Selma, Alabama; and Norfolk, Virginia.

“They enjoyed moving around and loved the Air Force life,” Margaret said.

But all this changed when America escalated its tactics in the Vietnam War. After news of her husband’s status of MIA, Marnie and her family hoped and prayed they would receive information — something other than missing in action.

After moving back to Winter Haven, life went on as best it could for the Stewart family. Jim eventually joined the Navy in an eight-year enlistment. Beth attended law school at Louisiana State University.

But the husband and father were not forgotten. And in the family’s effort to gather information themselves, Beth and Marnie went to Washington, D.C., in 1981. They met with other families of MIAs and POWs.

While in Washington, Beth decided to stay. During her time there, she worked for a government agency and also pursued further research about her father and other missing service members. She also had a working relationship with Bill Hendon, a congressman from North Carolina. Their collaborative research culminated in a book, “An Enormous Crime: The Definitive Account of American POWs Abandoned in Southeast Asia.”

“(It was) about what efforts were not being made to recover POWs and MIAs overseas,” Margaret said, adding that Beth moved back to Florida to continue her law practice after two decades in Washington.

But after 52 years of research that led to dead ends, the family finally received some sense of culmination from the Air Force. They were informed that Pete’s remains had been found.

“I believe the family was notified mid-March of this year,” Margaret said. “We believe that he was killed upon impact of his plane being shot down over North Vietnam since his remains were recovered near the crash site. My uncle, Jim Stewart, was the first to receive the news and let the rest of the family know.”

Pete’s remains were identified by dental records and his St. Christopher medal, which was also found at the site.

“His remains were identified via dental records, but even before they sent those off to be identified, they had a hunch that it was Col. Stewart’s remains,” Margaret said. “It was all found very near the crash site which was unexpected, but his co-pilot was recovered about a year ago and he was Episcopalian, so the St. Christopher medal (the back of which said ‘I’m a Catholic’) was a key identifier for my grandfather.”

Finding Pete’s remains was a bittersweet ending for the family. Certain memories and thoughts that had been buried long ago were brought up to the surface.

“But it was good for the family to finally get an answer, an answer that was well-deserved for my devoted, loving family,” Margaret said. “My family feels peace most of all, peace in finally having an answer. My grandfather’s devotion to our country never waivered and neither did my family’s, but it was difficult for them to face the unknown every day. You know in the back of your mind the military code that no one will be left behind, but it definitely makes you wonder as the years go by with so many questions unanswered.”

Some general background information was taken from an article by Alec Harvey for the Alabama News Center, May 28, 2018.