“Dad emigrated here from Scotland when he was about 4. He really did love this country," said son Jim Stewart.
WINTER HAVEN — For more than a half century, one family has been hoping for answers about a lost loved one who never returned home from Vietnam. Fifty-two years later, they’ve got their answer.
Air Force Col. Peter J. Stewart was deployed for Vietnam in August 1965. On March 15, 1966, his F-4C Phantom jet was shot down over North Vietnam. His remains were identified last month.
“I don’t know if elated would be the word to use, but it was bittersweet,” Jim Stewart said of his father’s remains being identified. “There’s some peace in knowing that instead of languishing in some hell-hole prison in Vietnam that he died quickly.”
Jim Stewart was the second oldest of six children and just 15 years old when his father left for Vietnam. The youngest of his siblings was not yet 5 when his father left.
“He was gone a lot, but when he was home, he was home,” the son said. “It was a shock. Whenever he left before, he always came back. I always expected him to come back.”
The colonel was 48 years old when he died, which is much older than most who go missing in action. His widow, Marnie Stewart, is 94 years old.
“I’m not 100 percent sure that everything has sunk in,” Jim Stewart said. “She’s glad to know that we finally have some answers. We’re all kind of dealing with it a little differently.”
The city plans to honor the family with a proclamation during today’s City Commission meeting. It was suggested by Commissioner William Twyford at a previous meeting. Airport Manager Alex Vacha, a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, has been coordinating with the family.
“We’ve just been trying to find a way to recognize these people for their service,” Vacha said. “What an incredible story.”
The late Peter Stewart’s remains will be flown into Tampa on June 16. His memorial service with rosary recitation will be held June 17 at Oak Ridge Funeral Home and his mass with military honors will take place one day later at St. Matthew Catholic Church. The Patriot Guard Riders, a motorcycle nonprofit, will take part in the festivities.
“I can’t believe the closure that this must be for the family and I’m so happy his wife gets to see it,” Vacha said. “As a military aviator myself, I can’t imagine how good it must feel for the family to finally have him home in Winter Haven.”
According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, nearly 57,000 veterans missing in action remain unaccounted for, including about 1,600 from the Vietnam War. Stewart was one of more than 90 fallen servicemen and servicewomen identified this fiscal year.
“It usually provides a great deal of closure for the families,” said Sgt. 1st Class Kristen Duus, a spokeswoman for the agency. “We have so many families relieved after not knowing what happened. We’re still regularly getting identifications from World War II.”
According to Dan Penzien, president of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1040, Stewart is the first missing Vietnam veteran from Polk County identified in more than 20 years. The last was Capt. John Norlee Flanigan, a Marine, who died on Aug. 19, 1969. Flanigan’s body was found in July 1989 and identified on June 13, 1997.
“We’re at an age now where we have a lot of DNA technology,” Penzien, an Army veteran, said. “Our organization is set up for full accounting of people who go missing. We fought the war and we always envisioned that our country would keep looking for us.”
Penzien records Vietnam veterans missing in action for all of Florida. So far, he said, 37 have been accounted for while 54 remain unaccounted for. The lone remaining missing Vietnam veteran from Polk County, Penzien said, is Gerald Everett Olson, a Winter Haven native and major in the U.S. Air Force. Olson was lost on March 13, 1966.
“They found the crash site, but they weren’t able to piece anything else together,” Penzien said. “Most bodies have not been recovered.”
For years, the Stewart family has hoped for answers about their father. Jim Stewart’s sister, Elizabeth Stewart, and former U.S. Rep. Bill Hendon, R-North Carolina, published a book in 2008 called “An Enormous Crime,” which critically examined the U.S. government’s abandonment of prisoners of war in Southeast Asia.
Shortly after his father’s death, Jim Stewart enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where he served from 1967 until 1975. Stewart said his father’s service was a factor in his decision to enlist.
“When you grow up on an Air Force base, you see that and you live that,” he said. “There’s definitely something to that.”
The family got their first glimmer of hope last year after the remains of Col. Martin R. Scott, the aircraft commander, were identified.
Peter J. Stewart’s service began in 1948 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
“My dad was a very religious man — a staunch Catholic,” Stewart said. “Dad emigrated here from Scotland when he was about 4. He really did love this country.”