Before Queens and Rulers
by Terry Bohle Montague
All rights reserved
(Portions of this article have been excerpted from Courage in a Season of War by Paul H. Kelly and Lin H. Johnson, to be released this year.)
Captain Walter Stewart by the wheel of a B-24 in November 1944.
“That the fullness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple unto the ends of the world, and before kings and rulers.” (Doctrine and Covenants 1: 23)
On the 30th of March 2002, Great Britain’s royal family announced the death of one of its own. The 101-year-old mother of Queen Elizabeth, Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon Windsor, passed away peacefully in her sleep at Royal Lodge, Windsor.
Ten days later, at the funeral service held in Westminster Abbey, the Archbishop of Canterbury noted that the admiration, affection, and respect expressed by the world for this late Queen were not necessarily due to the length of her life nor of her famous station.
He said, “It was due to her giving of herself so readily, so openly. There was about her, in George Eliot’s lovely phrase, ‘the sweet presence of a good diffused‘. Like the sun, she bathed us in her warm glow.”
Captain Walter Stewart, a 25-year-old member of the United States Air Force, stationed in Norwich, England in 1944, enjoyed that warm glow on a wet, wintry afternoon at a women’s bazaar in the village of West Newton.
Walt Stewart had served as a missionary under Hugh B. Brown in Great Britain from March 1938 to September 1939. His assignment there came between a crippling economic depression and, with the emergence of the Third Reich, an anxiety about the possibility of another war. Apathy toward all religion had spread among the British. As Elder Stewart was to discover, it made proclaiming the gospel a difficult and sometimes discouraging effort. He said of his mission that he was “rarely invited in, and most often invited out.” Then, with the declaration of war between England and Germany in September 1939, President Heber J. Grant ordered the missionaries to leave Great Britain. Elder Stewart finished his mission in West Virginia.
After attending the University of Utah, Walt joined the United States Army Air Corps and served as a command pilot on a four engine, B-24 Liberator. Lieutenant Stewart dubbed it Utah Man. In August 1943, the ship took part in the harrowing low-altitude bombing raid on the Ploesti, Romania oil fields held by the Third Reich.
Piloted by Lt. Stewart and flying at rooftop altitude, Utah Man survived heavy enemy anti-aircraft fire to drop the first bombs of that raid. Then, it limped 1,200 miles back across Yugoslavia and the Mediterranean to its home base in Benghazi, Libya. The trip took a grueling 14 hours at a maximum air speed of 125 miles an hour. Utah Man landed safely with its fuel tank leaking, one wing shredded, and its tail riddled by 372 bullet holes.
Of the 1,700 airmen and 178 bombers involved in that air raid, 310 were killed and 54 planes lost. The 185 men who survived being shot down were taken prisoner. Airmen involved in the Ploesti oil field raids earned the most decorations of any single wartime operation.
After 32 missions, Captain Walter Stewart was retired from flight duty and assigned to Brigadier General Edward “Ted” Timberlake’s staff in Norwich, England.
The 17 men of that staff were highly trained specialists, Captain Walter Stewart’s specialty being high-altitude bombing. One day, General Timberlake asked him to perform another kind of special service.
General Timberlake had received a request from the Sandringham Chapter of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, at the time, the largest women’s organization in the world. It included women of all countries that were, or had been, under British rule. The request from the local unit of WI was for a member of Timberlake’s staff to speak at their annual Awards Meeting on the topic of rural American women. This was not an unusual request as local groups often asked to have an American address their gatherings as a way of cementing relationships.
The General, knowing Walt had been raised on a farm in Utah and also knowing he had served a Church mission in Great Britain, said, “You’re the old Mormon preacher. You go talk to those women.”
“I was thrilled to go,” Brother Stewart later said. ” I made up my mind that I was going to tell them I was a Mormon. I had been a missionary in Britain.” This was his chance to talk, not just about American women, but American women who were members of the Relief Society Organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Map by courtesy of E.J. (Jim) Fischer, U.K.
It was only about 35 miles from Norwich to West Newton, a village just three miles south of the Royal Estate of Sandringham. When his driver, 19-year-old Private Kleir, pulled up in front of the Village Hall on that gray, January day, Walt saw about 50 women seated in chairs set up outside in the cold rain. Three seats in the center of the front row were empty.
Captain Stewart said to Private Kleir, “They must have thought there were three of us.”
As the pair got out of their car, a woman, who seemed to be in charge, gestured for them to remain where they were. Walt and his driver waited. Within minutes, a black Rolls Royce pulled up and, to Walt’s great surprise, out stepped then Queen Elizabeth and her daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose.
Walt was to learn later that General Timberlake was not told the Queen and the Princesses would be in attendance because the location of the Royal Family was always kept secret during the war years.
The Queen and Princesses took their places on the front row and a photographer stepped forward to snap the group picture.
Afterward, the woman in charge approached Captain Stewart and his driver.
“Are you Captain Stewart?”
“Yes, Ma’am ,” he answered.
“The Queen would like to meet you.”
Captain Stewart asked, “What do I say to the Queen?”
“How do you do, Your Highness?” she told him. “From then on it’s, ‘Yes, Ma’am’, or ‘No Ma’am.’. When you’re introduced to the Princesses it’s, ‘How do you do, Your Royal Highness?’. And then it’s , ‘Yes Ma’am.’, or ‘No Ma’am’, for the rest of the time.”
They crossed the street to where the Queen and the Princesses stood.
Queen Elizabeth put out her hand. “You’re Captain Stewart, our speaker for today. I’m very happy that you have come,” she said.
Walt was touched by her warmth and sincerity in her expression.
She continued to hold Walt’s hand while she looked at the medals on his uniform . “You’ve been very active,” she said.
Walter told her about some of the missions he’d been on, and was surprised to discover she knew about them and recognized the medals.
“I would like to know something,” she said. “Are you married?”
“No, Ma’am.,” he answered.
“Is your mother living?”
“I want you to write her a letter tonight,” the Queen said, “and thank her for sending you over here. We could never win this war without you Americans.”
Brother Stewart was later to say, “This was refreshing. Other of the British were saying: ‘Go home, Yank! You’re in our way. You’re loud. You’re overpaid,’ and a lot of other things, but not the Queen. She understood.”
At the time, he thought, “You’d make a good Relief Society President. You’re just so nice!”
Still, the Queen held Captain Stewart’s hand. She wanted to know, “What do you know about country women?”
“Well, I have seven sisters and my mother,” he said, “I can talk about them.”
“That’s what they want to hear. We’re very much alike. Did you live on a farm?”
“Do you have electricity on your farms?”
“We got it in 1937.”
“That’s what I am trying to do over here, is to get electrical power to all the country people,” she said. “They’re right away from everything unless they have electric power. When the war is over this is what I’ll do.”
Later, he said, “I kept glancing out of the side of my eye at these two pretty girls.
Of course one, was just thirteen, but the present Queen was seventeen and very pretty. A young GI is attracted to pretty girls.”
The Queen exclaimed, “Oh! You haven’t met my daughters!”
He said to the young Princesses, “Hello, girls, how are you?” Then, he heard one of the women from the group whisper, “Did you hear what the Yankee said?” and realized his blunder.
“Oh, I’m sorry. How do you do Your Royal Highnesses?” Walt said it in a way that let the Princesses know he was poking fun at his own lack of British propriety.
The Princesses responded with good-natured fun. Elizabeth said, “We just love to meet you guys.”
Walt noted with delight she had said it just the way an American would.
Inside the Village Hall, a long table was set up to exhibit the handiwork of the local women. Most of the items were made for their men who served in the military. All the items were part of a handiwork competition.
Captain Stewart was directed to a seat next to Queen Elizabeth and the Princesses. The meeting began with singing. The women sang a whopping eleven songs with There Will Always Be an England, Hail Britannia, and God Save the King among them. Then, to honor Captain Stewart, they sang two American songs of the time, This is the Army, Mr. Jones, and Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer. “Those Princesses were so cute,” Walt remembered fondly, “they knew all the words.”
The Queen got up. She welcomed the ladies to the Annual Awards Meeting and thanked them for the items they had brought to display and enter in the competition.
Then it was Walt’s turn. Of that moment, he said, “How often do you get to talk to British ladies, let alone the Queen and other gentry? These were ladies of station, a very impressive group.” They belonged to the largest women’s organization in the world. Walt, however, wanted to tell them about another group of women.
He began by talking about rural life in Benjamin, Utah, and how his mother kept chickens and cows to feed her family.
He told them how the women of his community, organized into a group called The Relief Society, held meetings each week to study world affairs and current events, the scriptures, homemaking, and child care.
“They were listening with great care and taking notes,” he said. “Finally, I told them, ‘These women of whom I am telling you, this Relief Society, is the women’s organization of the Mormon Church. In fact, I’m a Mormon.’
“I finished by telling about the Church and that I had been a missionary in Britain before the war. To this I received a mostly positive response. They paid rapt attention.”
When Walt finished his presentation, he, along with the Queen and the Princesses, viewed the handicraft exhibits. On the long table against the wall were displayed cleverly refronted shirts and finely knitted and crocheted gloves, mittens, socks, sweaters, and hoods.
Walt exclaimed over each piece of handiwork, but the Queen wanted him to know her daughters could do the same.
She said to the Princess Elizabeth, “Show Captain Stewart what you’ve done.”
The Princess modeled the sweater she had worn that day and explained she had knitted it herself.
“Now, Margaret Rose,” the Queen continued, “Show him what you’ve done.”
Princess Margaret was wearing a skirt she had made over from one of her mother’s.
The Queen said, “My daughters live on the same coupons as any girl in this country. If they get a pair of shoes, it’s once a year. They have to make things themselves. They have to take old clothes and make them over.”
Walt said, “They were so proud showing me their work. I felt important being treated so graciously by the Queen.”
He said, “After we finished seeing the exhibits, we sat down at a little table and the ladies brought in tea and crumpets. While I was visiting with the Queen, the serving lady began pouring tea.”
Captain Stewart said, “Excuse me. I don’t drink tea.”
“It was as if I said I don’t breathe. There was a complete, embarrassing silence.”
“Well, Captain, what’s wrong with tea?” the Queen asked.
Walt felt the weight of that moment. He was an army captain, a guest in that country, being offered a very traditional cup of tea in the presence of the Queen. He was turning it down and she wanted to know why.
He replied quite simply, “It’s against my religion.”
The Queen set down her cup. “I think that’s very nice that you keep the rules of your church even when you’re miles away. But, what is wrong with tea?” It was not a question posed in a contentious way nor meant to embarrass. It was a sincere question, asked out of curiosity.
He was aware of the other women around them. They didn’t turn to look, but he knew they were listening. Walt replied, “We have a statement in our Church that we should not use tea or coffee because they have caffeine in them.”
A lady, sitting nearby, thought to rescue Captain Stewart. She spoke up, “You know, ever since I was a young girl, whenever I drink a cup of tea, I perspire.”
When it was time for the Queen to leave; she turned to Captain Stewart and said again, “Write your mother a letter tonight and thank her, and thank all the American mothers for sending their boys here to help us.”
It was cold outside with sleeting rain, but as the Queen went to her car, she noticed Captain Stewart’s driver, Private Kleir, had left his vehicle to come into the Hall. Because she had not met him, she went back in. She walked up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder.
When he turned and saw who it was, he dropped his hat.
The Queen took the 19-year-old’s hand and had him sit down with her. She said, “I’m so glad you’ve come today. My, you’re young. Where are you from?”
“Los Angeles,” he managed.
As she had done with Captain Stewart, the Queen asked Private Kleir to write home to his mother and thank her for sending him to help the British people.
“How gracious of her,” Walt thought. “She didn’t have to do that.”
After the Queen left, Private Kleir began to laugh. “My mother is from England,” he said. “Wait ’till she hears about all this. And a Mormon spends a day with the Queen! What a miracle!”
On November 13, 1943, Utah Man was shot down during a mission over Germany.
In February 1952, King George VI died and, his daughter, Princess Elizabeth assumed the throne as Queen Elizabeth II. Her mother became Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.
In 1993, Spike Productions released a well-researched television documentary, A Wing and a Prayer, the Saga of Utah Man, that chronicled Captain Stewart’s experiences as a bomber pilot. Because of that research, Walt learned he had earned the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor. Due to a clerical error, however, the medal Captain Stewart was to have been awarded was given to another flyer.
The decoration was applied for and, on October 21, 1995, in a ceremony held at the University of Utah, Retired Air Force Colonel Walter Stewart received his long-overdue Distinguished Service Cross medal.
Speaking at the ceremony were Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, Brigadier General Roger Brady, and University of Utah President, Arthur Smith. Then, during the kick-off of the Utah-Air Force football game at Rice Stadium, Colonel Stewart was appropriately honored by a low- level flyover by four jet fighters.
Several months later, Walt received a letter with a Clarence House return address, the official London residence of The Queen Mother.
Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother has learnt of your great honour on being awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by The President for courage, heroism and leadership during operations in World War II. Her Majesty offers you her warmest and most sincere congratulations.
The Queen Mother recollects so well meeting you at West Newton when you lectured the Sandringham Women’s Institute in 1944 and Her Majesty remembers your talk vividly and the amusement it generated amongst the ladies. I enclose a signed photograph which comes to you with an expression of Her Majesty’s best wishes for peace and happiness in the years ahead.
Remembering that afternoon nearly 60 years later, Brother Stewart said, “In five minutes, you just start to love her – so gracious, so motherly, and just pleasant. Oh, we had fun that day.”
Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother
Walter Stewart is the great-nephew of gun maker, John M. Browning.
Following the war, Walt returned to Utah where he met Ruth Francis. They were married in the Salt Lake Temple. He taught seminary and raised cattle.
In 1982, Brother Stewart retired as a Colonel in the US Air Force Reserve. He has had a life- long interest in the men of the 93rd bomber group.
Brother and Sister Stewart are the parents of three sons and two daughters. The Stewarts greatly enjoy the company of their29 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Brother Stewart and Sister Stewart’s Church service has included Building Missions to Norwich, England and Flensburg, Germany. In 1987, he and Ruth served a mission to Ghana, West Africa.
Walt has also found great satisfaction in speaking to church and civic groups about his experiences.
Brother and Sister Stewart live on a cattle ranch in central Utah in the house where Walt was born.
Interviews with Walter Stewart, April and May 2002; letter, May 2002.
Courage in a Season of War, by Paul H. Kelly and Lin H. Johnson to be released this year.
E.J. (Jim) Fisher, U.K.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.