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Story of master mechanic's life is in details

 

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Growing up on a ranch on the Powder River near Miles City, Lee Stewart developed an aptitude for all things mechanical.

He would go on to make the most of that aptitude in a 33-year career as a civilian mechanic for the U.S. Air Force.

He became one of the Air Force's top hands at anything having to do with aviation hydraulics, and his years of service stretched from World War II through the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

Stewart, who turned 95 in March, has a couple of file folders full of awards and certificates from the Air Force and aircraft manufacturers, but he has no trouble naming the most important job of his career.

That was early in 1942, when he spent three feverish months helping prepare Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle's squadron of B-25 bombers for their storied raid on Tokyo on April 18, 1942.

The raid didn't accomplish much in purely military terms, but it was the first attack on the Japanese home islands after Pearl Harbor, and it was a great morale booster for the United States.

Stewart was working at McClellan Air Force Base outside Sacramento, Calif., and he and his fellow mechanics were charged with getting Doolittle's 25 medium-range bombers into top condition before the raid.

"They were there to be completely, 100 percent perfect when he left," Stewart said.

Doolittle came to the base off and on to check up on his aircraft, and Stewart spoke with him several times. On one memorable occasion, Doolittle took Stewart's part in a dispute between Stewart and the civilian head of his division.

As Stewart tells it, only Doolittle knew what the mission was to be, but there were lots of rumors and plenty of signs that it was going to be a dangerous one.

As a result, some of the pilots were less than eager to get under way, and, Stewart said, "They would take every opportunity to find a problem with their airplane."

One pilot claimed that the brakes on his plane didn't work.

Stewart had worked on the brakes and knew they were fine, but the division head believed the pilot and fired Stewart on the spot.

"And Doolittle was there," Stewart said. "Doolittle said, 'Wait a minute. This is not going to happen.'" So Stewart, the pilot and the division head went out to the bomber in question, took the brakes apart while consulting the manual, found no problems and reassembled them. The pilot was then asked to taxi the plane down the runway and test the brakes.

The pilot was determined to prove he was right, so he went roaring down the runway — with all the plane's hatches open and lots of gear stored inside. When the pilot hit the brakes, Stewart said, he "stood it right on its nose, and all the stuff flew out of the aircraft."

Stewart kept his job.

Stewart was born in 1915, eight years after his father helped drive a herd of cattle from Texas to Montana, then settled down on a ranch on the Powder River.

"I grew up on a horse," Stewart said.

He and his younger brother were always working cows or rounding up the semi-wild horses on their ranch.

Once, late in the fall, five or six miles from home, Stewart's horse slipped on some ice and threw him. One foot was still in the stirrup, however, and the horse dragged Stewart through sagebrush and cactus "for quite a little ways."

When Stewart was barely 15, going to high school in Miles City, his father was trying to break a horse when it reared up and flopped over on him, breaking his hip.

"That ended my high school," Stewart said. "I had to take over the ranch."

In 1937, after many lean years, the family finally lost the ranch. His father ended up as a guard at the state prison in Deer Lodge, and Stewart went to work as an orderly at the state mental hospital in Warm Springs. A lot of patients were there because of problems with alcohol and drugs, and some of them were quite violent.

Stewart shrugged off those times in the same low-key way he described his travails on the ranch.

"It was kind of a wild place for a greenhorn," he said.

Meanwhile, he was still nursing an infatuation for airplanes, which he had acquired while attending an air show in Miles City as a teenager.

Despite having had to drop out of high school, he got into a technical college in Burbank, Calif., in 1940 and completed his schooling by July 1941, having put in more than 2,000 hours of study.

He was hired as a civilian employee of what was then the Army Air Corps, assigned to work as a hydraulics mechanic at the relatively new McClellan Air Force Base. Six months later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States entered World War II and Stewart was suddenly a very busy man.

Although he became certified in many other areas of airplane mechanics, Stewart continued to specialize in hydraulics, becoming the Air Force's go-to guy for all things hydraulic.

During World War II and for many years afterward, he often went to other Air Forces bases around the country to work on hydraulics problems or to train other mechanics, and he was also sent to various manufacturing plants for additional training and the sharing of knowledge.

In the years after the war, he was sent to bases in Germany, France and England. During the Vietnam War, he spent 30 days in that country.

All he said about that, in his taciturn way, was, "It was quite an experience."

The most difficult job he ever had was also during World War II, when he had to work on superchargers attached to the engines of the B-29s.

"To remove one of those, you couldn't get to it from the ground," he said. "You had to thread your way through the wings out to where the supercharger was and disconnect it."

And he means "through" the wings. He was always skinny, but it was still difficult to crawl and drag himself through the ribbing and wiring inside the wings.

"If you were out there three or four hours, you got cramped.

Sometimes it was difficult to turn around and get out," he said.

One special problem associated with his line of work was that each division at the air base had a civilian and a military leader.

At one point, when Stewart was supervising a production line with 80 employees, he always had a first or second lieutenant at his side. The officers were supposed to be there to learn the processes, not to give orders, but some of them couldn't help themselves.

"Some of them began to think they were smarter than anyone else, especially the second lieutenants," Stewart said.

He was still in California in 1974 when he retired after 33 years as a civilian Air Force employee. He had accrued so much unused sick leave and vacation time that he was able to retire with full benefits two years early.

In 1973, he was in a terrible car accident that killed his wife — whose brother, Roy Ayers, was the Montana governor from 1937 to 1941 — and two other people, including the driver of a second car, who was at fault.

Stewart had a fractured pelvis, among other serious injuries, and he spent more than a year and a half recovering from the accident. He moved to Montana in 1977, to be near family.

Now, at 95, he has been retired for five more years than he worked for the Air Force. He stays busy on what he calls a "high-maintenance piece of property" on the far West End of Billings, and he is still healthy, on no medication.

Kathy Wilcox, a friend who became Stewart's live-in caregiver several years ago, said he goes to Gusick's Restaurant three times a week for a martini.

He knows all the regulars and has his own stool there. He also continues to do repairs of all kinds in his house.

 
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