Earlier this month, six Claremore Navy JROTC cadets traveled to Independence, Kan. to interview United States Navy Master Chief Petty Officer William J. Stewart, a prisoner of war during WWII. Stewart was a crew member on the USS Houston and one of six men who worked on the ship’s turret two, loading magazines for a five inch gun.
On Feb. 28, 1942, Stewart’s ship was attacked by the Japanese. Burnt black to the waist, he dove into the sea and swam for five hours avoiding Japanese rescue boats.
Of the 999 sailors on board his ship, during the attack, approximately 300 survived.
Upon arrival on shore, he ran into a fellow Houston member and both men were captured by Japanese soldiers and taken as POWs.
Following his exhausted work in the camp, Stewart was promoted to Chief Petty Officer for his bravery and hardship on the USS Houston and as a prisoner of war. In 1961 he was promoted to Master Chief before retiring in 1962.
Stewart said after returning home, he had never felt so happy in his life.
“I’ve been interested in WWII, so I was looking forward to meeting the Master Chief,” said Cadet Senior Chief Petty Officer Heather McCarthy. “It’s people like him that have kept the United States safe.”
“Master Chief Stewart will always be an honorable war hero,” said Cadet Chief Petty Officer Peyton Trumbull. “I thank him and similar heroes who have made both minor and major sacrifices.”--- taken as POWs. The Japanese Patrol bandaged Stewart up and took him to a main island in Japan where as a slave, he dug out iron ore from mountains for more than three years.
At the end of the war, Japanese guards just left the American prisoners. As days passed Stewart came into contact with an American patrol ship that transpoted him to Oakland, Calif where he stayed in the hospital for nearly eight months.
“He never complained,” said Chief David Jasper. “His story was an inspiration to me and my cadets.”
Jasper said it was amazing to see a 92-year-old still taking care of himself.
“It was a cool history lesson,” he said. “You can read about it in a book, but when you shake the guys hand its a different story.”
Stewart said he was not a hero but a survivor.
It was his duty to survive to fight another day, he said.