Donald David Stewart headed to Vietnam in January 1965 leaving behind his parents, three siblings and a pregnant wife, who gave birth just a couple of months later to a pretty baby girl.
Staff Sgt. Stewart died in plane crash on a mountaintop in Vietnam that December, a couple of weeks before he was due to come home and meet his daughter.
“He never got to hold me,” said Dona Stewart, now 50. But in the past week, at a military lab in Hawaii that finally – positively – identified her daddy’s skeletal remains, “I got to hold him.”
On Monday, Dona Stewart and her mother, Wandra Raynor, brought their airman home.
Don Stewart, as he was known in the Harnett County town of Coats where he grew up, came back to North Carolina on a Delta jet that landed at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in a chilly rain. Two airport tanker trucks created a water cannon salute for the plane as it taxied Stewart’s remains toward the terminal.
Family members, including Stewart’s oldest sibling, Robert, who lives in Fuquay-Varina, met the flag-draped casket on the tarmac.
There was a time, Robert Stewart said, when he and his family thought they might never see his brother’s remains repatriated. And they might not have, he said, if not for Dona’s tenacious efforts to find him and bring him back.
Don Stewart, born Jan. 22, 1937, graduated from Coats High in 1955. According to his obituary, he joined the Army after graduation and spent three years in Germany with the 18th Airborne Corps. At the end of his active service, he went into an Air National Guard unit, training a weekend a month and several weeks in the summer.
He enrolled in school at Campbell University, planning eventually to become a pharmacist, his brother said. But then his unit was activated, and he left school to go to Vietnam.
Robert Stewart, who also served in the Air Force, said the family didn’t know at the time how dangerous Don’s job was in Vietnam. He now knows his brother, who was the load master responsible for the cargo, flew in 343 combat missions for the 315th Air Commando Group.
On his last, on the morning of Dec. 11, 1965, the military has told the family, Stewart and three other U.S. crew members were hauling 81 Vietnamese soldiers who were fighting alongside the Americans. They left Pleiku, but in dense fog in Phu Yen, the plane hit trees on a ridge top and crashed in dense jungle.
The military said everyone aboard had died. Don Stewart, 28, was Harnett County’s first death in the Vietnam War, county leaders have said.
In December 1966, the family held a memorial service for him at Coats Baptist Church. According to reports, there wasn’t an empty seat.
In 1974, the military said it received 17 bags of commingled human remains local people had taken from the wreckage. In 1979, the Air Force assured the Stewart family that their airman’s remains were among them, based on the science of the time, and would be buried with the other U.S. crewmen in a single grave at Arlington National Cemetery.
A stone with all four names marks the spot.
But almost immediately, the family had doubts. Someone in the Air Force told them Don’s remains weren’t in the casket that was buried at Arlington, but they weren’t sure how to act on the information. The military said the case was closed. Military forensics teams had their hands full with other cases.
There they lay until Dona Stewart grew up. She pressed the military for a team to go investigate the crash site, and was told, “It wasn’t even on the list.”
In 2007, she and her mother, who lives at Indian Beach, went on their own. It took a year to arrange the travel, and they stayed a month, enlisting the help of local guides. It was a two-day hike from the nearest village, too arduous a trip for the two women, they were told, but the guides agreed to go to the overgrown site, take photographs and gather what they could find.
“They came back with pieces of the plane, boots, all kinds of things,” Dona Stewart said.
Retesting old bones
Long criticized for taking too many years to identify too few remains from wars past, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, known as JPAC, has recently been reorganized. By the end of this year, it will have identified and returned the remains of at least six North Carolina service members from past conflicts.
The Stewart family got the call about Don Stewart’s remains this summer. Forensics specialists had retested old bones and matched them to samples from family members.
Before the remains were taken back to Harnett County, where they will be buried on Wednesday – Veterans Day – the white Air Force hearse carrying the casket made a detour through a cordoned-off parking lot at RDU. There, 42 members of more than a half-dozen local veterans groups that accompany military funerals on motorcycles formed two long columns. Each held an American flag.
The procession rolled between the columns, and Dona Stewart and her mother got out. One by one, they went to each veteran and said what Don Stewart never got to hear.