Honoring World War II Veterans Series «» Tom Stewart

by Jonathan Scott | Photography by Mollie Tobias

Tom Stewart wasn’t sure the idea of an American medic being transferred to an Australian landing ship made much sense. However, there were plenty of things the U.S. Navy did that he couldn’t understand. When the Harnett County native made the drive to Raleigh to enlist, he wanted to be a torpedo gunner on a submarine in the Navy. Instead, he became a medic.

As a naval medic, Stewart did more than his share for the war effort, performing plenty of emergency suturing in the field. Some things would be considered extraordinary, but to Stewart, it was only doing what had to be done. They were, after all, at war.

When Stewart boarded the HMAS Westralia, the Australian Navy issued him a hammock that, when not in use, was to be carried by each crew member. The Australians seemed to be able to hook the hammocks up in a matter of seconds, but it always gave Stewart a frustrating problem.

When he finally had the hammock up and settled himself, he closed his eyes hoping sleep would soon erase the humming, rocking and constant cursing of the other men from his consciousness. Sleep didn’t always come quickly enough, and there always seemed plenty of time for thoughts of the future—and the past—to flood his mind.

The Westralia was headed for an attack on Tarajan Island in Borneo. It was the last week of April 1945, and the enemy was taking a beating. Funny, Stewart thought, as he became drowsy, it was Australians who had dealt the Japanese their first real defeat of the war.

In spite of himself, Stewart’s mind flowed back to when he had been stationed along Milne Bay on the eastern tip of New Guinea. If he had one word to describe the place, it would be “wet.” Everything was constantly muddy. He was familiar enough with that steamy jungle to have sympathy for the troops of the Australian militia and the Second Australian Imperial Force who had defeated the Japanese invasion of Milne Bay at the end of August 1942.

It was the first battle in the Pacific that caused the Japanese to retreat and abandon their strategic objective. It had been a real morale booster to the Allies and a blow to the morale of the Japanese. It had all been thanks to the fellow countrymen of the Australians who would soon be interrupting Stewart’s sleep with their snoring.

Stewart remembers with crystal clarity the barracks where he had slept at the Allied base at Milne Bay the previous fall. There hadn’t been much of a bed to sleep in, but at least he didn’t have to wrestle with an Australian hammock each night.

The biggest problem the men were having at Milne Bay was boredom. It rained every day. It started to wear on all of them, none more than Stewart. Finally, Stewart talked a buddy into taking a walk in the jungle. As he drifted toward sleep in his Australian hammock, Stewart found himself once again thinking about that walk.

It had been two years since the Japanese had been defeated, but the Allied Navy wasn’t issuing any guarantees that the area was totally secure. Still, Stewart insisted on taking the chance. Anything seemed preferable to another day of staring at the inside of barracks walls.

Behind the narrow strip of land along the harbor, Stewart saw the heavily wooded Stirling Mountains rising into the misty afternoon air. All around him the world was dense and soggy with sago palms and mangrove swamps. It was a place where two men alone could easily be ambushed.

When Stewart caught a glimpse of the distinctive olive-green of a Japanese naval lander uniform, his whole body went alert. He and his buddy were not armed.

The bit of uniform he saw wasn’t at eye level; it was on the ground. Why would a Japanese naval soldier be lying there in the middle of the jungle? For interminable seconds, all he was aware of was the pounding of his heart. Then, he stepped toward he enemy soldier.

Suddenly, Stewart was thrust out of his memory and found himself back in his hammock in the HMAS Westralia. His heart was still pounding just like it had that afternoon in the jungle along Milne Bay. In his mind, he could still see the bloated face of the corpse of the Japanese soldier, unburied for some unknowable length of time. This man’s family would have no idea what had happened to him. He would, at best, be only a missing-in-action statistic, left alone in the midst of the strange, misty jungle of New Guinea, far removed from his home. This memory of coming across that dead soldier would stay with Stewart for the rest of his life.

Unknown to Stewart as he struggled with his hammock aboard the Westralia, he, too, was officially considered MIA at the time. Due to a logistical or communications error, the Navy didn’t know where he was, nor would they for the 55 days Stewart served with Australians. Stewart’s family had no idea where he was during that time.

After returning home from the war, Stewart, now 92, became an engineering technician. When he retired, he worked in real estate before returning to his hometown of Erwin, where he still lives.