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Colonel George Stewart, 339th Infantry

Updated: Apr 4, 2022

(Col. George E. Stewart, Library of Congress)

George E. Stewart was born August 2, 1872, in New South Wales, Australia was a freshly minted colonel, with the date of his commission, July 30, 1918. He had grown up not far from Sydney, Australia, living in a lower-middle class household, his father making ends meet as a gardener. The young Stewart was not the best student in grade school, as he much preferred the outdoors. George worked at odd jobs until 1890. Then, at the age of eighteen the young man immigrated to America, landing in New York City.

The inexperienced immigrant knocked around New York City, taking odd jobs whenever he could, however he never seemed to get ahead. Seeing his prospects not matching his aspirations, in October 1896, Stewart joined the U.S. Army, and ended up as a private in Battery ‘A,’ 5th Artillery. Private Stewart served in the battery with such distinction that when the Spanish American War began, he applied for an officer’s position, and in April 1899, was commissioned Second Lieutenant in the 19thU.S. Infantry. Though the war with Spain did not last long, the situation in the Philippines escalated into a full-blown conflict. Lieutenant Stewart, along with the 19th Infantry was shipped to Manila in July 1899. [1]

The Philippine conflict was a very frustrating one for the American leadership. The Philippine fighters knew they could not match the U.S. Army’s firepower so they adapted a strategy of guerrilla warfare; one of ambush and hit-and-run. Lieutenant Stewart’s company was tasked with patrolling through the jungle, hunting for the elusive Filipinos, warding off ambushes, and trying to pin them down long enough to destroy their combat abilities. This effort meant that as soon as the 19th’s companies neutralized one location they would be sent to another. In late November 1899 the regiment’s Second and Third Battalions found themselves on a large island south of Manila’s mainland; Panay. The region had just been battered by a seasonal typhoon that had washed out most of the area’s roads, as well as swell all the rivers by as much as ten feet.

On November 26, 1899, Lt. Stewart’s company pushed through the jungle not far from the village of Passi. Their battalion had taken control of Passi, securing the town’s Catholic Church, and setting up its headquarters in that large building. The Americans came to the debris-choked and swollen Jaluar River. The stalwart Yanks began fording the dangerous river, struggling to reach its distant banks. This was a perfect time for the Filipinos to open fire, and their ambush was brutally effective, slicing through the exposed and unprotected troops. A number of Americans were shot down before they could pull back to safety. One soldier though, wounded and helpless, began to drown in the river’s angry currents. George Stewart, ignoring the ambushers’ machine gun and rifle fire, “plunged in and at the imminent risk of his own life, saved from drowning,” the enlisted man. This feat of heroism earned 2d Lt. George E. Stewart the Medal of Honor.[2]

Lieutenant Stewart’s company remained in the Philippines for the next two years, seeking to put an end to the conflict and pacify the country, though after July 1900 his regiment would never again use a formation as large as a battalion. From this point on the 19th Infantry split up its battalions and sent companies out by themselves, and as the Filipinos’ struggles wore down, often it would only be a platoon-sized force going into action. Eventually all of the local leaders had been killed or captured, and the conflict ground to an end. George Stewart was promoted to first lieutenant, and as the Army sent troops home, the young officer was transferred to the 15th Infantry, a formation tasked with, as the official bulletins announced, “a pacification campaign called ‘Policy of Attraction’.” He remained stationed in Manila, and for the next five years, led a platoon that did little more than guard American interests. In July 1907, Stewart was promoted to captain and assigned guard duties with the 22nd Infantry.[3]

Two years later, in 1909, Cpt. Stewart met Elizabeth Wildman, the 38-year-old ex-wife of a Signal Corps captain. The isolated world of American officers and their wives in Manila was a small one, and when the two married in 1912, Stewart’s future no longer glowed with the brightness his Medal of Honor had provided, and sadly, Elizabeth died three years later in 1915. Stewart was transferred from his company to the Quarter Master Corps, meaning he no longer held a company command posting; instead his main military weapon was a clipboard. Then, Cpt. Stewart was shipped from the Philippines to Alaska, where he was as far from any possible leadership position as an officer could get.

George Stewart married again, this time to Elizabeth Stewart. They remained in Alaska until the United States declared war on Germany in 1917. With that development, the Army needed officers who had combat experience, and even though George Stewart had been armed with a clipboard for six years, and had not led men into combat in sixteen, in May 1917, he was promoted to major, and three months later, to lieutenant colonel. He was posted at Camp Custer and placed second-in-command of the 339th Infantry. When the 339thInfantry’s rosters were filled out with draftees, its original colonel, John W. Craig was assigned elsewhere, leaving Stewart the senior officer. He was duly promoted to colonel on July 30, 1918.[4]

Col. Stewart settled into his headquarters at Archangel and immediately discovered he was outranked by a bevy of British officers. This situation quickly meant he ended up having no control over his own men, and he was always going to be taking orders from the British. Stewart did not like this situation, and his soldiers didn’t either. However, the men took their frustration out on Stewart. He also did not perform well out in the field. In one instance when he was visiting the front he failed to attend a soldier’s funeral. The men did not like this at all, with one rifleman remarking, “It appeared he could have attended, but chose not to.” This caused considerable resentment among his soldiers.[5]

Col. Stewart’s officers also looked upon their commander with ire. One company commander observed that Stewart had lost touch with his battalion and company commanders. Plus, he doughboys knew that the strategy and the battle orders were written in the British field officer’s headquarters. By early 1919, these unsolvable problems affected Stewart’s health. Some of the regiment’s lieutenants noted that they found their commanding officer to be frail looking, unsteady, and balding. He also appeared somewhat confused and bewildered.

Finally, when the American general, Wilds Richardson arrived in Archangel and relieved Col. Stewart, he remarked that Stewart was a tired officer in bad health and rather beaten down by the British leaders. This was the case, Stewart was beset with stomach ulcers, and should have been hospitalized.

He returned to the United States a worn-out soldier. He remained in the military, once back in the United States, serving at different military facilities, though never getting that promotion to general he so desired. George Stewart retired in 1931 and passed away in 1946. His wife, Elizabeth died six years later.


[1] Registers of Officers Who Served in the U.S. Army, 1918.

[2] "Stories of Sacrifice," Congressional Medal of Honor Society, 2021.

[3] Registers of Officers Who Served in the U.S. Army, 1918.

[4] Registers of Officers Who Served in the U.S. Army, 1918.

[5] Willett, Robert L., Russian Sideshow, 2003.

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