The name Brad Pitt didn’t mean much to 90-year-old Ray Stewart of Gastonia when he recently got an invitation to meet the superstar in Hollywood.
A World War II tank gunner/driver who fought at the Battle of the Bulge, Stewart and three other veterans were asked to come share their experiences with Pitt and other cast members playing a tank crew in the new war movie “Fury.”
Stewart’s idea of a film star had always been John Wayne. But his grandkids filled him in about Pitt.
“They jumped up and down when they heard I was going,” Stewart said.
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According to a Sony Pictures news release, “Fury” is set at the end of World War II as the Allies make their final push in the European Theater. Pitt plays an Army sergeant named Wardaddy, who commands a Sherman tank and a five-man crew on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines.
The film is scheduled for release in November 2014.
Moviemakers wanted actors playing a tank crew to hear from real “tankers” who’d been in World War II.
Stewart said the connection with the veterans came through the 2nd Armored Division Association. He’s one of four surviving members of the same tank crew, and producers had wanted them to make the all-expenses-paid trip to Hollywood.
But health issues prevented everybody except Stewart from going. Instead, three other 2nd Armored Division veterans from different parts of the country accepted invitations.
Tony Sherrill, president of the Gaston County Veterans Council, called Stewart “tough as nails.”
“He has a very vivid memory and remembers great details,” Sherrill said. “He was the right guy to go (to Hollywood).”
On Aug. 18, Stewart and his wife, Dottie, flew to Los Angeles and were met by representatives of Sony Pictures who took the couple to the W Hollywood hotel.
“They treated us like royalty,” said Dottie Stewart.
The following day, Ray Stewart and the other veterans met producers and the five actors in a round-table setting at Sony Pictures in Culver City.
Actors present included Pitt and co-star Shia LaBeouf. Stewart was favorably impressed.
“Brad Pitt’s a nice guy – all of them were all right,” he said.
The veterans were asked to speak candidly about World War II.
“We got to talking and we started remembering things,” Stewart said. “We fought the war over again right in front of those movie guys. We looked around and saw them sitting there with their mouths open. They seemed sort of flabbergasted.”
Stewart shared some of his story, which began with getting drafted into the Army in 1942 at age 19. Assigned to the famed 2nd Armored “Hell on Wheels” Division, he landed at Omaha Beach in Normandy on June 9, 1944.
From there, he embarked on a 1,000-mile journey that ended in Berlin. Between those two locations, Stewart took part in many battles.
Two of his tanks were destroyed by bazooka fire, mortars or the much-feared 88 mm anti-aircraft, anti-tank guns.
“When you got hit you’d better get your butt out,” Stewart said. “Another round would be coming in three to five seconds.”
At the Battle of the Bulge Stewart’s division fought the German 2nd Panzer Division and captured many soldiers and vehicles.
In trying to capture the Adolf Hitler Bridge across the Rhine River, Stewart’s outfit ran into 33 anti-aircraft guns that knocked out 15 of the unit’s 17 Shermans.
Stewart remembers looking out across a “field of burning tanks.”
And he also remembers five British tanks hit by enemy fire and burning on a ridge.
“Twenty-five people went up in flames right in front of my eyes,” Stewart said. “That was the worst thing I saw.”
Rolling through Europe in a 60-ton Sherman tank, he faced battle “feeling like a cowboy.”
“I was a little cocky,” Stewart said. “I thought I was hot stuff.”
Honor guard member
By the war’s end, he’d changed.
“I was a kid when I went in,” Stewart said. “I was a man when I came out.”
Back home, he worked 22 years as a machine designer in Gastonia and 18 years as plant engineer at General Tire in Charlotte.
A member of several veterans groups, including the 2nd Armored Division Association, Stewart conducts military funerals with the Gaston County Honor Guard.
Stewart and his wife, who is a retired nurse, have been married 62 years. They have a son and daughter, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild. The last movie the couple saw in a theater was “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998.
“Fury” will be the next.