Coastal History: Theater knife scratches the surface of Bath veteran's life

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I am always on the lookout for little pieces of local history that will teach us something about the past, and make a connection with the people who used to live here.

This unusual knife is a perfect example. Inside the clear plastic handle is a little handwritten note with the following inscription: “S/SGNT Stewart H. Day, 8th Air Corps, 18 Missions over Germany, shot down Dec 5, 1943, wounded, prisoner 17 mos, liberated June 10, 1945.”

After a bit of online research, I discovered that this is called a theater knife. Soldiers would remove the wooden handle of a regular knife and make custom handles from pieces of aircraft windshield, brass, and other materials, using layers to make interesting patterns. This particular knife only has clear pieces on the handle, so you can read the note underneath. So far I have not found record of any other theater knife with such a note.

As for the soldier, he survived his ordeal as a prisoner of war and lived until 2015. Thankfully, his obituary gives us a detailed description of his life.

Stewart H. Day was born in Massachusetts in 1923, but moved to Bath and graduated from Morse High School. Like many others, he went straight to work at Bath Iron Works.

I believe most shipyard workers were exempt from military service, but Day enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force and became a tail gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress.

Flying on a modern airliner can be frightening enough, but imagine lumbering through the air in a big bomber while people are trying to shoot you down. Stewart Day was up to the task, and is credited with shooting down four enemy fighters during his 18 or 19 missions over Germany.

Somehow he managed to survive a crash landing in the ocean off the coast of France, but was captured by the Nazis and taken to a prison camp in Austria. He survived a year and a half there before being liberated by advancing Allied forces.

Day was awarded the Purple Heart and an Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters for his service. After the war he resumed his job at BIW and worked as a loftsman until his retirement in 1988. He was interested in local history and spent his life searching for Indian arrowheads and artifacts along the waterways of the Midcoast. Much of his collection was given to the Maine State Museum.

One can imagine that Day felt death close at hand during the war. He seems to have lived life to the fullest as a result. Often, he and his sons would take long canoe and fishing trips in the Allagash wilderness, and he did much exploring in Alaska and the western U.S., too. He was an artist who drew, painted, sculpted, and did taxidermy. He built a lapstrake boat, canvas canoes, and made his own snowshoes and toboggans.

After a life well lived, Day died April 20, 2015, at the age of 91.

Zac McDorr is the founder of the Bath Maine History Center on Facebook. You can reach him at zacmcdorr@gmail.com.

The note contained in the handle of this theater knife summarizes the World War II service U.S. Army Air Force Staff Sgt. Stewart H. Day of Bath, who was shot down in December 1943, and kept as a prisoner of war for 17 months.

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