It was a memorable day for Selwin Hewitt Aug. 18 when, for the first time in about 67 years, he climbed the ladder into the crew compartment of a B-29.
The longtime Englewood resident was a radio operator on a B-29 in the closing years of World War II. In August, he was contacted about being a passenger on the Superfortress named FiFi when the plane came to the air show at Front Range Airport.
Boeing built the B-29 to replace the B-17 as the next generation of heavy bombers. The plane began testing in 1942 and started production in 1944. The company built 3,970 airplanes. Many of the bombers were refurbished and flew during the Korean War in 1950-53. The Superfortress named FiFi is reported to be the last B-29 able to fly.
“As we walked out toward the plane Aug. 18, I thought that old bird looks great, almost as good as the brand-new B-29 our crew picked up from the factory in 1944,” Hewitt said. “Then I began to wonder if this old bird could climb up that ladder into the crew compartment.”
For his flight, Hewitt got to ride in the navigator’s seat, located in the nose of the aircraft. He said it was a great experience and he saw parts of Colorado he had never seen before as the plane flew over the mountains.
As he thought about his 2013 ride in the B-29, he said looking at the airplane and getting inside it brought back a variety of memories of his World War II service as a B-29 radio operator with the 1st Photo Reconnaissance Squadron based in the Mariana Islands.
Hewitt said he appreciated the work everyone did to arrange his Aug. 18 flight on FiFi. He said it was a great experience and is another of those things he will never forget.
As a young man, Hewitt was living near Buffalo, N.Y. in the early 1940s and was in what was called a “war critical” job, so he was exempt from the draft. However, he said he had a private pilot’s license and wanted to fly a Navy Corsair fighter, so he volunteered for Navy pilot training.
“The Navy said I was too old and turned me down,” he said. “When the draft board learned about my attempt to volunteer for pilot training, they revoked my exemption and drafted me.”
He went through basic training and technical training to be an airborne radio operator. Then he was assigned to train with B-29 crews at Smoky Hill Air Base near Salina, Kan.
“The crews completed their training and were sent to Topeka to pick up B-29s where they were built,” Hewitt said. “There were six or eight planes in our group that were to fly to the West Coast to begin the trip to the Far East. Two of the planes had engine trouble and had to turn back.
He said the rest of the aircraft island hopped across the Pacific and finally landed at Tinian because the base at Kadena, Okinawa, wasn’t ready yet.
He said the crews in his squadron took turns flying the missions to gather intelligence of targets the Army Air Forces planned to bomb or to go back and take pictures of the damage the bombing had done.
“Our crew flew every few days. The flights weren’t hard because the B-29 was pressurized so we flew in shirt sleeves, even at high altitude,” the Englewood man said. “Our recon planes were equipped with an auxiliary fuel cell in the bomb bay so we could take longer flights. Our flights varied from three hours to 12 hours and we flew at all different altitudes.”
He said, on all flights, the majority of radio communication was done using Morse code. He said he could send and receive 27 words a minute, but the speed of transmitting and receiving a message was dictated by how fast the other radio operators could communicate with Morse code.
The squadron eventually was transferred to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa and continued its 0peration. He said there wasn’t a lot to do when guys weren’t scheduled to fly a mission, so he and some other operators got together to staff a radio station, Kadena Radio Workshop, broadcasting all over the island. He said the volunteers at the station worked with Armed Forces Radio to get the music and programs on 16-inch records to put on the air.
In August 1945, Hewitt’s crew was among those assigned to fly and photograph the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki before and after the atomic bomb was dropped on each of those cities.
“The images I saw that day as we photographed the devastation created by the A-bomb are burned in my memory,” he said. “Those were experiences beyond my ability to put into words.”