The old song, "Sentimental Journey," has special meaning for 90-year-old Dillon resident Bob Hewitt.
When he heard that song, it meant he and the crew of his B-17 had made it safely over the Alps and back into friendly air space. Once the bomber was over Italy, Hewitt would turn the radio on to the commercial station and that song — a popular tune in 1945 — was sure to be playing.
"When we heard that song we knew we were safe," Hewitt said. "That was our favorite song." The journey back to the airbase was sentimental for Hewitt and his crew, because the journey out was filled with fighter planes and flak. A nightmare, to say the least.
Hewitt, a Butte native, made that journey into the combat zone 24 times during World War II. He and his 10-man crew flew bombing raids over Germany in the celebrated bomber known as "the Flying Fortress." He flew the unfriendly skies that involved exploding anti-aircraft rounds known as flak. German gunners would pepper the sky with flak that would send hot shrapnel See JOURNEY, Page A8 through the B-17s.
"You knew you were going to get a lot of holes," Hewitt said about flying through these flak zones.
Hewitt admits it takes plenty of skill to fly a combat mission. But he also says luck plays a major part in making it back to base or falling from the sky over enemy territory.
He credits surviving two dozen combat missions to the aircraft he piloted. The B-17 was a strong and reliable plane that could give as good as it got.
Hewitt remembered returning to the airbase in Foggia, Italy, after a particularly hairy mission. Despite flying through a massive barrage of anti-aircraft fire, Hewitt and his crew made it back to base. The grounds crew, who did maintenance on his plane, was shocked by what they saw.
"They counted over 300 holes in that plane and not one person in my crew got hit," he said proudly during an interview with The Montana Standard at his home in Dillon.
Hewitt says the design and durability of the plane kept many flight crews safe during the hottest combat runs. The large wings of the aircraft were fixed beneath the plane and provided protection from exploding flak from below, he said.
"It's an excellent flying airplane; it could take flak well," he recalled.
Hewitt earned the Distinguished Fly Cross — one of the highest honors — flying his crippled B-17. One of the engines on the four-engine aircraft went out and he had to fly it back to base. It was a long flight through enemy territory without the protection of the rest of the squadron.
"I told the crew to watch out for fighters, because if they found a bomber flying alone, they would go after it," he said.
He and his crew made it back without a scratch.
"They say I saved them all that day," Hewitt said.
His respect and affection for this mighty aircraft will bring Hewitt back to Butte this week. A vintage B-17, coincidentally named "Sentimental Journey," will be on display at the Bert Mooney Airport Monday through Friday.
Tours and rides will be offered during the visit. Hewitt says he wants to see the old workhorse, but isn't interested in taking a flight.
"I've already been there," he said with a slight swagger.
Hewitt was born in Butte on Oct. 7, 1918. His father, Ezra A. Hewitt, worked as a mining geologist for the Anaconda Co. They moved to Utah when he was about 4 years old. Hewitt graduated with an economics degree from the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, in 1940.
From there, he went on to learn to fly at a civilian military training school, before joining the Army Air Corps.
He was deployed to Italy in February 1945 where he served with the 15th Air Force, 2nd Bomb Group, 96th Squadron.
Hewitt and his wife Rusty have been living in Dillon for the past 10 years. He and his wife celebrated their 63rd anniversary on Saturday.
Despite being well past retirement age, Hewitt still works 20 hours a week at the Dillon Public Library. He says he likes to keep busy and enjoys working at the library.
Hewitt lives with his daughter, Candy Alberi. She says her father is excited about seeing the B-17 in Butte this week.
"It's all he's been talking about," she said.
Reporter John Grant Emeigh may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vintage bomber arrives today A World War II bomber arrives in the Mining City Monday to kick off the Butte Fly-in and Military Appreciation Days.
The vintage B-17 Flying Fortress, named Sentimental Journey, arrives at the Bert Mooney Airport at noon, said airport director Rick Griffith, and departs at 9 a.m. Friday.
The week includes a static display of 15 Experimental Aircraft Association aircraft. A Blackhawk Helicopter will also See BOMBER, Page A8 be on site on Wednesday and Thursday, and invitations have gone out to solicit other military aircraft.
Since these operations will be conducted with Military Appreciation Days, other land-based military equipment will also be displayed. A climbing wall, as well as an interactive military trailer with video games and plasma technology, and tactical demos, will be open to the public.
The event begins with a business-card social on Tuesday and ends with a barbecue on Thursday.
The Experimental Aircraft Association pilots will offer free airplane rides to children aged 8 to 17 on Wednesday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon.
The public is also invited to tour the B-17 — inside and out. There's even the opportunity for some lucky individuals to actually take a flight in the Sentimental Journey and experience this rare aircraft first-hand, Griffith said.
Tours range from $5 for adults to $3 for children ages 5 to 12 and free for children under 5. Flight opportunities are $425 per person for a 45-minute ride.
All tour proceeds benefit Sentimental Journey; only a handful of these rare birds remain in the world and most of them are on static display in museums, Griffith said. The B-17 is home-based with the Arizona Wing Commemorative Air Force in Mesa.
The radio-controlled aircraft and car groups will give demonstrations throughout the week.
For details, call Rick Griffith at 494-3771 or Marko Lucich of the Butte-Silver Bow Chamber of Commerce at 723-3177.