WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, DAYTON — More than a lifetime ago, the world was at war. The skies over Europe were filled with airplanes, manned by young men, many not yet out of their teens. In the hands of these young men we placed the future of our nation.
One of the airplanes flown by the young men was the Boeing B-17 “Flying Fortress.” Each of these aircraft, powered by four 1200-horsepower Wright Cyclone engines, carried several tons of bombs and a dozen .50 caliber machine guns — and a crew of 10 men.
Early in the air war in Europe, the odds of a man completing the required 25 missions before being allowed to rotate home were one in four. A pilot or crew member of a B-17 had a 25 percent chance of surviving, at least relatively unscathed.
Into those skies and against those odds, American boys climbed daily.
In an effort to increase morale and financial support for the war effort, the Defense Department began looking for a crew to complete their missions and send on a War Bond tour across the country.
The war department chose Hollywood director William Wyler to choose an airplane and crew. Although another aircraft named “Hell’s Angels” had completed its 25th mission days earlier, Wyler chose the more “wholesome” aircraft, “Memphis Belle,” for his documentary film.
Named for Capt. Robert Morgan’s Memphis, Tenn. girlfriend, “Memphis Belle” carried Morgan and his crew safely through 25 missions over Europe, including some into the heart of Nazi Germany.
Following the completion of their missions, Morgan, “Belle,” and crew were sent on a War Bond tour across the United States in June of 1943 to raise money for the war effort. Among the stops on the tour was Patterson Field, which later became Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Morgan and his crew visited the NCR Corporatation and also visited with Orville Wright.
Following the war, “Memphis Belle” was put on display in Memphis, Tenn. The display was open to the weather and years of heat/cold/rain/snow took their toll on the Boeing bomber.
Efforts to get the B-17F to the National Museum of the United States Air Force were finally realized in 2005 and our nation’s most famous Flying Fortress was brought to the museum.
Casey Simmons, restoration specialist for the museum, is one of the restoration crew members who has been lovingly returning “Memphis Belle” to her former glory, piece by piece, since 2008.
Simmons described the process as “pretty straightforward,” although some pieces had to be manufactured to order.
Responsibility for the restoration project falls on NMUSAF curator Jeff Duford. Duford and his staff understand the historical significance of their Flying Fortress. “The Memphis Belle is important because it is the symbol of the heavy bomber crews that flew missions over Germany in World War II and helped the U.S. win that war,” Duford said.
“We have some exciting plans for the “Memphis Belle,” Duford said. “We are going into the latter stages of the restoration. It will go on public display on May 17, 2018, which is 75 years to the day since the ‘Memphis Belle’ flew her 25th mission.
“The aircraft will be displayed in a featured location in our World War II Gallery,” Duford continued, “where it will be a centerpiece of a major exhibit on Strategic Bombardment, in Europe, in World War II.”
Duford said that the story is important not only to the Air Force, but also to the country.
“There were more than 20,000 bomber crewmen who gave their lives for this country in order to defeat Germany in World War II,” Duford said.
While much remains to be done to bring Memphis Belle “back to life,” restoration crews can begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
Museum officials are reminding everyone to mark their calendars for May 17, 2018, to attend the grand unveiling of one of America’s most famous aircraft.
Reach Mike Ullery at (937) 451-3335