U.S. Air Force Museum preserving Mempis Belle
By Jane Beathard
She is the stuff that legends — and movies — are made of.
The Memphis Belle is easily the most famous and most recognizable B-17F Flying Fortress bomber of World War II. And come May 17, she will be on view for everyone to see in the World War II Gallery at the U.S. Air Force Museum near Dayton.
Since 2005, when the museum acquired the plane from the city of Memphis, volunteers and 15 full-time staffers of the museum’s research and restoration department have worked on and off to return the plane to its wartime glory.
“The Belle is iconic,” said Jeff Duford, museum curator and head of the restoration project.
It is a symbol of the heavy bomber crews that risked life and limb to successfully undercut the Axis war machine. Those crews faced almost certain death or capture — especially in the war’s early days.
“Twenty thousand heavy bomber crewmen died in combat and another 40,000 were shot down and captured,” Duford said. “You had a one in four chance of surviving (a mission).”
Things got better after 1943 as the U.S. developed long-range “fighters” to fly protection for the bombers. But it remained dangerous work for the dozen or so young men who made up a B-17 crew.
“We committed resources to a theory,” Duford said. “It was a bloody experiment.”
That theory — that the Allies could win by destroying the enemy’s industrial ability to produce war materials — was ineffective at first. It wasn’t until bombing raids specifically targeted Nazi oil production and transportation routes that the Allies began to see real success, Duford said.
Touted as the first heavy bomber to complete 25 missions over Europe, the Belle was actually “one of the first,” Duford said.
Her legend stemmed from a full-color documentary by director William Wyler called “The Memphis Belle.” The film was released in 1944 and portrayed the bombing of a submarine base at Wilhelmshafen, Germany — purportedly the Belle’s last official mission before returning to the U.S. on May 17, 1943, for a multi-city war bond tour.
Filmmakers flew real missions in the plane to capture the movie’s combat footage. That footage and out-takes from the documentary will be part of the plane’s museum exhibit next year.
“The movie shows how dangerous it was to fly a heavy bomber,” Duford said.
A 1990 movie of the same name furthered the legend and introduced the plane to a new generation of Americans. However, it contained more fiction than fact, Duford observed.
While the museum’s restoration staff is focused on reviving the Belle, other historically significant aircraft are waiting in the wings in base storage areas and “boneyards” across the country. Some earmarked for the museum’s exhibit halls are still in active service.
Among those waiting is another famous B-17 Flying Fortress called The Swoose. The plane survived the Japanese attack on the Philippines and saw action in the Pacific. It was piloted by Frank Kurtz who named his daughter, actress Swoosie Kurtz of TV’s “Mike & Molly,” after the aircraft.
A Russian MIG-25 salvaged from the sands of Iraq is also nearby. During the Iraq War, overwhelmed Iraqi forces buried the plane to keep it out of U.S. hands. The ploy didn’t work and the plane ended up in the museum’s restoration hangar — still dusty from its desert hideout.
And there are more. The United State’s first intercontinental ballistic missile — the SM-65 Atlas — is standing by, as is a one-of-a-kind plane that began life as a propeller-driven aircraft and was later converted to a jet.
“Two to three planes are under active restoration here at any one time,” Duford said. “And we have a hundred years’ worth of planes ready to be restored.”
Who was the Memphis Belle, anyway?
Capt. Robert Morgan, the pilot, named his Boeing B-17F for then-girlfriend Margaret Polk of Memphis, Tennessee. The oft-noted nose art of a saucy girl in a bathing suit was borrowed from a 1941 illustration in Esquire magazine.
The plane took a long and winding road to the U.S. Air Force Museum.
Following the 1943 war bond tour, the Belle first landed at McDill AFB in Florida, then a “boneyard” storage area in Oklahoma.
In 1946, it went on display under an outdoor canopy in its namesake city of Memphis.
For years, a nonprofit group in Memphis did its best to preserve the plane, said Jeff Duford, curator at the U.S. Air Force Museum.
But time and the elements took a toll and the plane deteriorated. Officials in Tennessee found upkeep too expensive and asked the museum to take possession of the Belle.
In 2005, the plane was transported to the museum in pieces, then carefully re-assembled. Conservation and restoration began in earnest a few years ago.
“It’s now our top priority,” Duford said.
Plan a visit
Museum visitors can sign up to see these and other planes and missiles undergoing conservation and restoration during a guided Behind The Scenes Tour. Tours are available most Fridays year round. Registration information is available at nationalmuseum.af.mil or by calling 937-255-3286.
Nearly 1 million people visit the U.S. Air Force Museum each year. It is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Admission is free, except for the theater and flight simulators.