Restored B-17F ‘Memphis Belle’ set for May unveiling

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Restored to her wartime appearance, the B-17F “Memphis Belle” is ready for her new home at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (Michael Jordan)

Dayton, Ohio: Seventy-five years ago, the B-17F Memphis Belle completed its last operational mission navigating the hostile skies over war-torn Europe. Hollywood cameras were on hand to capture the jubilation as the excited airmen exited the plane. In 25 missions, the crew of the Memphis Belle had sustained just one casualty – a minor leg wound to outspoken tail gunner, John P. Quinlan.

By comparison, the casualty count for other members of the Mighty Eighth Air Force would number some 47,000, with more than 26,000 of those brave airmen dead.

Being one of the first crews to hit the coveted cap of 25 missions, the Memphis Belle was then ordered to return to the United States to undertake a grand 31-city war bond tour. An absorbing documentary of the plane’s exploits — directed by William Wyler — was released in 1944.

In time, a feature movie about the Memphis Belle would also be made. But by war’s end, the government no longer had any use for the celebrated bomber.

The crew of the Memphis Belle back from their 25th operational mission. All were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.

Her fate seemingly sealed, Belle was sent to the scrap yard at Altus Air Force Base.

After being rescued from certain destruction by the city of Memphis, the plane was proudly put on public display. But decades’ worth of deterioration, vandalism and financial uncertainty ultimately forced the city to offer the aging warbird back to the Air Force.

In 2005, the Air Force finally reassumed full ownership of the Memphis Belle. Now, seventy-five years after completing her last operational mission, one of the most storied airplanes in American history has finally found a fitting home.

Last Wednesday evening, before a crowd of about 200 invited guests, Belle was lovingly moved from a restoration hangar at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to the World War II hanger at the adjoining National Museum of the United States Air Force.

The move (in an icy-cold wind) took all of fifteen minutes across several thousand yards of tarmac. Wright-Patterson AFB sits on the outskirts of Dayton, Ohio.

“This is a huge milestone for both the museum and the Air Force,” said Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Jack Hudson, the museum’s director. “The Memphis Belle speaks to all of the men who flew those very dangerous missions for the Eighth Air Force. This is one of the iconic airplanes of World War II, and it has been off public display for twenty years or more. We’ve been working on the restoration for a good number of years now. Today’s event is a big step towards having the exhibit ready for the grand unveiling to the public in May.”

What can the public expect when the Memphis Belle display is unveiled the weekend of May 17?

Memorial to “The Mighty Eighth” at the National Museum of the US Air Force. (Anthony C. Hayes)

“When you come back, the plane will be up on stands, so it will appear as if it’s in flight. The landing gear will be retracted, so it’s going to be great view of the aircraft. And unlike other displays in the museum, the public will be able to walk under the plane and get a close look. When the Belle came over today, the nose art was covered. We’re keeping that covered until the unveiling in May.

“The new display will tell the entire story of what the Army Air Forces did in Europe during WWII, with strategic bombardment, the missions, the aircrews and how they took care of themselves during high-altitude missions under enemy attack.”

Lead Curator Jeff Duford said he has been involved with the Memphis Belle project for more than a decade.

“The Belle arrived in 2005, and we started doing prep work before it even arrived. It’s hard to count the thousands of hours staff has put into this project. We did this restoration accurately and carefully. It’s incredible, the attention to detail which has gone into this restoration,” said Duford.

“Family members of the original crew have been incredibly generous. We’ll also display the wartime uniform of Major William Wyler, the famous Hollywood director who filmed the 1944 documentary. “

What was the cost for such a meticulous restoration?

“We don’t track the money. This is one of our nation’s treasures.”

Savoring the moment were Chicago area resident Andrew Nelson and his young son, Paul.

National Museum of the USAF Director Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Jack Hudson. (Michael Jordan)

“Our whole trip down here was a surprise for my son,” explained Andrew. I told him I would drive him to school today, but once we were in the car, I had him read aloud a letter we’d received from the Air Force Museum, inviting us to this event. Paul didn’t understand it, but then he smiled and said, ‘We aren’t going to school, are we?’”

“First I got so happy, and then I started to cry a little.” said Paul. “It was so amazingly nice of dad to take me out here.”

Also taking in the excitement was Lt. Col. (Ret) Eric Gunzinger and his friend, Maj. Geisler.

“We just heard the Memphis Belle came out of its restoration hanger, so we ran right over. I see that the Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby is also out here and looking fantastic, but I can’t wait til spring to see the Memphis Belle (on display).

“I was over in England just a few months ago, and in the Eagle Pub, they have a picture of the crew with their original signatures on the wall. It’s been there since the 40s when they shipped back to the United States. So, its come full circle from England, and its mission over there, to its final place here at Wright-Patt. Incredible!”

Moving the Memphis Belle into her new home at the museum (where she will someday be joined by another iconic warbird – the B-17D Swoose) comes with a touch of bittersweet controversy.

The Belle will supplant a third heavy bomber – and one of the museum’s most popular attractions: the B-17G Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby.

Nose-to-Nose: The Memphis Belle and Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby stand in front of the WWII Hangar at the National Museum of the USAF. (Anthony C. Hayes)

Christened by its crew after a popular Andrews Sisters’ song, Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby arrived at the museum on October 13, 1988, after her own meticulous 10-year-long restoration by a volunteer group at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. So thorough was that restoration, Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby actually flew from Dover to Wright-Patterson – arriving with an escort of vintage P-51 Mustangs.

General Hudson told us that, as part of a long-standing agreement with the Smithsonian, Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby will eventually be moved to the National Air and Space Museum, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington, DC.

“We will keep her here in storage until they are ready; then it will be up to the Smithsonian to have her disassembled and trucked to DC,” said Hudson.

Hudson said there is no set timetable for the move of Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby, or for the eventual display of the Swoose.

The Swoose (which was already in service in the Philippines when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor) is yet to be restored. It has been said that once that restoration is complete, the museum will have on display the two most historically significant B-17s in the world.

Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby. (Credit Michael Jordan)