The Past, Present, and Future of the Memphis Belle
Eight years ago, the Air Force moved “our” WORLD-FAMOUS plane to Dayton, Ohio. Why did that happen, and what have they done with it SINCE?
On a Sunday afternoon 26 years ago, seven B-17 bombers — the largest formation of Flying Fortresses since World War II — rumbled low over the Mississippi River. As they approached Mud Island, one plane’s bomb-bay doors opened, dropping thousands of rose petals onto the crowds below. The flyover was a salute to the most famous B-17 of them all — arguably the most famous airplane of World War II — the Memphis Belle, which had moved into a new pavilion on Mud Island. The date was May 17, 1987, and the theme of this event was “The Memphis Belle: Home at Last.” Well, not quite.
Although the white vinyl canopy stretched over a dome of steel beams offered the best environment for the aging warplane in almost half a century, it still didn’t fully protect it from the elements. And over the next dozen years, various groups — the Memphis Belle Memorial Association, which had worked so hard to restore and maintain the plane; the Memphis Park Commission, which operated Mud Island; and officials with the U.S. Air Force — fought over what, and where, the best home for this historic warplane should be.
But first they had to decide who owned it.
B-17 #42-24485 rolled off the Boeing Aircraft Company assembly lines in Seattle on July 2, 1942 — one of some 12,750 Flying Fortresses built during the war. The plane bristled with machine guns, but the plane’s punch came from its four-ton payload of 500- or 1,000-pound bombs.
Each B-17 carried a crew of 10, and this particular plane picked up hers in Bangor, Maine. The pilot was Lieutenant (later Colonel) Robert Morgan of Asheville, North Carolina. Everybody by now surely knows that he dubbed his new plane the Memphis Belle after his sweetheart, Margaret Polk (though some experts say he initially planned to call it after his pet name for her, Little One, and instead got the name for the plane from the 1942 movie A Lady for a Night).
The Memphis Belle flew to England on September 25, 1942, and joined the 91st Bomb Group at the Bassingbourn Royal Air Force Base. From there, she embarked on 30 missions over Europe, aborting five because of mechanical problems. The first, on November 7, 1942, was a daylight bombing raid on submarine pens in Brest, France. Others were directed against locomotive works, railroads, shipyards, and factories in France, Germany, Belgium, and Holland.
It was risky business. Daylight bombing allowed better accuracy for the bombardiers, but it made the Fortresses easier targets for fighter planes and ground gunners. One in three B-17s never made it home again after a mission.
The Belle herself was never mortally wounded but had close calls, struck by cannon shells and machine gun fire. On one mission, the plane was hit 62 times by bullets or shrapnel and the tail was almost blown away, but the plane and her crew flew on, raid after raid.
The Army Air Corps had decided that combat duty ended with 25 missions — at a time when many planes didn’t make it past 10 — and Morgan and most of his crew finally reached that lucky number on May 17, 1943, with a bombing run on submarine pens in Lorient, France. Since the crew had sometimes used other planes while the Belle was being repaired, the plane had to fly one more mission, against shipyards in Kiel, Germany, before she reached number 25 on May 19, 1943.
So began the plane’s “26th Mission.” The Army decided that one 25-mission bomber would return to the U.S. “because of the beneficial impact it will have.” The plane chosen for this morale-boosting tour was the Memphis Belle.
Military historians now believe the Belle was probably not the first plane to compete 25 missions, but it was certainly among the first — a small group that included B-17s named Hell’s Angels, Connecticut Yankee, Delta Rebel III, and Jersey Bounce. The Belle was selected, some believe, because it had already been the “star” of a documentary by Hollywood director William Wyler. And there was another factor. American newspapers and magazines had picked up the wartime romance of Margaret Polk and Robert Morgan, giving the lucky plane its special appeal.
On June 16, 1943, the Memphis Belle landed in Washington, D.C., to begin a publicity tour that would take her to just about every city in the U.S., encouraging everyone who saw her to buy war bonds. “By the time the tour ended,” wrote historian Menno Duerksen, “there was hardly a man, woman, or child in America who had not heard about the Memphis Belle and her crew of heroes.”
Maybe so, but the plane wasn’t treated very heroically after the war. Declared surplus, it was hauled to an airplane graveyard outside Altus, Oklahoma. In 1946, the city of Memphis purchased her for $350 and brought her to the old Memphis Municipal Airport, where she sat outside a hangar for years. In 1950, the bomber was hoisted atop a concrete pedestal outside the Tennessee National Guard Armory on Central. When the National Guard sold that property in 1977, the plane was trucked back to the airport, first parked outside the Tennessee National Guard hangars, and later moved alongside a WWII-themed restaurant called the 91st Bomb Group. During these later moves, just about the only people who cared for her were members of the Memphis Belle Memorial Association (MBMA), founded in 1967 by local businessman Frank Donofrio.
Around this time, the plane’s deteriorating condition came to the attention of the U.S. Air Force, which claimed ownership of the plane and threatened to take it back. In a letter to the MBMA, the director of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside Dayton, Ohio, wrote, “I’m beginning to get that gnawing feeling that the citizens of Memphis have no interest in the Belle and, in the long run, the best thing we could do [is] bring her to Wright-Patterson for care at the main museum.”
Memphis wanted none of that. “Save the Belle” committees were formed, FedEx chipped in $100,000, as did the Boeing company, and other companies and citizens here donated “bucks for the Belle.” Two years and half a million dollars later, Mayor Dick Hackett told the Air Force, “We have met your challenge,” and the Belle moved to its new home on Mud Island.
The pavilion kept the rain off, but it didn’t protect the aging warbird from the humidity of Memphis summers or the wet cold of our winters. Pigeons nested in the engines and got into the fuselage. Visitors to Mud Island vandalized the plane and stole parts off her. MBMA volunteers worked around the clock to keep the plane looking nice, washing pigeon poop off the wings every week, but the plane was slowly decaying. From the distance, it looked fine, but structural parts were beginning to fail. Experts from FedEx examined the Belle and determined that, if anybody ever started the massive engines, the vibration would tear the plane apart. The MBMA agreed that something had to be done to preserve her properly.
“We knew from the beginning that the move to Mud Island was a mistake,” says Dr. Harry Friedman, a board member of the Memphis Belle Memorial Association and co-author of Memphis Belle: Dispelling the Myths, the most definitive history of the plane to date. “All along, we were working for a better site for her, and had even obtained land for a museum on Forest Hill-Irene Road.”
Once again the issue of ownership came up. Although the receipt had survived showing the city’s original 1946 purchase from the Oklahoma surplus yard, it seems that in the 1970s — for reasons never made entirely clear — then Mayor Wyeth Chandler had returned ownership of the plane back to the Air Force, though he hoped it could remain in Memphis. “The military always claimed there’s simply no way the city ever owned it,” says Friedman. “They will always say that we [the Air Force] own things into perpetuity.”
Regardless, anyone wanting to save the plane faced three options: Modify the existing pavilion on Mud Island (not feasible, experts said), build a brand-new facility elsewhere (too expensive, other experts said), or give the plane back to the Air Force.
One thing was settled: The Belle had to leave Mud Island. In 2002, the wings were removed and a flatbed truck hauled it to a climate-controlled hangar at the Naval Support Activity complex in Millington.
“But Millington was never intended to be the Belle’s permanent home,” says Andy Pouncey, another MBMA board member. “We originally reached out to Millington business leaders, but they didn’t show us they wanted to make anything of it.” The plan, then, was to restore the plane in the hangar at Millington, while the MBMA raised funds for a museum.
“At Millington, we had about 40 airframe and powerplant mechanics, all FAA-certified from FedEx, working on that plane,” says Friedman. “You couldn’t ask for a better crew. The Air Force Museum doesn’t even have that many people.”
In 2003, these volunteers began a full-scale restoration. “We took the aluminum off, stripped out corroded areas, and put in new metal,” says Friedman. “All along, we had done bits and pieces of restoration over the years, but this was much more involved.”
And all along, the Air Force was keeping a close eye on things. “They gave us very strict criteria to follow and, we thought, made unreasonable demands,” says Pouncey. “They wanted us to conduct a complete physical analysis, which we were already doing, but then they said they expected it to be moved into a museum that could attract at least 300,000 visitors a year. Well, the Air Force Museum only drew 1.2 million visitors, and they had 365 planes. We only had one.”
Even though the MBMA had actually broken ground for a museum site on Forest Hill-Irene Road, the fundraiser for the building was also running into problems. Enthusiasm for the old plane had dwindled, especially after it moved out of public view. So the MBMA reached a difficult decision.
“We came to realize that the city of Memphis wasn’t interested in it anymore,” says Friedman. “We had enthusiastic volunteers working on it, but the fruits of their labor would never be appreciated. So we finally called the museum and said, ‘Come get it.’”
An air show in Millington on October 5, 2005, gave visitors one last chance to see the Belle in Memphis. Two days later, the Air Force sent a truck to Memphis and picked up all the pieces.
They already had two other B-17s in their collection, and some two dozen B-17s in various states of repair are scattered around the globe, so why were they so determined to get their hands on “our” plane? “They wanted it because of its role in history,” says Friedman. “One of the former directors of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum once told me, there are five important planes in U.S. history, and one of them is the Memphis Belle.” She joins a select list that includes the Wright brothers’ Flyer, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the B-29 Enola Gay (which dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan), and the Glamorous Glennis, the experimental plane flown by Chuck Yeager to break the sound barrier. “The Smithsonian already has all those other planes,” says Friedman, “but they don’t have the Belle.”
When the plane arrived in Dayton, museum officials told the press that the work done in Memphis wasn’t up to their standards. Nothing could be further from the truth, insists Friedman. “They quickly came to realize that all the work we did here wasn’t for nothing,” he says. “They just picked up where we left off. In fact, they are now coming to us with questions about the restoration process.”
Pouncey also points out that “the work of the Memphis Belle Memorial Association didn’t stop in 2005,” when the plane went to Dayton. MBMA members visit the plane on a regular basis, and Friedman is on the phone with the restorers “at least once a week.”
And in some ways, a special part of the plane has remained behind in Memphis. In 2005, Pouncey designed the Memphis Belle Memorial, part of Veterans Plaza in Overton Park. Featuring a bronze sculpture of Margaret Polk gazing skyward with a plaque of the plane, the monument tells the Memphis Belle story. “It’s just one way of reminding visitors of the plane’s historic connection to Memphis,” says Pouncey.
For the restoration, the biggest challenge has been finding authentic or period-correct parts. Over the years, souvenir hunters stripped the plane of anything they could grab. Even the instrument panels were missing. But as more people learned about the restoration efforts — first in Millington and now at Dayton — their guilty consciences have prompted them to return many parts. “One of my own patients showed up one day with the hydraulic pressure gauge,” says Friedman. “When he was a kid and the Belle was perched outside the National Guard Armory, he had taken it off the plane.”
Of course, there’s always eBay. Jerry Klein, another MBMA board member, says, “When we were in Dayton in July, the chief of restoration told us somebody on eBay had an original oxygen bottle from the Belle, and he managed to buy it.”
Other pieces have come from more unusual places. “You’ve got to go anywhere and everywhere and be willing to get dirty,” says Friedman. Years ago, a woman from Alabama called. Her husband, it seems, had passed away and had collected war-related stuff for years. Would anybody here want any of it? “We came away with loads of B-17 parts, some of them we used, some of them we traded for other parts,” says Friedman. “But beneath the house, we found parts and pieces of 14 to 18 World War II machine guns. We took them out to the Tennessee Air National Guard. They cleaned them up, and we put together 13 .50-caliber guns to go with the plane.”
The work in Dayton revealed one surprise. When the plane was stripped down to the bare aluminum, restorers discovered that hundreds of people had scribbled their names on the plane when it journeyed across the country on its “26th Mission.”
It’s now been eight years since the Memphis Belle went into a restoration hangar in Dayton. If anybody wonders what’s taking so long, Friedman explains the Air Force is doing a “plane of record” restoration. “They want it to be 25th-mission accurate. Not like it just came fresh out of the factory, but exactly as it was when it flew its last mission. So you have to do it right, even for parts the public won’t even see. It’s not a fake, and it’s not just a shell.”
The plane is tentatively scheduled to be moved to the museum floor by the end of 2014, where it will be the centerpiece of the exhibits, though fully restoring the interior will take at least another year. At first, visitors could see the work in progress just one day a month, but as more people hear about the plane, they can now view it once a week — every Friday. “It’s so popular that you now have to make reservations,” says Pouncey.
So, in the long run, are the members of the Memphis Belle Memorial Association pleased with how it turned out?
“You had a lot of detractors at first,” says Pouncey. “We had put a lot of ‘sweat equity’ into it. But you came to realize that this plane was bigger than yourself. It would have been selfish to keep it here. Memphis couldn’t really support it, so what we did was give it to a higher power that can take it to the level it deserves.”
For more information, visit the Memphis Belle Project, a website administered by Lausanne Collegiate School in partnership with the Memphis Belle Memorial Association: lausanneschool.com