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?
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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.