DAYTON, Ohio— Seventy-five years ago on May 17, 1943, the crew of the B-17F Memphis Belle completed their 25th combat mission in Nazi-occupied Europe. They overcame insurmountable odds by becoming the first U.S. Army Air Forces heavy bomber to complete 25 missions and return to the U.S.
Exactly 75 years after their last mission, the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force has the renovated Memphis Belle on display to the public May 17, 2018.
The museum curator and project manager for the Memphis Belle exhibit, Jeff Duford said “during the war more than 25,000 U.S. heavy bomber crewmen were killed in combat with over 8,000 of the heavy bombers being destroyed”.
In the 1940s the Memphis Belle was a symbol of American bravery. After the crew returned home to the U.S., they went on a cross-country tour promoting the sale of war bonds. A 1944 documentary was made about the aircraft and crew with real footage from the war. Later in 1990, a Hollywood movie was also released about the Memphis Belle.
Since 2005 when the aircraft arrived at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, more than 55,000 meticulous hours were spent renovating it back to its original condition. A skilled restoration staff along with a group of technically qualified volunteers were able to make it possible for the Memphis Belle to be in the impeccable state that it is in now.
On May 16, 2018, a select number of families and friends of the Memphis Belle crew, veterans and other special guests from around the country gathered to view the unveiling of the Memphis Belle. Even some of the descendants of Wilbur and Orville Wright attended the special event.
The son of the Memphis Belle pilot, Robert K. Morgan Jr., was one of the special guests during the unveiling ceremony. For him, this was a very special moment.
“It makes me so happy because this is what dad wanted so desperately,” Morgan said. “He worked so hard with the Memphis Belle Memorial Association for so many years trying to preserve the plane…. I wish that he could see it today.”
The Memphis Belle is now the centerpiece of the U.S. Army Air Forces Strategic Bombing in Europe in World War II exhibit at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. Next to the Memphis Belle aircraft is also an exhibit that features hundreds of artifacts related to the aircraft and its crews, including wartime uniforms, insignia and rare color archival footage.
“The strategic bombing campaign that these young Airmen conducted played a critical part in ending the war,” said Duford. “They broke the back of the German air force, which allowed D-Day to happen”.
During the public ribbon cutting and throughout the celebratory weekend of events, the museum was filled with thousands of people ranging from veterans, families, aviation history fanatics to school children and everyone in between.
Five P-51 Mustang fighters, three B-17 Flying Fortress bombers and a PT-19 trainer aircraft flew in a formation over the museum to commemorate the event. The B-17s, Aluminum Overcast and Yankee Lady, along with the P-51 Ain’t Misbehavin’ and a Heritage trainer landed for guests to see up close in person.
Along with the opening of the exhibit and the fly-overs, visiting guests were able to see an encampment of World War II vehicles and more than 130 reenactors participating in the opening events.
Lt. Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, Air Force director of staff and a guest speaker during the event, said the Memphis Belle and its crew “exemplify the strength and spirit of our nation. We’re a better Air Force, a better nation and a better world because they answered the call”.