CLEVELAND, Ohio — On Thursday one of the most celebrated aircraft of World War II will embark on a new mission when the B-17F Memphis Belle is unveiled after 13 years of restoration at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton.
Three days of special programs and events, May 17-19, are planned in conjunction with the unveiling, including World War II static aircraft displays, re-enactors with vintage vehicles, memorabilia and artifact displays, and guest speakers.
The Air Force Museum Theatre will also screen two movies that were made about the famous bomber — a 1944 documentary, "Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress," and the 1990 "Memphis Belle," a fictionalized flick with little resemblance to actual events concerning the aircraft.
The Memphis Belle was celebrated as the first U.S. Army Air Forces heavy bomber to return to the United States after completing the required 25 missions in Europe. At that time, bomber crewmen had only a 25 percent chance of reaching that goal without being killed, captured or badly wounded.
According to various stories, the aircraft was either named for the pilot's fiance, who lived in Memphis, or was drawn from a 1942 movie starring Joan Blondell.
The bomber started its combat tour in November of 1942, subsequently dropping bombs on targets in France, Belgium and Germany. These targets included aircraft factories, munitions plants and submarine bases. Its 25th mission was on May 17, 1943.
None of the crew were ever badly injured, though their plane returned from one mission with most of its tail shot up by a German fighter.
After it's return to the U.S. in 1943, the Memphis Belle went on a cross-country tour to support the sale of war bonds, stopping in more than 30 cities including Cleveland.
Following the tour, the bomber served as a training aircraft, and then was destined for scrap until it was rescued by the city of Memphis in 1946. It was displayed in that city until obtained by the Air Force museum in 2005.
Museum curator Jeff Duford said in recent publicity materials that the Memphis Belle is a salute to the 25,000 U.S. heavy bomber crewmen who were killed in combat during the war, and the more than 8,000 heavy bombers destroyed.
"How does one climb inside of this aircraft knowing that I'm probably not going to come home, and I don't have to do that one time; two times; three times; 10 times - I have to do that 25 times," said Duford.
"These crewman were faced with choices that we are not faced with in our daily lives, and thousands of them made the choice to do their duty and selflessly fly these missions in order to defeat an evil regime," he added.
Restoration of the aircraft included corrosion treatment and filling an extensive list of missing parts.
When replacement parts could not be found, they were fabricated, according to Case Simmons, museum restoration specialist.
"So that means going to the blueprints, figuring out what goes into that, how they did it and trying to re-create that process," he noted in a museum publicity release.
Included among the parts that had to be fabricated were gun mounts, all of the flooring, new sheet metal on the right vertical stabilizer and left bomb-bay door, the cockpit windscreen, and rear vertical stabilizer spar.
Meticulous attention to detail went into painting the Memphis Belle in the same coloration and markings that it bore on its 25th mission. This included deliberately painting sections of the plane a slightly lighter color to match the fading that would have occurred.
After the unveiling, the Memphis Belle will be kept on permanent public display in the World War II gallery of the museum.
(The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force is located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton. The museum offers free admission and parking, and features more than 360 aerospace vehicles and missiles, and thousands of artifacts displayed in more than 19 acres of indoor exhibit space. For more information, visit www.nationalmuseum.af.mil.)
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