By BOB JAQUES
A special event took place in the World War II gallery of the National Museum of the Air Force on May 16, 2018.
The occasion was an invitation only unveiling of the completely restored B-17F Memphis Belle.
The Memphis Belle has not been seen in public since 2002 when it was on loan to the City of Memphis, Tennessee.
The Memphis Belle arrived at the museum in 2005 and has been undergoing a painstaking restoration since then.
More than 900 people from all over the United States came to see this famous bomber’s debut in the museum’s World War II Gallery.
The Memphis Belle is not just another B-17. It is a unique and historic symbol of the sacrifice bomber crews made in the skies of Europe that defeated Nazi Germany.
Overcoming terrific odds, the Memphis Belle became the first U.S. Army Air Forces heavy bomber to complete 25 missions in Europe and return to the United States. The Memphis Belle and her crew then embarked on a War Bond Tour across the country. At each stop, thousands of well-wishers gathered to see the crew and this famous airplane.
“During the war more than 25,000 U.S. heavy bomber crewman were killed in combat and over 8,000 bombers destroyed,” Museum Curator Jeff DuFord noted.
On the day of the unveiling, the audience began filling the chairs placed directly in front of the exhibit, which was concealed by a large black curtain that went from the floor to the ceiling.
Anticipated excitement filled the room.
Prior to the unveiling, Museum Director Lt. Gen. Jack Hudson, USAF, Retired, noted, “This exhibit will help tell the Air Force story and inspire young people to join the Air Force.”
Then the curtain dropped to the floor.
The Memphis Belle rested on elevated pylons so visitors could walk around her and under her to observe every detail. The paint was the exact same color as the original and all the markings were carefully placed in their original location on the airplane.
“The original engines and props are long gone, but we installed the exact same types for accuracy,” Duford told me.
The audience was made up of family members of the original crew, Air Force VIPs, veterans, and invited civilians. The news media also was allowed to attend this prestigious event.
One of the VIPs in the audience was Linda Morgan, widow of Memphis Belle pilot Col. Robert Morgan. I asked her what she thought of how the airplane looked.
“It looks awesome!” she replied.
One interesting guest was wearing a replica World War II leather flight jacket with the insignia of the Memphis Belle painted on the back. I asked if I could take a photo of his jacket and he nodded with a smile, introducing himself as Jimmy Powers from Daytona Beach, Florida. We then talked for a few minutes.
I learned he was a former Northwest Airlines pilot who flew the 727 from which D.B. Cooper jumped years ago.
During a reception after the unveiling, people crowded around the beautifully restored Memphis Belle taking pictures with cameras and cell phones.
Open to the Public
The next day, May 17, the museum held a public ribbon-cutting in front of the exhibit in front of a capacity crowd of 2,000 people.
The date May 17 is significant because it was exactly 75 years ago on May 17, 1943, that the Memphis Belle completed its 25th mission.
The new exhibit tells the complete story of the Memphis Belle and has artifacts from seven of the 10 crew members. Items include a flight suit, uniforms, goggles, wings, and other insignia.
After the ribbon-cutting ceremony, the public was invited to go outside and watch two B-17s and a PT-17 land on the museum’s runway. Visitors rode a shuttle bus to the flight line to view these airplanes up close and talk with the crewmembers.
One of the B-17s was “Aluminum Overcast,” which belongs to the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The other, “Yankee Lady,” is owned by the Yankee Air Museum in Belleville, Michigan.
A third B-17, The Movie Memphis Belle, a replica created for a movie, did not fly due to high winds. It is owned by Military Aircraft Restoration Corp. in Anaheim, California.
The PT-17 is owned by Butler County Warbirds of Middletown, Ohio.
Festivities for the Memphis Belle unveiling were supposed to last for four days with World War II re-enactors, World War II military vehicles, and an outside concert of Glenn Miller music by Air Force bands. Unfortunately rainy weather cancelled some flying and outside activities.
Located on Wright Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force is the world’s largest military aviation museum. With free admission and parking, the museum features more than 360 aerospace vehicles and missiles and thousands of artifacts on more than 19 acres of indoor exhibit space. Each year about 1 million visitors from around the world visit the museum.