DAYTON, Ohio — The buffed silver fuselage of the Memphis Belle now belies the famed B-17 bomber’s six punishing months of World War II air combat and the subsequent decades of neglect that left the plane battered by the elements and stripped by souvenir hunters while on public display in its namesake city.
The most celebrated American aircraft to emerge from the great war rests these days in a cavernous hangar at a southern Ohio Air Force base undergoing a loving and fastidious restoration — from its clear plastic nose cone down to the twin .50-caliber machine guns bristling in the tail.
About the only section left untouched so far is the signature “nose art” on the pilot’s side: the leggy Esquire pinup girl in a bathing suit seductively perched above the Memphis Belle nickname, as much a part of the plane’s legend as its odds-defying 25 bombing missions over occupied Europe in 1942-43.
The plane eventually will be displayed at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton. In the meantime, the public can see the progress of the Belle while museum staffers and volunteers finish the painstaking process of reassembling it over the next two years at the base.
On most Fridays, museum visitors who sign up in advance online (www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/visit/tours.asp) are bused to the remote hangars for a three-hour “behind the scenes” tour that includes a number of planes being restored for display in the museum. The place looks like a boneyard for once-proud flying machines, strewn with fuselage shells, unattached wings and other pieces, but the tours led by volunteer guides who know their stuff bring the old aircraft to life.
There’s a T-6 Texan II training aircraft, a World War II-era Fairchild C-82 Packet cargo plane, and a Vietnam-era Douglas A-1H fighter, all with great stories and all getting the same adoring attention from the museum restoration staff.
For most visitors, however, the highlight will be the majestic Memphis Belle, heralded as the first B-17 to complete its required 25 bombing missions and return to the United States. Mostly in pieces since it was brought to the museum from Tennessee in 2005 aboard six tractor-trailers, the plane started to take a more recognizable shape last fall when the wings were reattached and landing gear lowered. The behind-the-scenes work will continue until the plane is put on display in the huge museum sometime in 2014.
“It’s a very famous aircraft and is very historically significant, too, and it’s really appropriate for us to have it here,” said Greg Hassler, a restoration supervisor at the museum.
The Memphis Belle’s journey to Dayton was a long one.
The B-17F “Flying Fortress” piloted by then-Lt. Robert Morgan had its famous name before it left the U.S. mainland. Morgan, who died in 2004, said it was inspired by his sweetheart, 19-year-old Memphis resident Margaret Polk. The actual moniker came from a riverboat in a John Wayne movie called “Lady for a Night” that Morgan and his co-pilot saw the night before the crew voted on a name. The art was a copy of a pinup girl created by artist George Petty for an issue of the men’s magazine Esquire in 1941.
Before heading for Europe, Morgan flew the bomber to Memphis, where Polk christened it with a bottle of champagne amid much fanfare.
“We could not possibly have seen it at the time, but this was the beginning of the most-publicized romance of World War II,” Morgan wrote in his 2001 memoir. “The national newspaper and magazine boys would leap onto our story of whirlwind courtship interrupted by war, a story enacted thousands of times over by young men and women all across America. What made our version special — or at least highly visible to the media — was that lilting name, and the sexy illustration, emblazoned on the nose of my B-17.”
One of more than 12,000 B-17 heavy bombers built for the war effort, the Belle and its 10-man crew flew daring daylight precision bombing raids on industrial targets and submarine pens in Germany and occupied France from a base in central England. It was harrowing duty. Two out of three young men — their average age was 20 — who flew on those missions did not survive the war. The Memphis Belle and its crew beat the odds in a big way.
Because the plane’s crew members sometimes flew in other planes, they actually completed their 25th mission shortly before the Belle, which flew its 25th on May 19, 1943, making it one of the first B-17s to do so. After being feted by the Army brass and the king and queen of England, most of the original crew and plane were reunited for a highly publicized tour of the U.S. to help sell war bonds in the summer of 1943. A 1944 William Wyler documentary added to the lore, while younger generations were introduced to it in a 1990 hit movie that was a fictionalized account of the final mission.
After the war, the plane was saved from reclamation by the mayor of Memphis, who paid $350 for it. The Belle then sat on display outdoors there for decades, deteriorating from the weather and vandalism. After being moved to a display at Mud Island in Memphis and local attempts at restoration, the Air Force took it to the museum in 2005.