Home At Last! Memphis Belle Exhibit Unveiled At National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

by Dave Weiman
Published in Midwest Flyer – June/July 2018 issue

It was the summer of 1989, and our family flew down to Memphis, Tennessee so I could help announce an airshow, and interview the performers and VIPs. The airshow was combined with an Indy-type auto race, and produced by airshow performer, Ed Johnson, a pilot with the Bud Light Air Force, who flew the BD-5J. There I met and interviewed race car legend Bobby Unser, whose son, Robby Unser, was racing. I also interviewed Margaret Polk of Memphis, for whom the B-17 Flying Fortress “Memphis Belle” was named.

The Army Air Corps had decided that combat duty ended with 25 missions at a time when many planes and their crews didn’t make it past 10. So, in May 1943, the Memphis Belle became the first heavy bomber to complete 25 missions over Europe. Then on June 16, 1943, she and her crew landed in Washington, D.C., to begin a nationwide tour to encourage everyone who saw her to buy war bonds.

The pilot of the Memphis Belle, Lt. (later Colonel) Robert K. Morgan, was dating Margaret Polk at the time. He chose the nose artwork for the plane based on a 1941 George Petty illustration in Esquire magazine.

Years later in 2003, I had the pleasure of meeting Col. Morgan, then of Asheville, North Carolina, when he was on tour with the replica of the Memphis Belle. The replica was used to film the 1990 British war drama “Memphis Belle.”

The real Memphis Belle was on display on Mud Island in Memphis, along the banks of the Mississippi River in an open shelter, leaving the aircraft exposed to the elements where it was also vandalized. When our family was in Memphis for the show, I couldn’t believe the United States would allow such a national treasure to deteriorate. Neither could the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, Ohio.

Various groups including the Memphis Belle Memorial Association (MBMA), which worked to restore and maintain the aircraft; the Memphis Park Commission, which operated Mud Island; and officials in the U.S. Air Force, fought over what, and where, the best home for the aircraft should be. But first they had to decide who owned it.

B-17 #42-24485 rolled off the Boeing Aircraft assembly line in Seattle on July 2, 1942 – one of some 12,750 B-17s built during the war. The Memphis Belle flew to England on September 25, 1942 and joined the 91st Bomb Group at Bassingbourn Royal Air Force Base. From there, she embarked on 30 missions over Europe, aborting five missions because of mechanical problems. During these missions, the aircraft was hit, but survived to fight again.

After the war, the Memphis Belle was declared surplus and 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. When the National Guard sold that property in 1977, the plane was trucked back to the airport, and was first parked outside the Tennessee National Guard hangars, and later moved alongside a World War II-themed restaurant called the 91st Bomb Group. During these later moves, just about the only people who cared for her were members of MBMA.

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 response, “Save the Belle” committees were formed, and FedEx and Boeing each contributed $100,000 to the cause. That’s when the aircraft was placed on display on Mud Island, where the issue of ownership resurfaced.

Although the city purchased the aircraft in 1946, the mayor at the time returned ownership back to the Air Force, believing it could still remain in Memphis. But that was no longer possible or desirable. In 2002, the wings were removed and a flatbed truck hauled the aircraft to a climate-controlled hangar at the Naval Support Activity complex in Millington, Tenn. for the aircraft’s initial restoration, which began in 2003.

Millington even broke ground for a museum, but the fundraiser for the building was running into problems, and enthusiasm for the project dwindled. So MBMA finally called the Air Force to come and pick up the plane, which they did in October 2005.

Also, in 2005, a memorial for the aircraft was created on the Veterans Plaza in Overton Park in Memphis, featuring a bronze sculpture of Margaret Polk gazing skyward and a plaque of the plane.

Now, completely restored, the Memphis Belle was unveiled to the public on May 17, 2018 – exactly 75 years after its crew finished their last mission in the war against Nazi Germany on May 17, 1943.

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 amid more than 19 acres of indoor exhibit space. Each year about one million visitors from around the world come to the museum, so the Memphis Belle will get plenty of visitors.

For additional information, visit www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/.

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