The U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH: Part II, Station Historian Tom Best


Last week, I hope you were tuned in to learn of my trip to the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.  I specifically focused on my tour of the World War II exhibit and the amazing story of Jimmy Doolittle and his Raiders.  Their daring missions over Japan in 1942 should never be forgotten.

While this section of the World War II exhibit hall could be toured for a good part of an hour all by itself, I also needed time to tour an aircraft I have longed to see—a famed restored B-17, the “Memphis Belle.”

I most wanted to see the “Belle” because I grew up in the 1960s reading books and watching movies and TV shows regarding this particular B-17 “Fighting Fortress” and its role in America’s strategic bombing missions.  To this day, I still enthralled with this aircraft’s history illustrated in various documentaries, books, and posts on Facebook. 

For some background history, you should know that the B-17 was first developed before the war in the mid-1930s.  Not surprisingly, this long-range bomber, designed by the Boeing Aircraft Company, evolved in its design to meet new challenges through the 1940s.  For instance, the structure of the fuselage was altered to accommodate more .50 caliber machine gun sites mounted forward, aft, below, and from each side of the aircraft.  By the time these B-17’s were heading to their airbases in England and as far away as North Africa, this aircraft was being hailed for its defensive firepower and ability to carry a bomb load of 8,000 lbs.  Although the B-24 bomber (nicknamed the “flying boxcar”) was ultimately faster and could carry more bomb tonnage in its missions over Europe, the some 12,000 plus B-17s seemed to particularly capture the public’s fascination in its crucial role of participating in strategic bombing missions over Hitler’s Nazi empire.  Capable of flying up to 2,800 miles (although most missions were less than one-third that length), the B-17 could fly as fast as 325 mph and up to 37,500 feet—as high as 7 miles above the earth.      

Undoubtedly, the most famous of the Boeing B-17F’s version of these bombers that flew over Europe was the “Memphis Belle.”  And why?  Because it was said to be the first of this bomber type with its crew of ten to finish its goal of successfully finishing twenty-five missions over Europe.  We Americans are fascinated with such “firsts.”

Regarding this specific B-17, the aircraft was built in Seattle, Washington and then delivered to Europe in October 1942 to the 324th Bombardment Squadron and 91st Bomb Group based at Bassingbourn, England.  From November 1942 to May 1943, the “Belle” flew missions over France, Belgium, and Germany.  The captain of the plane, Robert Morgan, oversaw the functionality of the aircraft with its four large Wright R-1820-97 supercharged radial engines and thirteen .50 caliber machine guns.  It was also Morgan who gave the bomber it’s romantic nickname to honor his sweetheart, Margaret Polk, of Memphis, Tennessee.  The distinctive nose art of a pinup girl was actually courtesy of an image featured in Esquire Magazine.  If you look closely enough, you will notice that each side of the Belle has the magazine-inspired beautiful girl in a different colored dress—one side red and the other side blue.  Fifteen officers and crew men, ranging in age from 19 to 26, flew missions aboard the “Belle” as pilots, co-pilots, navigators, bombardiers, engineers, radio operators, and gunners.  However, some of these men flew some of their 25 missions in other B-17s as well.  Interestingly, the “Belle” had its own mascot: “Stuka,” a Scottish Terrier”—although he never flew with them.  Ultimately, the crew’s prowess and skills are represented with artwork images of 25 bombs and 8 swastikas, representing its 25 missions and the shooting down eight enemy aircraft. 

Like other B-17F’s, the “Belle” was sleek, fast, and equipped with what was touted as a state-of-the-art Norden Bomb Sight to aid the bombardier it’s task of daylight precision bombing.  This early computerized system with its complicated gyro-system was advertised to help cripple the Nazi military-industrial-economic network of factories and transportation systems ranging from shipyards to railroad yards without excessive collateral civilian casualties.  Unfortunately, the Norden bombsite was over-hyped for its accuracy.  The myth was that a Norden sight could target a pickle barrel from 18,000 feet.  At best, about 50% of their bombs landed within 1,000 feet of their targets.  At worst, perhaps only 16% of bombs landed within 1,000 feet of the selected target.  Consequently, by later in the war, the Air Force shifted to “area bombing” of regions where precision targeting was not as essential (for instance, bombing areas of widespread areas of railroad yards).  Missions were also being flown by 1944 to draw out the Luftwaffe fighters to have them shot down by now superior P-51 fighters. Gaining air superiority was instrumental with allied advancements on the ground from D-Day onward.

Of a similar truth now better understood, most Americans assumed that there was more safety in flying far above the dangerous terrain occupied by artillery and tanks.  Yet, an estimated 8,000 such heavy bombers, of all-types, were lost during the war.  About 55,000 crew members lost their lives on missions—20% of total U.S. losses.  Indeed, only about 24% of such crews ever made it through the war to return home.  It was a rare crew—such as the “Memphis Belle” that completed their required twenty-five dangerous missions.     

After their tour, the “Memphis Belle” was flown back to the U.S. by Capt. Morgan and his crew, and then embarked on a 31-city war bond tour.  Hailed for its accomplishment, the “Belle’s” role was now of a morale builder.  It likely mattered little that it was later discovered that another B-17, “Hell’s Angel” may have beat the “Belle” to the required mission mark.

Today, walking around the restored Memphis Belle (once badly deteriorating and damaged from vandalism from its years on display in Memphis), and then reading from the information charts at the museum, really gave me goose bumps.  Similar to how I feel when I have visited other dramatic historic sites ranging from the Alamo in Texas to the war-torn fields at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, I was almost in a sweat, walking around this warbird, imagining the sight, sound, and feel of the ear-numbing and damaging flack bursting all around it.  What would it have been like to dodge the deadly bullets fired from Nazi fighters screaming across the “Belle’s” fuselage.  Imagine, the crew firing back as they shivered in bone-chilling cold tens of thousands of feet in the air.  To me, the “Memphis Belle,” is the equivalent to an intriguing time machine. 

In wrapping up, you should know that Tom Hanks is finalizing a multi-part documentary, similar to “Band of Brothers” about World War II B-17 crews.  Highly anticipated, the release date for “Masters of the Air” remains uncertain.  In the meantime, I would suggest going back to watch the 1944 original black and white documentary: “The Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress.”  While obviously the work of wartime propaganda efforts, this film remains highly instructive.  A more recent 1990 British and American Hollywood film, simply called the “Memphis Belle,” is more stunning for its special effects.  However, this fictionalized docudrama is equally over-hyped and sensationalized.  The real story of the “Memphis Belle” is fascinating enough without twisting the facts. 

Thank you for your interest.  Next week, we will shift topics and cover another topic regarding popular music—this time the story of Buddy Holly.     

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