Leo Deluca In 1903, Dayton natives Wilbur and Orville Wright uncovered the secrets of the birds. By World War II highly evolved versions of their flying machine overtook the skies, aiding America’s tour de force.
But one airplane in particular led the flock. On May 17, 2018, exactly 75 years after its crew completed its final mission, the Memphis Belle settled into its new home at the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton—the birthplace of aviation.
The Memphis Belle, a B-17 Flying Fortress, came to represent American resilience after completing 25 missions over Europe during World War II, helping to defeat Nazi Germany.
“In 1943 about one in four bomber crewman finished their 25th mission,” says Jeff Duford, lead curator of the Memphis Belle project at the National Museum of the Air Force. “Basically, the Army Air Forces picked 25 missions to give the crews something to shoot for. Otherwise, they would fly until they died.”
The bomber’s “26th mission” was a little more benign. During a blood-soaked campaign, the Air Force needed a symbol of strength to raise morale and help sell war bonds across the United States. The Memphis Belle was the answer.
“They actually picked a different airplane called Invasion 2,” says Duford. “But it got shot down. So there was something of a scramble to find another airplane. And the Memphis Belle was perfect. There was this fantastic nose art—it’s the girl back home, it’s the reason those men were fighting and dying.”
Named for pilot Robert Morgan’s Memphis girlfriend, Margaret Polk, the four-engine Boeing bomber was stationed in its namesake city for decades before landing in Dayton in October 2005. “The airplane had been outside for about 30 years when a group called the Memphis Belle Memorial Association was formed,” says Duford.
Inside a massive restoration hangar at the Air Force Museum, where loud overhead lights bounced off the Belle’s nearly 104-foot-long wingspan, aircraft mechanics and skilled volunteers painstakingly returned the Flying Fortress to its World War II appearance. For nearly 13 years they cleaned, painted, sewed, fitted and meticulously ensured every last detail was accurate.
The Belle was cemented in America’s consciousness after Academy Award-winning director William Wyler and his team of cameramen bravely climbed aboard—risking their lives alongside the crew on their bombing runs. The film crew produced the 1944 War Department documentary Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress.
The 1990 Hollywood movie, Memphis Belle (produced by Wyler’s daughter, Catherine), returned the bomber to the public eye, but it was the 1944 documentary that provided the primary source for Duford.
“There are 11.5 hours of outtakes,” says Duford. “We couldn’t have possibly restored it accurately without these outtakes. The Memphis Belle is one of our great national treasures. It reflects who we are as Americans, our spirit, our willingness to sacrifice for our country and for the greater good. These soldiers’ service was critical in defeating Nazi Germany, but their sacrifice was equally as high.”