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Memphis Belle Exhibit Opens On 75th Anniversary Of Historic Return

It's one of the most well-known World War II aircraft -- an icon really -- and beginning this week, visitors can see her up close and personal. The B-17F Memphis Belle exhibit opens Thursday, May 17, at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.The opening marks 75 years since the crew finished their last mission May 17, 1943. This is the first time the Memphis Belle has been on public display since 2002.

"The Memphis Belle is one of our great national treasures because it's a symbol for all the heavy bomber crews that fought against Nazi Germany in World War II," says Lead Curator Jeff Duford.

Credit Provided / U.S. Air Force photo
U.S. Air Force photo
The B-17 "Memphis Belle" and crew.
Listen as Memphis Belle Lead Curator Jeff Duford speaks with WVXU's Tana Weingartner about the exhibit in an extended interview.

One of the Army Air Force's "Flying Fortress" aircraft, the Memphis Belle is renowned as the first heavy bomber to return to the States after completing 25 combat missions over occupied Europe.

"The 25th mission was very important because at that time that was the mark of a combat tour," says Duford. "That actually rose to 35 missions later in the war, but at that time, the odds of finishing 25 (missions) were not good, one in four, so making that mark was very important to the crews."

Museum staff spent years painstakingly renovating the bomber. All of the decals and markings have been "replicated faithfully" so the plane looks just as it did 75 years ago. If replacements couldn't be found for missing parts, new ones were fabricated to look just like they would have in the '40s.

Duford says the plane is displayed in a mount, making it a "dramatic" experience that allows visitors to get close to the aircraft rather than standing behind a railing.

Credit Ken LaRock / U.S. Air Force photo
U.S. Air Force photo
Museum restoration specialists Roger Brigner and Brian Lindamood install the tail guns for the Boeing B-17F Memphis Belle.

As we draw further from the generation that lived through World War II, Duford concedes there are some who may not know the Memphis Belle's story or the importance of the heavy bomber. He says more than 30,000 heavy bomber crewmen were killed in combat during World War II in the fight against Germany.

"To put that into perspective, there were 20,000 Marines killed in combat in all of World War II. The bomber crewmen really sacrificed in tremendous numbers, and it's really a tragedy that here, 75 years later, that that memory is fading."

Duford says when the Memphis Belle returned, every American knew its story; knew the names of each crew member. He calls them the "rock stars" of their day. Now, he hopes visitors will learn about their extraordinary courage, dedication and sacrifices.

Credit Robert Bardua / U.S. Air Force photo
U.S. Air Force photo
The B-17F Memphis Belle moves along the tow path toward the WWII Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force on March 14, 2018.

"It's an American icon in the same fashion that the flag that flew at Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima is a national icon, and the (USS) Arizona at Pearl Harbor is one of our great American treasures. There are certain objects that really represent who we are as a people and what Americans will do and how much they'll sacrifice to preserve freedom."

Events are planned throughout the exhibit's opening from May 16-19. A ribbon-cutting is set for May 17 at 9:30 a.m. A special sneak peek for family members of crewman and other dignitaries will be live streamed for the public at 6:30 p.m. May 16.

To see more images of the restoration process, click on the image at the top of the page.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.