'Memphis Belle' Film Premieres Thursday, Oct. 29, On Public TV

Oct 28, 2020

You might have seen the Memphis Belle at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, but you'd never seen it like this.

Memphis Belle: Her Final Mission, an one-hour documentary from our regional Public Media Connect (Dayton's WPDT and Cincinnati's WCET-TV), includes video from the 13-year restoration of the World War II Boeing B-17F bomber and unused film from the 1944 documentary, Memphis Belle: A Story Of A Flying Fortress.

Producer Richard Wonderling had access to 21-1/2 hours of film -- 10 hours of the restoration shot by the Air Force Museum staff, and 11-1/2 hours from the 1944 film.

"To look at all that raw footage was really a treat," he says.

Memphis Belle premieres 9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 29, on WCET-TV (Channel 48.1) and  WPTD-TV (Channel 16.1). It will also air on Ohio's public TV stations at various times.

Wonderling also hired actors to read from crew members' diaries for the film, along with interviewing four experts involved with the meticulous restoration. 

A 1943 photo of Boeing's B-17F Flying Fortress bomber.
Credit Courtesy U.S. Air Force

"It’s a story of two teams of men, separated by 75 years, who shared a deep affection for a plane that became an American icon," says the WPTD-TV website.

Wonderling zeroed in on two diaries, from the co-pilot and gunner, who flew the same missions.

"You could look up a similar date, and see what each man said. And you could begin to build a conversation between the two. It was from the same sortie, but their comments were from different points of view," he says.

After 25 successful bombing missions over Europe, the Belle and crew returned home to travel the U.S. to promote war bond sales. After that, it was abandoned at the airplane boneyard at Altus Air Force Base in Altus, Okla. The city of Memphis rescued the plane and put it on display. In 2005, the Belle arrived in Dayton for restoration. The completed rebuild was unveiled in May 2018.

Richard Wonderling, Zach Kramer and Julie Davis spent two nights in the Air Force Museum shooting the Memphis Belle from all angles.
Credit Courtesy Public Media Connect

Wonderling and crew members Zach Kramer and Julie Davis spent two nights filming in the museum. Being alone with the iconic warbird was a moving experience, Wonderling wrote on his ThinkTV blog, "The Memphis Belle: Her Final Mission – Two Nights In The Museum."

"All of us had been in the museum in the past. Usually when you go, there are plenty of people and kids running around," he says. "It was a reverent, solemn experience. You were totally focused on the plane. The three of us, we love this thing. We love this story. We love what they've done. It was a really wonderful moment."

Their sweeping video of the plane, and detailed close-ups, are seen while the experts and actors speak.

"We need to tell a visual story. The plane on display is awesome. It's very well done. But it's static. It's just sitting there," he says.

Doing a Memphis Belle documentary has been Wonderling's dream for 10 years.

"I thought the time had passed. It has already been restored; and on display. End of story. Then I spoke to the Memphis (PBS) station, and they were interested. And I said, 'We've got to do this. We've got to make this happen.' " says Wonderling, who also was chronicling restoration of Dayton's Downtown Arcade for ThinkTV at the same time.

Wonderling needed two years to make the film. "That sounds like a lot, but they worked 13 years on restoring it," he says.

Memphis Belle: Her Final Mission airs 9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 29, on Channels 48 and 16, and streams on the stations' PBS video app.

The Dayton Arcade: Waking the Giant premieres 9 p.m. Monday, Nov. 16, on Channel 16. It also airs at 10 p.m. that day on Channel 48.