Historic Aircraft: Memphis Belle

Constructed in early-1942, and delivered to the 91st Bomb Group at Dow Field, Bangor, Maine, in September of that year, the legendary Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress, Memphis Belle has a long and fascinating history. The aircraft was second B-17 to carry out twenty-five combat missions in World War II with her crew intact. After her missions in France, Brittany, Netherlands and Germany, Memphis Belle returned across the Atlantic to carry out a war bonds promotion in the United States. Today, Memphis Belle is undergoing an extensive ‘face-lift’ at the National Museum of the USAF situated at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio.

The B-17’s name Memphis Belle was accompanied by artwork of a woman originally drawn by pinup artist George Petty and reproduced by 91st Bomb Group artist Tony Starcer. The name was in honor of pilot Robert K. Morgan’s girlfriend from Memphis, and inspired by the name of a riverboat in the film Lady for a Night. The aircraft’s nose art would eventually include an image of a bomb for each mission, along with eight swastikas representing the number of German aircraft downed by the Memphis Belle crew. Moreover, the names of the crew were stenciled on the aircraft at the end of her tour of duty.

After the war had ended, the Mayor of Memphis, Walter Chandler, arranged for the purchase of Memphis Belle where in 1949 she was put on display at the National Guard armory. Left outdoors for the next three decades, the B-17 was vandalized by souvenir hunters and battered by the elements. Various restoration and preservation efforts in the years following the 1980s were largely unsuccessful and in October 2005 the historical aircraft was sent to the National Museum of the United States Air Force for restoration – a process which reportedly may take up to ten years to complete.