Sunday, January 13, 2019

Memphis Belle

For a brief moment, as she lumbered down the runway at the Davidson County Airport, inexorably building airspeed, I found myself catching my breath.

A vintage B-17 World War II bomber, the famously named Memphis Belle, gained purchase and took to the air, its four Wright Cyclone engines wonderfully straining against gravity to fulfill their latest purpose, traveling through time.

She was beautiful. I nearly cried.

The Belle gained altitude, maybe a couple hundred feet or so, it's silhouette unmistakable perhaps even to the novice eye. She did a slow, graceful turn, followed with a heart-thumping flyby over the airfield, graciously dipping her wings in salute to the 30 or so spectators who gathered together on a cold Saturday morning to watch history go airborne.

The Memphis Belle, movie version.
When she reached the far end of the airfield, she made another casual turn, leveled out and then flew directly over our heads, engines pounding, heading south to Florida.

Oh, my. Did I really see what I just saw? The Memphis Belle? In Lexington?

Yes. Sort of.

A quick history lesson: The World War II version of the Memphis Belle, an early production B-17F piloted by Asheville's Robert Morgan, flew its first combat mission over France in November, 1942. It was United States Army Air Corps policy at the time to send aircrews home after completing 25 missions, and the Belle successfully completed her 25th mission on May 17, 1943. (Mission counts gradually increased as the war dragged on. Some airmen eventually flew 30, 40, 50 and even 60 or more missions).

The Memphis Belle, historically correct version.
But she wasn't the first to reach 25. Hell's Angels turned that trick three days earlier. It turns out that Hollywood director William Wyler, with 16mm cameras in hand, filmed an amazing on-board documentary about the Memphis Belle as it became clear she likely would complete her 25 missions. Guess who got the publicity? And so this is how history is made. (Afterwords Morgan asked Wyler what would he have done if the Belle hadn't returned from its last mission. Wyler replied that he had no problem because he also had plenty of footage of Hell's Angels, too).

Then, in 1990, a movie called Memphis Belle, starring Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz, John Lithgow and Harry Connick Jr., was released. The flick is supposed to relate the story of the Belle's 25th mission, but it's actually a composite of many World War II bombing missions by many aircrews. It's not a bad flick as war movies go, but if you believe the movie, the Belle was lucky to survive its final flight. In actuality, the real Memphis Belle's 25th mission was a "routine" bomb run over Lorient, France. Nobody was hurt.

Anyway, the B-17 used in the movie was a modified B-17G, (The Sally B, I think) built in 1945, which features a twin .50 caliber machine gun chin turret under the nose to ward off head-on attacks favored by Nazi pilots. The Hollywood Memphis Belle had the chin turret removed, and it was this aircraft, the movie version, that was at the Davidson County Airport on Saturday.

The real Memphis Belle, the one that flew 25 combat missions, sits in the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

One way you can tell the difference between the two planes is by the nose art. The name "Memphis Belle", written on the real Memphis Belle, is done in block letters. The name is written in cursive script on the movie plane. Something to do with permissions and copyrights, I think.

Anyway, none of this detracts one iota from what we saw on Saturday. Nearly 13,000 B-17s were built during the war, and today, only about a dozen are still airworthy. So when you see a B-17 take to the sky, you've really seen – and heard – something.

It might also be nice to remember what these planes were meant to do. The Eighth Air Force, of which the Memphis Belle was a member, lost more than 26,000 aircrew in the war – more than the entire United States Marine Corps (19,700 deaths) in that conflict. A crew member had a staggering one-in-five chance of not reaching his 25th mission. Soldiers in fox holes had a better survival rate.

Keep in mind, also, that most of these aircrews were boys in their 20s, flying missions in sub-zero temperatures at 25,000 feet, dodging dangerous Messerschmitts, Focke-Wulfs and flak along the way. Each bomber held 10 crewmen, so the casualty count adds up fast when a plane goes down. Then ask yourself, what makes a kid fly a 2,000-mile round-trip mission to drop eight bombs? (A B-17 usually carried eight 500-pound bombs, maybe more on a shorter mission).

Where does that come from?

It's enough to make you cry.

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