The Memphis Belle and the Aerial War

May 16, 2013

Seventy years ago this week American aviators were at war in Europe. In airplanes known as the B-17 Flying Fortress they were flying bombing missions over Germany. One of those planes, nicknamed “The Memphis Belle” flew its 25th combat mission on May 17th, 1943, and then came home to the US with its crew. One of the Memphis Belle’s first stops was Wright Field in Dayton, where today she’s being restored at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

In 1943, the only offensive action possible against Hitler's army in Northern Europe was an aerial bombing campaign.  The US Army Air Forces were based in England, gathering strength and learning how to fight an aerial war which involved hundreds of aircraft and thousands of men. 

At that time the odds were that a crew would survive about eight or nine missions before they were shot down.

A bomber crew had to complete twenty-five missions before their combat tour was over and they could come home.  At that time the odds were that a crew would survive about eight or nine missions before they were shot down.  If they were lucky, they parachuted to Earth and escaped, but often they were captured and sent to prison camps.  Tens of thousands of airmen were killed five miles above the Earth.

At the American Cemetery, a wall of 10,000 names, airmen who were never found
At the American Cemetery, a wall of 10,000 names, airmen who were never found
Credit Dan Patterson

In his book Fall of Fortresses, Elmer Bendiner describes the route all the way back to England from a very tough bombing mission over Germany with "smoke columns of fallen fortresses each carrying ten men."  That single mission lost sixty bombers, six hundred men.

One American air base commander ordered that all new bomber crews had to be photographed before their first mission.  Many were killed before he had a chance to meet them, and he wanted a record of the men he sent into combat. 

Legendary film director William Wyler went to England to make a documentary about the bombing campaign in 1943.  The Army Air Forces chose as the subject the Memphis Belle because it was about to finish twenty-five missions.  Wyler flew on two missions doing the filming himself along with a colleague cameraman in another bomber.  That film was released in 1944 and showed the home front something they had not seen, the realities of aerial war where Americans were dying in the stratosphere.

Film Producer Catherine Wyler (daughter of William Wyler who made WWII documentary) who made the 1990 film "Memphis Belle".  On the left is the real Memphis Bell undergoing restoration at the NM USAF.
Film Producer Catherine Wyler (daughter of William Wyler who made WWII documentary) who made the 1990 film "Memphis Belle". On the left is the real Memphis Bell undergoing restoration at the NM USAF.
Credit Dan Patterson

In 1991, Wyler's daughter Catherine made a feature film called Memphis Belle starring among other John Lithgow, who grew up in Yellow Springs, and Harry Connick Jr. 

After the war ended, the Belle was flown to the city of Memphis on loan.  She sat derelict for decades.  In 2005, the National Museum of the United States Air Force brought her back to Dayton, this time on flatbed trucks, where she is being completely restored.  The museum thought is may take ten years to complete.  That project and your opportunity to see the Belle come back to life are now in jeopardy due to governmental budget cuts. 

Dan Patterson is an aviation historian and photographer. You can see more of his photos at his website, www.flyinghistory.com

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