Memphis Belle On Memorial Day
The early morning fog is thick, heavy and low hanging. It blankets the fields in a gray mist dense enough to block the early morning sun as it creeps over the eastern horizon. The fog touches everything, and when it does it sticks- to leaves, blades of grass and to olive drab green aluminum……
As the sun rises higher, day breaking, the heat begins to burn off this nearly impenetrable shroud. The haze dissipating, rounded tails first appear, then top turrets, guns, propellers, engines and wings begin to emerge. Like sleeping giants, the B-17 bombers of the Eighth Air Force shrug off the cold dew, the sun casting it’s orange rays across these machines of war. Within a short time, the morning quiet has given way to a flurry of activity. Mechanics have worked through the night, changing oil, performing maintenance, and, repairing battle damage. The crews of these great machines are also awake and have been for hours. Breakfast, then briefings, then more briefings. By the time it is time to pile onto a jeep or trailer and ride out to their aircraft, they will know the mission by heart.
“Like sleeping giants, the B-17 bombers of the Eighth Air Force shrug off the cold dew, the sun casting it’s orange rays across these machines of war.”Ten men, all in their early 20’s approach their B-17. She is green, with patches of bare metal showing through her battle-worn paint. Bristling with 11 Browning .50Cal guns and powered by four, Wright R-1820 engines with a combine output of 4,800hp she truly is a flying fortress. Climbing aboard, the grim task at hand begins to fill each crew members mind. Looking around inside their aircraft, there is no mistaking every patch and repair in the skin, each with a story, each evidence of the enemy’s fierce determination to destroy them. With a signal flare from the tower, it is now time to go. The pilots of each aircraft perform their pre-flight checks, start their mighty engines and wait. Within minutes, another signal flare indicates it is time to take off……….
Over seventy years later, far from the fog and dew of England, standing on the tarmac of Deer Valley airport in Phoenix, Arizona, a survivor awaits. Orange rays of light wash over her olive green paint and blue and white stars. This aircraft that once defended her great nation now waits for a different crew and a different mission in the dry Arizona air. Operated by the Liberty Belle Foundation, the Memphis Belle now flies missions of historical education and respect. Faithfully restored and maintained, this aircraft carries markings of probably the most famous B-17, and possibly one of the most famous aircraft in history. The original Memphis Belle is being lovingly restored by the United States Air Force Museum. This aircraft serves as a fitting, flying tribute to the first crew to survive their required 25 mission tour of duty. Her new crew, civilians who wish to experience what it is like to fly in an aircraft with no air conditioning, no pressurization and no tray tables gingerly board through the aft door.
Standing in front of such history, it is hard not to feel as if the Belle is looking back at you, trying to connect with you. The pilots begin to start the engines, coughing and spitting, clouds of smoke billowing from the exhausts. First one engine, then two, then three, then four. The sound is deafening. The clatter of valves, the growl of the exhausts, the thumping of the propellers, the Belle shoulders off her slumber. There is an anxious strength in her voice. It is time to go………
With a gentle push on the throttles the pilot of that single B-17, thousands of miles from his home, gently eases his piece of the Arsenal of Democracy out of her parking stall and down the taxiway. This is his airplane, though the crew chief might argue that point with him. More importantly, this is his crew. Together, they are the finest the United States Army Air Corps has to offer. Day in and day out, they have flung themselves at their German enemies. Losses have been high. Friends have been lost. Nearly every aircraft bears the scars of the purgatory that is daylight bombing. Yet, right now, an entire world is at war, and him and this crew are about to, once again, do everything within their power to win it……….
At the end of the runway at Deer Valley Airport, the Memphis Belle completes her final checks and rolls onto the runway. The pilots ease the throttles forward, manifold pressure builds, rpm rises, vibration and sound intensify. In a cacophony of exhaust, engine and propeller noise she slowly begins to roll. More throttle is applied, resulting in an increase in sensory stimuli. Her speed builds, more power, more speed. The big American radials bolted to her wings muscle their air-screws harder, the blades grabbing chunks of air and hurtling it backwards. Soon thrust gives way to drag, her tail comes up, speed increasing until the 1,420 s.f wing flexes against her weight, the main wheels leaving the runway……..
Climbing into the sky, the B-17, loaded with bombs and fuel nearly to her maximum allowable take off weight, feels heavy on the controls. Though barely old enough to buy a beer by modern standards, her pilot has a level of experience far beyond his years. He knows his aircraft can fly in such conditions. He holds the power up. The Flying Fortress shoulders her burden and continues to climb. In short order his turbo-supercharged engines have hauled his battle hardened aircraft and crew to a cruising altitude of 25,000 feet. Streaming bright white contrails they come into a formation of hundreds of other B-17s. High above the English Channel, over a thousand of the finest pilots, bombardiers, gunners and navigators riding in the strongest aircraft the United States can produce fearlessly climb and fly through the frigid, -31F degree air with little more than 1/8” thick aluminum to protect them……….
Not far from where the Memphis Belle departed from, another, unmistakable sound rattles across the ramp. The pure, high-strung sound of a Packard built Merlin coughing, spitting and popping her way to life echoes from a P-51 Mustang. The twelve short exhaust stacks fitted to the Mustang emit a higher pitch with far more pops and cracks than the deeper, throaty growl of the radial engines fitted to the Belle. Taxiing out to the runway, she turns onto the active and aligns herself with the center line. Throttling up, the pilot applying the obligatory right rudder to counter the torque of the engine putting the twist on the 11 foot, 2 inch propeller, the Mustang accelerates rapidly. Breaking her bond with the runway, the pilot quickly retracts the landing gear as the speed builds. The bright late morning sun reflects off her polished skin as she climbs out of sight……..
Scanning the sky ahead of him, the thrumming of the engines in his ears is broken by the excited call of “little friends” over his headset. Off his wing streaking into the formation the P-51 Mustangs arrive. The stars and bars against their bare aluminum skin stands out like a life preserver on the ocean. Indeed, he can breathe just a little easier. With escort fighters to engage the mighty Luftwaffe, he, his crew and his aircraft have a far better chance of surviving the mission. Turning towards the target with the formation now complete, in a thunderous mass of machine, men and courage, the strength of an entire nation fearlessly heads through the Gates of Hell to battle against a determined and powerful enemy, and then hopefully, somehow make it home………
It is not long before the faint rumble of four radial engines is heard. All eyes scan the sky in its direction from the ground. There she is. The Belle is returning. Flying across the field, the pilots skillfully slow her from cruise speed, lowering landing gear and flaps, a wide arc as they turn to the downwind leg of the landing pattern. Typical of an Arizona day, the heat causes a breeze and turbulence. As she makes her final approach, flaps and landing gear down and locked, a slight crab for the wind, the Mustang whistles overhead, it too entering the pattern. The pilots of the Memphis Belle ease their magnificent piece of history back to earth, the growl of the engines now quiet, the props visibly slower. Taxiing back to the ramp I walk out to greet her, camera in hand…………
Pulling into the same parking location he and his crew met their aircraft early that morning, the pilot affords a glance outside. It was a hard fought battle. There are spaces, which only hours ago contained a bomber, that are now empty. He does not yet know who made it back, and who did not. What is known is each bomber carried ten men. Climbing out of the aircraft, he collapses next to the main wheel, covered in sweat, thoroughly exhausted, barely able to lift his head to look at the machine that brought him home. His own aircraft bears the wounds of the day. The B-17 carries a near mythical reputation for being able to absorb an incredible beating and keep flying. Indeed, on this day that reputation was earned once again. His crew did not give up on their aircraft, and the aircraft did not give up on them. Each has paid a price for their devotion……….
As I stand around and then finally in front of the Memphis Belle, again she looks down on me, speaking to me in the rumble of her engines, trying to tell me not only her story, but the story of every airman who fought in the war ravaged skies of World War 2, and the stories of every Hero who has ever left their home to defend this country- a country full off strangers they will never meet, but built on the best ideals of man and protected by the strongest of human spirit. The battle today would have been one of thousands waged between 1942 and 1945, on any one of thousands of B-17’s. As the Memphis Belle provided an aerial history lesson for those willing to donate the required amount to fly in her, it is without question the line between present and 70 years past was blurred. Now this aircraft, as well as every warbird, flies with the love of those who have tirelessly restored and maintained them. They fly as a living history and exude the pride of an entire generation.
It is fitting then that this Memorial Day the author finally found the time to put the proverbial pen to paper for this article. Our veterans are mortal. However, their history and spirit can live on in tributes to their courage and sacrifice such as the Memphis Belle. This Memorial Day, enjoy the hamburgers, time with family and friends and a day to relax. However, let us never forget that we can rest because those who have worn, do wear, and will wear the uniform of our country have not, do not, cannot, and will not rest.
Vintage photos courtesy of the National Archives