Since the Air Force was created more than 70 years ago, there have been many shining examples of Airmen who have exemplified the core value of “service before self,” but few flight crews have faced the odds that were presented to the heavy bomber crewman of World War II.
During the war, more than 25,000 U.S. heavy bomber crewman were killed in combat with over 8,000 of the heavy bombers being destroyed, said Jeff Duford, museum curator with the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
“It’s an extraordinary number and at some points in the campaign only about one in four of the crewmen would finish their tour, and the other three crewmen would be killed, captured or wounded so badly that they couldn’t continue,” Duford said. “The idea that their odds of finishing a tour were about 25 percent is very difficult for us to understand, but these young men knew what they were doing and accepted the call to serve.”
Overcoming the odds, the B-17F Memphis Belle became the first U.S. Army Air Forces heavy bomber to return to the United States after completing 25 missions in Europe, and was selected by the Army Air Forces to be the symbol of the heavy bomber crews and support personnel who helped win the war against Nazi Germany.
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The Memphis Belle was damaged on seven of its 25 missions, but remarkably, none of the crewmembers were ever badly injured, although tail gunner John Quinlan later received the Purple Heart for wounds he sustained during a mission. The closest call came during a mission to Lorient, France, on Jan. 23, 1943, when a German fighter blew two large holes in the tail of the aircraft. The aircraft made it safely back to base but was so heavily damaged that they had to replace the entire tail.
According to Duford, the crew attributed their good fortune to a combination of skill and some luck.
“They felt like they were a great crew – they were tightly knit, confident and dedicated to what they were doing,” said Duford. “However, being in those formations, flying straight and level with enemy anti-aircraft and fighter aircraft, there certainly was a little bit of luck for them, too.”
With the new Memphis Belle exhibit opening at the museum in May, Duford hopes that visitors will come to understand and appreciate that the Memphis Belle represents the extraordinary sacrifice of the heavy bomber crewmen during WWII.
“How does one climb inside of this aircraft knowing that I’m probably not going to come home, and I don’t have to do that one time; two times; three times; 10 times – I have to do that 25 times,” said Duford. “These crewman were faced with choices that we are not faced with in our daily lives, and thousands of them made the choice to do their duty and selflessly fly these missions in order to defeat an evil regime.”
In the end, many of the bomber crewmen paid for the price of victory with their lives. But thanks to the upcoming Memphis Belle exhibit, the legacy and sacrifices of these young men will be remembered for generations to come.
Plans call for the B-17F Memphis Belle exhibit to open to the public on May 17 with celebratory events May 17-19. This three-day event will include WWII-era aircraft static displays, WWII reenactors and vehicles, memorabilia and artifact displays, music from the era, related guest speakers for lectures, book signings and films, including both “Memphis Belle” films in the Air Force Museum Theatre.
For more information, photos and videos of the Memphis Belle, visit www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Visit/MuseumExhibits/FactSheets/Display/tabid/509/Article/195966/boeing-b-17f-memphis-belle.aspx.
The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, is the world’s largest military aviation museum. With free admission and parking, the museum features more than 360 aerospace vehicles and missiles and thousands of artifacts amid more than 19 acres of indoor exhibit space. For more information, visit www.nationalmuseum.af.mil.