Based in Bassingbourn air base in England, Memphis Belle was the first Army Air Forces bomber to return to the United States after flying 25 combat missions over the war ravaged skies of Europe. The four-engine plane was memorialized in a nationwide war bonds tour and in two Hollywood films.
Work on the bomber has taken years to get to this stage. The B-17 with the famous mural of the Memphis Belle was trucked in to the museum in pieces in 2005.
“In the beginning, you do have your doubts sometimes (because) this is such a big project,” Brigner said. “And now the pile of parts is getting smaller and the airplane is getting bigger. It’s all coming together.”
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The plane is scheduled to make a public debut in a new exhibit at the museum on May 17, 2018, the 75th anniversary of its final mission that bombed a shipyard in Germany. In March, workers attached the wings with the nose, propellers, rudder, and ailerons, among other parts yet to be installed.
“One of the biggest challenges was the airplane came in pieces so we didn’t know how it would fit together,” Brigner said. “It’s like a puzzle and they haven’t been mated together for who knows how long … so this is a big deal.”
The paint, with the exception of the Memphis Belle nose art, has been scrubbed off, inside and out. When fully restored, it will be painted an olive drab green and gray to look like it did the day it ended combat in 1943, said Jeff Duford, lead curator on the Memphis Belle restoration.
With two .50-caliber machine guns, nicknamed “Pete” and “Repeat,” the tail turret gunner could fire 1,000 rounds a minute, a key defense against swarming Nazi fighters that tried to avoid the bomber’s tail and strike the front of the plane or attack it in a dive, he said.
On deep strikes into Germany, American fighters guarded the bombers, prepared to tangle with German aircraft.
“Between our escort fighters and the heavy defensive armament on our bombers, we broke the back of the German fighter force,” he said. “When they came up to defend and so many of their pilots were killed either by the defensive armament on our bombers or by escorting fighters, they pretty much wiped the skies of German fighters by D-Day.”
The tail turret was “so deadly” the Germans developed tactics to avoid being in the line of fire, Duford said.
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Staff Sgt. John “JP” Quinlan, 23, of Yonkers, N.Y., was the Memphis Belle tail turret gunner when the crew made history. He died in 2000.
The Army airmen was the only crew member to receive the Purple Heart. He was wounded by anti-aircraft flak on the same combat mission he was credited with shooting down a German fighter plane, Duford said. Quinlan also was credited with one “probable” kill.
From his vantage point, the tail gunner could see sweeping aircraft formations headed to bomb targets.
“He had the heartbreaking view of seeing some of his friends go down,” Duford said. “Seeing the airplanes blow up.”
Damaged planes that lost an engine would often leave the airborne pack, he said.
“When an airplane left a formation it would be pounced upon and taken apart by German fighters,” Duford said. “From where he was sitting, he saw that happen over and over and over again.”
PHOTOS: Restoring the Memphis Belle
Three times, the plane was struck and damaged in combat, once by an enemy fighter, another time by flak, and by errant friendly fire, Duford said.
Quinlan, who carried a horseshoe for luck on every wartime flight, barely avoided death on one flight. The tail gunner had just leaned back in his seat to take a brief rest from firing the guns, Duford said.
“At that moment, a bullet went through a side window where his head had been,” he said. “Had he not been taken that moment to rest, he would have been killed.”
The savage aerial battles cost the lives of 30,000 Army Air Forces crew members who fought against Nazi Germany.