For a decade, Casey Simmons has labored on the B-17 Memphis Belle, bending sheet metal to painting nose art on the iconic World War II plane that defined a generation of airmen flying into danger over Europe.
Now hidden behind a 16-foot-tall black curtain, on Wednesday it will be unveiled at a private ceremony filled with family members of the late crew and dignitaries and then a public ribbon-cutting Thursday at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
“It’s a really big deal to me and to my co-workers because we’ve been working on this for so many years and to end in a big event that everybody can celebrate,” said Simmons, an aircraft restorer. “…It’s hard to see it done, but I’m glad to see it done. It’s a lot of headaches trying to work mainly with people and get things where everybody is happy.”
Museum curator Jeff Duford said the Memphis Belle “is very special in that it is an American treasure,” comparing its symbolism of 30,000 airmen lost over the skies of Europe to the Marine flag raising on Iwo Jima or the battleship USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor. “There are these objects that really represent who we are as a people and our national experience and the Memphis Belle is one of those icons.”
Based in England, the Memphis Belle was the first U.S. heavy bomber to complete 25 missions over Europe and return to the United States.
The bomber will be displayed like no other in the museum’s collection of hundreds of aircraft, officials say. But they’re mum on details.
With the plane under theatrical lighting, 20 cases filled with more than 200 artifacts from Memphis Belle crewmen will be on display as part of a new strategic bombing exhibit.
“This will be a very immersive and engaging exhibit,” said Greg Hassler, museum chief of exhibits. “You’re going to be able to go completely around the airplane. We’ve done things in the exhibit area that we haven’t done before.”
Aircraft restorers and volunteers spent more than 55,000 hours working on the plane, he said.
Memphis Belle milestone
The B-17F Memphis Belle gained fame as the first U.S. heavy bomber to fly 25 combat missions over Europe and return to the United States. The museum will mark the 75th anniversary of the final raid Thursday, May 17 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony when the restored plane and an exhibit of 200 artifacts related to the famous bomber and its crew go on display.
And while the exterior will be finished, restorers will keep adding parts and refurbishing the interior, Duford said.
Brought to the museum in 2005 from Memphis, Tennessee, originally officials hoped the plane would be put on display years sooner, but other projects — such as the addition of a giant new museum hangar in June 2016 — took priority, Hassler said.
The Memphis Belle Memorial Association worked for years to restore the bomber and raise money for its future preservation in Tennessee until funds ran short, remembered Harry Friedman, co-author of the book “Memphis Belle: Dispelling the Myths,” and a long-time member of the association.
“We knew (the museum) wanted it,” he said. “We kind of knew in our hearts knew they had the capability of doing it.
“It’s heartwarming to see what’s been done and the other nice thing with the atmosphere in the museum now they’ve allowed us to be a part of that restoration in one form or another,” he said.
The painstaking process took patience and persistence in the face of pressure to complete, restorers said.
“There was a lot of pressure knowing that it’s the Memphis Belle, and that everyone’s watching and that a lot of people will be a critic of what you do,” Simmons said.
The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force will have a series of events May 16-19, from World War II plane flyovers to more than 160 re-enactors, to mark the roll out of the iconic Memphis Belle. Author book signings inside the museum's gift shop and film screenings of the 1944 documentary about the Memphis Belle and the 1990 Hollywood movie of the same name are planned, also.
Here's a look at some of the highlights:
8 a.m.-9 a.m. Wednesday, May 16: Fly in of three B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, six P-51 Mustang fighter planes, and three World War II-era trainer aircraft on the museum's airfield. Public may watch from the museum's Memorial Park.
9:15 a.m.- 9:30 a.m. Thursday, May 17: Public ribbon-cutting opening the Memphis Belle and strategic bombing over Europe exhibit in the World War II Gallery.
9 a.m.- 4 p.m. Thursday through Friday, May 17-18: World War II aircraft will be on static display outside.
4:30 p.m. Friday: World War II aircraft scheduled for take-off.
9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, May 17-19: World War II re-enactors will be on the museum grounds, including the Eighth Air Force Control Tower and the Nissen Hut, at scheduled times to talk about Memphis Belle operations, airborne troops and women in the Army during World War II.
6 p.m.-7:15 p.m. Friday, May 18, near the outdoor re-enactor area: The Air Force Band of Flight and the Air Force Band of Mid-America are set to perform Glenn Miller music in concert.
All day, Saturday: World War II aircraft will fly over the museum.
EXTRA GATE OPEN: Gate 24B off northbound Harshman Road near the U.S. Army Reserve Center will be open to inbound traffic only starting at 8 a.m. Thursday through Saturday, May 17-19.
Those driving southbound on Harshman, and coaches, buses, RVs or other oversized vehicles, won't be allowed to enter through Gate 24B and must drive through 28B, the main gate off Springfield Street, according to the museum.