On May 17, the National Museum of the United States Air Force opens an exhibit about the Memphis Belle, a WWII B-17 Flying Fortress. The exhibit tells the story of the Memphis Belle and her crew, one of the first American bombers to survive 25 missions, at a time when surviving 10 missions was considered lucky. Aviation commentator Dan Patterso has a few thoughts.
There is no other American airplane that evokes the memories and sensibilities of WWII more than the B-17 Flying Fortress. With all due respect to the crews of the B-24 LIberator, the B-25 Mitchell, and the B-29 Superfortress, the B-17 got the press and inspired the American public to support the war effort. Even Princess Elizabeth, the future queen, greeted the crew of the Memphis Belle before they flew the bomber back to the U.S.A.
That same airplane has survived the 70 plus years since and will be appropriately enshrined on May 17 at the Air Force Museum. Princess Elizabeth, now Queen Elizabeth II, sent her regrets to an invitation to attend the festivities here in Dayton; it seems that her grandson is getting married.
The great American film director William Wyler, who made the documentary Memphis Belle in 1943, showed American audiences the experiences of the B-17 crews in the United Kingdom, and from that film, the images of the B-17s flying in formation with the condensations trails streaming behind, marking their pathways, remains imprinted on our national memory.
The Eighth Air Force, which flew out of England, was the only offensive weapon available to the allied forces to attack Hitler’s occupied Europe for nearly two years. The Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command bombed in night raids, and so the allied powers could “bomb around the clock,” as they said at the time.
That sounded good and was also good wartime press, but the realities were that the bomber crews were being slaughtered over Europe. The airpower theorists failed to prove that the heavily armed bomber in large formations could fight their way to a target, attack, and fight their way home. It was a false and empty theory, and the air crew paid for it with their blood and guts.
The bravery of the B-17 crews is beyond comprehension. They climbed into those bombers each time they were called to action, and the Eighth Air Force was never defeated. However, the Nazis were formidable enemies, and the rising casualty count was unsustainable.
Air battles have no monuments to mark the struggles that took place at 25,000 feet over Europe. The winds blow away the smoke columns that train behind the bombers that are shot down and fall to the earth.
The Eighth Air Force attacked one strategic target in Germany twice in the fall of 1943, and on each mission 60 B-17s were shot down. There were 10 men in each bomber. That about that; on two missions the Eighth lost at least 1200 men. That was just on target out of hundreds.
It’s no wonder the Memphis Belle was sent home to rally the American public. There was a lot of positive news like the success of the Belle, but the public also know that cemeteries were filling up and that telegrams home announcing the deaths of soldiers were being delivered day to day.
As time went by, the air war evolved. New P-51 Mustang fighters were introduced, and they could escort the bomber forces as deep into Germany as necessary. Strategy also evolved, and the concentrated attacks on Hitler’s oil industry started to bleed his air force of the fuel needed to fight.
All in all, there were 12,500 B-17s built. In the European theater of operations, nearly 40 percent were lost in action. Half of all the U.S. Army Air Force’s casualties in World War II were suffered by the the Eighth Air Force. 26,000 were killed; 17 Medals of Honor were earned.
This week, there will be a flyover of B-17s at the National Museum of the United States Air Force on Thursday, May 17 and Friday, May 18. When you hear those planes, you might stop what you are doing. Park your car, and stand in silent salute to honor the men who lost their lives and those who survived. The Memphis Belle represents them all.
Dan Patterson is an aviation historian and photographer. You can see more of his photos at his website, www.flyinghistory.com