Battle for the Belle

If the Memphis Belle Memorial Association gets its way, the most famous B-17 of World War II could end up in Millington.

by Michael Finger

ne by one, the seven B-17s swept out of the sky and dove toward the city below. The crews quickly spotted their target, a sprawling complex along the riverfront, and as the Flying Fortresses roared overhead, their bomb-bay doors swung open, and the bombers dropped their payload directly onto the crowds of people below.

But this time it wasn't bombs. Instead, this flight of aging warbirds -- the largest fleet of B-17s assembled since World War II -- had dropped thousands of rose petals upon Mud Island, as part of the dedication ceremonies on May 17, 1987, for the new pavilion housing the Memphis Belle. Members of her wartime crew, volunteers with the Memphis Belle Memorial Association, and assorted VIPs gathered on the island that Sunday afternoon to proclaim that the famous bomber -- the first to complete 25 missions and return home -- was indeed, as the promotional materials said, "Home At Last."

Just 12 years later, it's a different story. The Memphis Belle Memorial Association now says that the Mud Island pavilion has all sorts of defects: It doesn't fully protect the historic plane from weather, animals, or vandals; the Memphis Belle is in danger of flooding; the site cannot be modified or expanded. In April, the association's 15-member board voted unanimously to move the plane to a better location, and asked the Mississippi Army National Guard to airlift the Belle to a new facility in Millington. The Memphis Park Commission, however, which operates Mud Island, wants the Belle to stay right where it is.

The war ended more than half a century ago, but the latest battle for the Memphis Belle is about to begin.

The Past

B-17 NUMBER 42-24485 ROLLED off the Boeing Aircraft Company assembly lines in Seattle on July 2, 1942 -- just one of some 12,750 B-17s built during the war. These were the latest weapons in the fight against Germany and Japan, four-engined, long-range bombers bristling with armament. The F-model B-17s carried dual .50-caliber machine guns in the tail, in the ball turret below, and in the top turret. Single .50-calibers were mounted on top, on either side of the waist, and on either side of the forward fuselage, while a pair of .30-caliber guns poked through the Plexiglas nose cone. Those were mainly for defense; the plane's punch came from its four-ton payload of 500- or 1,000-pound bombs that, thanks to the top-secret Norden bombsight, the planes could deliver with deadly accuracy.

Each B-17 carried a crew of 10, and this particular plane picked up hers a few months later at the U.S. Army Air Corps base in Bangor, Maine. The pilot was Lieutenant (later Colonel) Robert Morgan of Asheville, North Carolina. Everyone by now knows that Morgan dubbed his new plane the Memphis Belle after his Memphis sweetheart Margaret Polk, but Menno Duerksen, in his 1987 book The Memphis Belle: Home At Last, reveals that Morgan got the name from a gambling boat in the movie A Lady for a Night, which he and co-pilot James Verinis had just seen. In fact, says Duerksen, Morgan originally planned to name the aircraft Little One, his pet name for Margaret.

The Memphis Belle flew to England on September 25, 1942, and joined the 91st Bomb Group at the Bassingbourn Royal Air Force base north of London. From there she embarked on 30 missions against Fortress Europe, cutting five of them short because of mechanical problems. The first, on November 7, 1942, was a daylight bombing raid on submarine pens in Brest, France. Others were directed against submarine facilities, locomotive works, railroad hubs, shipyards, and airplane factories in France, Germany, Belgium, and Holland.

It was rough going. Daylight bombing allowed better accuracy for the bombardiers, but it made the Fortresses easier targets for the swarms of Messerschmitts or Focke-Wulf fighter planes sent up by the Nazis. One in three B-17s never made it back during these battles, and three of the four squadron leaders with the Belle's group were killed in action during the first few months of the war.

The Belle herself was smacked by flak, machine-gun bullets, and 20mm cannon shells. Although never mortally wounded, there were many close calls. On one raid a cannon shell hit one of the main struts and another lodged in a fuel tank, but neither exploded. One time a bullet sheared off a propeller blade. Another crashed through tail-gunner John Quinlan's Plexiglas ports just as he moved his head back from his gun sights; the slug missed him by inches, but Quinlan's face was cut by the shattered glass. Yet another time, the Belle sustained 62 hits by bullets or shrapnel, and the tail was almost blown away. Yet she and her crew flew on, raid after raid.

The Army's top brass had decided that combat tours of duty ended with 25 missions, at a time when many planes didn't make it past 10, and Morgan and most of his crew finally reached that magic number on May 17, 1943, with an attack on submarine pens at Lorient, France. Since the crew had sometimes used other planes while the Belle was being repaired, they reached 25 missions before she did; the Belle had to fly one more mission -- against shipyards in Kiel, Germany, on May 19, 1943, to reach her number 25.

Now the 26th mission was about to begin. The commander of the Eighth Bomber Command decided that one 25-mission bomber would be returned to the United States "because of the beneficial effect it is believed it will have on the Operation Training Units system at home." The plane chosen was the Memphis Belle.

Military historians now believe that the Belle was not the first plane to complete 25 missions, but was definitely among the first -- a small group that includes B-17s named Hell's Angels, Connecticut Yankee, Delta Rebel II, and Jersey Bounce. The Belle was selected, some say, because Hollywood director William Wyler was filming a documentary about the plane and her crew, and also because the King and Queen of England inspected the plane during a highly publicized morale-boosting visit to Bassingbourn. There was probably one other factor: American newspapers and magazines had already picked up the wartime romance of Margaret Polk and Bob Morgan, giving the lucky plane special appeal.

On June 16, 1943, the Memphis Belle landed at National Airport in Washington, D.C., on the first leg of a whirlwind publicity tour that would take the crew across the U.S. Their second stop was Memphis, where Press-Scimitar headlines blared "Memphis Belle Is Here!" and The Commercial Appeal, working on that love angle, announced, "War-Scarred Belle Keeps Date With Cupid." After that, the Belle flew to Nashville, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Los Angeles -- just about every city on the map. The final stop was New York City. "By the time the tour ended," writes Duerksen, "there was hardly a man, woman, or child in America who had not heard about the Memphis Belle and her crew of heroes."

Along the way, though, some of the glimmer faded. To the despair of Army publicists, Polk and Morgan called off their romance before the promotion ended. Morgan signed on for another tour of duty, this time piloting the big new B-29s, and for a while after the war ran a Volkswagen dealership, of all things, in North Carolina. Other members of the crew returned to their homes and tried to pick up their lives again, as construction workers, salesmen, contractors, restaurant owners. The "real" Memphis Belle, Margaret Polk, came back home and lived here until her death in 1990. Although Morgan at one time had promised to scrape the name off the plane when the tour was over, the Memphis Belle name and colorful "Petty girl" nose artwork stayed on, and the famous plane was reduced to training bomber crews at McDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Several times new pilots came close to accidentally ditching her in Tampa Bay.

After the war, the Belle was declared surplus and moved to an airplane graveyard outside Altus, Oklahoma. In 1946, the city of Memphis purchased her for $350 and brought her back to Memphis. She sat for years, looking rather forlorn and neglected, outside a hanger at Memphis Municipal Airport. In 1950, the bomber was hoisted up on a concrete pedestal outside the old National Guard Armory at Hollywood and Central. She stayed there, completely unprotected, until the National Guard sold its facility in 1977, and the Belle was returned to the airport, this time parked outside the 91st Bomb Group, a World War II-themed restaurant on Democrat. During all these moves, the only people who really cared for her, it seemed, were the members of a group calling themselves the Memphis Belle Memorial Association, founded in 1967 by Frank Donofrio.

At about this time, the plane's condition came to the attention of the U.S. Air Force, which claimed ownership. In a letter to the Memphis Belle Memorial Association, Colonel Richard C. Uppstrom, director of the U.S. Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, basically told the city to move the famous plane or lose it: "I'm beginning to get that gnawing feeling that the citizens of Memphis have no interest in the Belle and, in the long run, the best thing we could do would be to bring her to Wright-Patterson for care at the main museum."

Well, that lit a fire. "Save the Belle" committees were formed, and fund-raising began. Federal Express pitched in $100,000, and the city of Memphis contributed $150,000. Boeing, the original builders of the plane, gave $100,000, and companies and citizens throughout Memphis gave plenty of "bucks for the Belle."

"I felt from the very beginning that it was a very important part of history, an important part of our heritage, and it needed to be somewhere where it could share the maintenance and management," says Ward Archer, the advertising executive who co-directed the Belle's fund-raising drive. "I didn't want it to be a stand-alone, and Mud Island appealed to me because it had a built-in visitor base there."

Almost half a million dollars later, Mayor Dick Hackett told Colonel Uppstrom, "As a community, we have met your challenge," and on May 17, 1987, the Belle moved into its gleaming new, white-domed pavilion on Mud Island.

The Present

"ALTHOUGH THE MEMPHIS BELLE was saved by the pavilion," says Brent Perkins, "the pavilion in a way has kind of sentenced it as well."

Perkins, the senior newscast director at WREG-TV Channel 3, is president of the 500-member Memphis Belle Memorial Association, which he describes as "just a group of guys who saw the airplane withering away and became tired and disgusted watching such a proud piece of history degrade at the hands of vandals." The group today publishes a newsletter and maintains its own Web site (www.memphisbelle.com) which posts news about the Belle, gives updates on its crew, and solicits funds for its restoration. "If it weren't for the association, who spent more time in this aircraft than the original crew did, this airplane would not be a part of Memphis history," he says. "It simply would not be here."

On a recent tour of the airplane, he points out problems with the current open-air facility. "In a nutshell, this plane suffers daily humidity and temperature swings," he says. "At night it gets cool, in the daytime it gets hot, and that is extremely damaging." He points to dead bugs and dust gathered on surfaces inside the plane, corroded cables and rusted bolts, as well as places where the olive-drab camouflage paint has flaked off, revealing bare aluminum. "The humidity swings also pop the paint off. It's like having a beer can out here. After a time, it just corrodes."

A recent inspection of the Belle by experts from Federal Express revealed more serious problems. "They said that, if the engines ran, they'd never start them because they'd shake the plane apart," says Perkins. "They opened some panels and looked inside, and vital and sub-vital components are suffering the effects of corrosion. We haven't seen any sign of aluminum exfoliation yet, which is a death sign, but there is some corrosion."

Another problem is the birds who nest in the pavilion and leave their droppings on the plane. "Our volunteers tend to get tired," says Perkins. "They come down and wash the airplane, and this has to be washed once a week. You don't really want to put that much water on the Belle. The water does it no good. But if you don't, it looks terrible from the bird droppings. Even if the droppings weren't caustic, you don't want to have a piece of American pride like this with 4,000 bird droppings on it."

Efforts to keep the birds out have been futile, he says. "They love it underneath this pavilion. This is the perfect home for them. As a matter of fact, I'd like to see somebody give this to the Audubon Society. They'd love it."

There's also been vandalism over the years. The Plexiglas nose cone -- a $5,000 component -- has been broken, the radio room Plexiglas panel got kicked in, people have spit on the nose piece, and intruders one time broke into the Belle and ripped the Flying Fortress emblem from the pilot's yoke.

Then there was the problem with flooding. In April, concerned about high waters encroaching on Mud Island, Perkins told the park commission that his group was moving the plane to Millington. He had even requested a transport helicopter from the Mississippi Army National Guard before the park commission stepped in and said the association had to give 120 days' notice before they made any attempt to move the airplane. A spokesman for the U.S. Corps of Engineers later said a water level that high "would exceed any flood in the history of the Lower Mississippi River."

"Everybody thought I cried wolf," says Perkins, "but I promise you I stood at the right wingtip and took 35 steps and my feet were in the water. I don't know any other museum that would allow their artifacts to get that close to the water. It's true that we would have to see another four feet of rise before the wheels on this plane would get wet, but I don't think that's entirely impossible. I've lived on this river my entire life and I've seen it do amazing things."

Perkins says it all comes down to this: "We have to get this airplane indoors, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see why."

The association's litany of problems with the pavilion have taken some people by surprise. "What really bothers me is, that group [the Belle Association] certainly played a major role in the initial funding and development of the current site. They were supportive of it," says John Malmo, ad agency executive and chairman of the board of the Memphis Park Commission, which operates Mud Island.

"It was the only plan that we presented to the [Memphis Belle] association, and they loved it," says David Hoback, a principal in the Crump Firm, and chief designer of the pavilion. "Let me tell you, they were more excited about that exhibit than anything they'd ever seen. There was never any discussion of an enclosed, climatized building. Just keep the sun, rain or precipitation, and the basic elements off."

Perkins argues that the Mud Island pavilion was only supposed to be temporary: "My own personal research has indicated that most of the people who were on the board of directors at the time considered this a phase-one move, with a very definite look towards a phase-two operation."

Not so, says Malmo. "I went back and looked into all this, and words like `a permanent home' and that sort of thing were used. If anybody can find anything, in any of the writings, agreements, records, or anything about it earlier in which it was ever mentioned that this was phase one, or stage one, or temporary, all I can find is adjectives like `permanent.'"

The pavilion's designers certainly never considered it temporary. "It was never planned to be modified," says Metcalf Crump, president of the Crump Firm. "There was never any talk of a phase two. There was never talk of a future enclosed building. There was never talk of climate control."

"Not while we were designing the building," adds Hoback. "It was always the understanding that it be open-aired, and that it be a permanent home at Mud Island."

Nevertheless, Malmo and the others do agree that the Belle needs to be taken better care of. "The association guys are right," says Malmo. "Corrosion is occurring on the aircraft, and if it's allowed to continue, the repairs are going to be costly. You can't just go down to AutoZone, or AirplaneZone, and get a new wing strut for a B-17. Several parts, I understand, that are in it right now had to be made by hand." Of the 60 or 70 B-17s remaining today, less than a dozen are airworthy.

According to Malmo, that leaves three options: 1) Build a new facility; 2) Determine if the existing pavilion can be modified, and at what cost; or 3) Give the plane back to the Air Force.

The first option is not a good one, he believes. "It doesn't make any economic sense to build a [new] facility that is climate-controlled, temperature- and humidity-controlled 365 days out of the year for one airplane. It's almost like building an art gallery for one painting. It's going to have continuing maintenance. I mean, you're not only going to have to pay the utility bills, you'll have to maintain and repair it, and anybody who owns a house knows what trouble it is to keep the furnace and AC in repair."

Option two, modifying the existing structure, is a possibility, but also not a good one. "It would not be something we would prefer to do aesthetically," says Crump. "It's not what we would call a handsome solution to the problem." He explains that the open arches of the pavilion can be closed in, and heating and air conditioning can be added, but you would have to insulate the structure as well. "But if you insulate it, you're not going to get light through it, and you would lose that real nice natural light that comes through the fabric."

Modifying the existing structure, he estimates, would cost about $200,000 to enclose and insulate it, and another $200,000 to add the heating and air conditioning.

"But do you want to spend that kind of money?" Perkins asks. "I find it hard to look at the feasibility of dropping that kind of money into something that's only going to have to be improved in another five years," adding that "the skin of the pavilion is only rated at a 15-year lifespan."

According to Crump, however, the pavilion's vinyl-coated nylon skin has a 15- to 20-year life and "can go another 10 to 15 years." The steel trusses and foundation "can last decades." The same pavilion design was used at the Sun Dome in Libertyland, he notes, which has been there since the mid-1970s.

That brings up the third option, which is one Perkins supports, if it comes to that. "We have to decide what is best for the Belle and what is best for the region," he says. "If it doesn't happen the way we want it, then I'll tell you that plane is going to [the museum in] Dayton."

What he really wants, though, is to build a brand-new Memphis Belle facility at Millington. "There are too many reasons not to look at Millington as a permanent site," he says. Among other things, "it still has a military presence, a large apron, and an interest in the B-17 community that wants very much to fly their planes here to Memphis to park around the Belle. The minute that happens, you're going to have an international event." The Mud Island facility simply lacks the space for other aircraft.

Perkins hopes that a Belle pavilion in Millington could become the centerpiece of a $20 million aviation museum that could include other planes with Memphis connections: a B-25 named the Memphis Menace, a B-24 called the Pride of Beale Street, the B-29 City of Memphis, and others. "Memphis' flying history is just awesome," he says. "I don't know of a city that has as many airplanes named after it. Now we can't have the originals, they're gone, but there is the promise of bringing the rest of them down here, and painting them with the same artwork and having them on display."

The Memphis Belle in Millington? "It's easy to see that Memphians have a hard time viewing Millington as part of Memphis," he admits. "To me, it's easy. It's only 16 miles [from Mud Island] as the crow flies, and developed properly, mileage doesn't become a factor anymore. People just want to get out here and see this thing."

Malmo doesn't think so. "Well, if we're involved in it, it's obviously not going to Millington. And if it's the city of Memphis' airplane, it's not going to Millington."

Nor does Ward Archer: "I think it's in a wonderful location at our doorstep. As a piece of our history, in my view, it's where it needs to be."

Seven other individuals, however, aren't so sure about that anymore -- the surviving crewmen of the Memphis Belle. Although many of them participated in the dedication ceremonies 12 years ago, Perkins says they "don't entirely support this airplane staying in Memphis. We have been promising them for 50 years that this would be housed, not only to honor them for what they did, but to honor all the millions who served in the Army Air Corps."

On a recent visit to his old plane, former pilot Morgan, now living in North Carolina, told reporters, "It's obvious its days on Mud Island are over."

That comment aggravated a few people. "I spent a lot of time with him during the dedication, and I was surprised he would say that without calling me or anything," says Archer. "The fact is, it's not his plane, either."

The Future

ALL OF WHICH BRINGS UP THE all-important question: Just who owns the Memphis Belle anyway? Can the members of the Memphis Belle Memorial Association do whatever they want with it?

Perkins maintains that the Air Force, which evolved from the Army Air Corps, actually owns the plane, and his group has control over it. "In 1977, the Belle returned to Air Force control. Mayor [Wyeth] Chandler gave the aircraft back to the Air Force in 1977 with the understanding that it would be maintained under the custodianship of the Memphis Belle Memorial Association."

Malmo thinks differently. "With all this time that I've spent on the park commission, I've learned a lot about how city government works, and once the city owns something, it's not easy to sell it or give it away."

He recently turned up a collection of interesting documents pertaining to the purchase of the Memphis Belle. The first is a letter that refers to "one B-17 airplane, serial number 42-24485, now located at the War Assets Administration Sales Storage Depot, Altus, Oklahoma for the city of Memphis, Tennessee. Attention: Mayor Walter Chandler." The letter explains, "This transfer is in conformance with surplus operation and administration regulation #4, [and] check #57107 from the above city to cover this sale has been forwarded to the Voucher Examination Division, Treasurer's Office, Washington, D.C. Transfer will be effected on form 1316 and no formal certificate of title will be issued."

Other documents include instructions from Chandler for cutting the city's check for $350 and the actual purchase order for the airplane. It's true that years later, Chandler's son Wyeth, when he was mayor, apparently returned the Belle to the Air Force, but a newspaper article from August 3, 1977, refers to the plane's original "donation."

"Now the plane wasn't donated to begin with, which is very important," says Malmo. "And here's the key. When Chandler was mayor, with something like that, he didn't fool around with the city council. I know that if I were to go back into the city council minutes around that time, there isn't going to be anything about where the city council authorized Mayor Chandler to give that airplane back to the Air Force. As far as I'm concerned, that airplane still legally belongs to the city of Memphis for the $350 that we paid for it in 1946. Because Chandler had no authority to give away city property. A mayor can't do that."

He continues: "And if it still belongs to the city, then any deal between the memorial association and the Air Force [to donate the plane to Dayton] would be null and void."

Last week, Malmo said he planned to write to the Air Force Museum in Dayton and tell them just that. "I have to think the Air Force would have more confidence in protecting the aircraft if it were owned by the city, than if it were controlled by people that have such a loose confederation," he says, meaning the Memphis Belle Memorial Association. "I mean, this is a volunteer association that can go poof!"

None of that seems to faze Perkins. "We have our convictions about moving the Memphis Belle," he says, "but we have no reservations. This aircraft will be successful wherever it ends up."


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