CLEVELAND — Few airplanes are known by their names.
Of those, the Memphis Belle may be the sexiest in her class.
From the provocative pin-up girl on her nose to the impossibly tiny tip of this warbird — where only canvas separates the tail gunner from the sky — the Belle has been immortalized by generations of soldiers, the subject of two movies, featured in an American war bond tour, and her name has been used on other generations of military aircraft.
Despite her good-time-girl reputation, the Belle was a true-blue workhorse, the first of her B-17 kind to complete her mission, 25 combat flights over Europe between November 1942 and May 1943.
Even when her engines were shot out by enemy fire, the Belle made it home — and so did her crew, alive.
The real Memphis Belle is being restored, but on Monday her movie counterpart — the plane that played the Belle in the 1990 eponymous movie — roared into Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland for a visit.
Arthur H. Mills, 93, wears the hearing aids of an old man but still carries the bearing of soldier. He traveled Monday from Erie, Pa., with his wife and daughter to see the B-17. He also relived his own memories of a very different time, in a different B-17 altogether.
He was 22, not yet a husband or father, a top turret gunner and flight engineer; she was the “Princess Pat,” the B-17 he rode over Europe.
On his ninth mission in May 1944 over Germany, he parachuted out of Princess Pat — by that time known as Princess Patches for all the damage she’d sustained — after she was shot down. The plane sliced between two buildings on its way to the ground. A small change in path either way and there would have been no chance of parachuting. He was a German POW, eventually taken to Stalag 4, before the Russians liberated him in April 1945.
Mills visited Cleveland with a scrapbook of his time in the war, including letters home and hometown newspaper notices when he went missing in action. The end of the scrapbook is modern-day photographs taken in the last decade, as he revisits sites with his son, a former Foreign Services officer and current history professor who speaks fluent German.
In one photo, men stand at the edge of a German field with a shovel. On Monday, Mills brought along five pieces of bent, weathered metal — pieces of the doomed Princess Pat — they found there.
“I came home and talked about it all the time. My sister would say, ‘Are you still boring me with that old story?’ and I would say, ‘I’m bored with it too! But that’s what got me through’,” he said.
The real Memphis Belle was saved from destruction in 2005, when she was moved to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton. She is undergoing restoration and is scheduled to open to the public late this year.
Tony Hurst, who operated Hurst Flight Training at the Lorain County Regional Airport for 30 years before 9/11 shut down his business, also showed up Monday to see the B-17, with a piece of his own personal connection.
He has a print of the original Memphis Belle pin-up girl, signed by the plane’s original pilot, Capt. Robert Morgan. Morgan named the plane after his wartime girlfriend, who was from Memphis, Tenn. After the war, Morgan married Linda Hurst Morgan, Tony Hurst’s cousin.
“To Tony — This was worth fighting for,” Morgan wrote over the curvaceous girl facing away from the artist.
“Bob had a great sense of humor,” Hurst recalled. “If you cut him, he’d bleed red, white and blue.”
The movie Memphis Belle was flown in by The Liberty Foundation, an Oklahoma-based nonprofit organization that travels the country with historic aircraft as “living history” tours to the public and especially veterans. On Monday, veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam rode along.
The movie Belle, which was used a transport plane and did not see combat, started life as a B-17G model, but was restored to play the part of the Belle, a B-17F. Her old Army green paint flakes just like the real thing, and her markings are meant to replicate the original, down to the painted bombs on the sides, marking each run, and swastikas to indicate Nazi hits.
Though she was the sole B-17 flying into Burke, one can easily imagine the fearsome sight a wave of the “fortresses” breaking through the clouds would be.
To the Axis nations, those B-17s were the beginning of the end.
To lands overrun by Nazis, the hum of those engines was their freedom song: “Your deliverer has come.”
According to the U.S. Army, five Army Air Force Divisions served in both the European and Pacific theaters during WWII — the first war to be waged in large part in the skies — with about 27,600 casualties reported.
“Those guys who went up in these planes — they saved Western civilization,” said Lou Radwanick, a Liberty Foundation volunteer. “We’re just preserving history.”
Flying fortress files
- Type of plane: Boeing B-17F. Known as the “Flying Fortress” for the B-17’s ability to withstand heavy damage and still return home.
- Armament: 13 50-caliber machine guns, although normally 12 on combat missions, and 8,000 pounds of bombs.
- Range: Flies 2,800 miles without refueling at a maximum speed of 325 mph.
- 12,732 B-17s were produced between 1935 and 1945; 4,735 were lost in combat.
- Engines: Four 1,200-hp engines.
- B-17s were used in three more wars: Korea, the Israeli conflict of 1948 and Vietnam.
- Only 13 B-17s still are flying today.
Take a tour
- The Liberty Foundation 2014 Salute to Veterans tour is 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland. Flights are $450 per person for non-members or $410 for Liberty Foundation members. Schedule a flight by calling (918) 340-0243 or visit www.libertyfoundation.org.