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The Memphis Belle at the Palm Springs Air Museum


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If you haven't seen the movie, the Memphis Belle was one of the first B-17 heavy bombers to complete 25 combat missions over France and Germany in World War II.  Her aircrew brought down 8 enemy aircraft.  Upon completion all ten members of her crew were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for "Heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight" as well as the Air Medal for "Heroic or meritorious achievement while participating in an aerial flight".   A truly proud sample of American history.

A retired buddy of mine, Richard volunteers his time at the Palm Springs Air Museum to help build some of their scale models.   They have many permanent air displays as well as some rotating planes.  Based heavily on the WWII era, they offer a "Pacific Theater" and a "European Theater" with several elderly, retired military docents.   Millionaire philanthropist Bob Pond used to house many of his cars here as well but since his passing the collection has been sold.  However they still have a few period correct autos on display.  

My friend called last week to tell me they were flying in the Memphis Belle, a fully operational Flying Fortress.  This is the plane used in the 1990 movie of the same name.  The original Memphis Belle is housed at Wright-Patterson AFB near Dayton, OH.

This Memphis Belle will be here for the next two or three years and it is certainly worth the visit.  With all the jets, computers and stealth technology today it's easy to forget that 80 years ago this machine was state of the art.   American engineering at its pinnacle.   

I have to tell you, stepping aboard this B-17 will instantly transport you back to that time, the nostalgia is almost overwhelming as you walk through the fuselage, the bomb bay doors, past the 50 caliber guns, the radio compartment and on up into the cockpit, it's very easy to drift into the charm of this bit of mechanical history and I can't help but think of every WWII movie I watched over the years, but then the hair on the back of my neck stands up as I wonder what it really must have been like, in these close quarters during actual combat, under fire from multiple enemy aircraft above and flak from below, the stress on each and every member of that crew had to be staggering, the noise deafening.   Freezing cold up there but all are sweating.  The non-stop radio chatter loud, confusing, impossible to understand with each man yelling into his headset, mouth dry, hands shaking with the blast of adrenaline shooting through every vein, waist gunners, ankle deep in brass, did they feel the cold dread of true fear in these moments?   Ball turret gunner, isolated from the rest of the crew knowing he's the only member without a parachute, did they cross themselves and say a silent prayer?   Think of home?  Was each second an hour?  ....and I come to the realization that this whole display is not about a movie, rather it is a stark reminder of the deadly efficiency of those 10 young men and thousands more like them.

For a modest fee one can book a local fly around on this and several other planes they have. 

If you find yourself in southern California with a couple hours to kill, this museum is a real "must see" for anyone who's into the whole WWII experience.

Cheers, Greg

🍸

 

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Great story on the B -17 bomber, the Memphis Belle crew and the wonderful mechanics who kept all of those old airplanes flying. My son and I went on a brief tour of a flying B-17 several years ago, and it was a wonderful experience. Over the years, I've become ambivalent about bomber warfare and its devastating impact on civilian populations during WW2 and other conflicts. Nevertheless, the brave men who in those planes were nothing short of heroes in my eyes - every one - and what they risked and sacrificed for their country puts their courage in a league of its own.

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I had the honor of going up in the ill fated "Nine-O-Nine",  B-17 bomber. It was a life time experience in just trying to imagine what these kids went thru when the enemy was shooting at them. Too many people use the word "Hero's" when talking about sports stars, race car drivers and rock stars. Those crew's that flew in WWII are the real hero's and we are losing more of them every day.

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My dad was in the navy in WWII. He flew in the most shot at squadron in the Pacific. He was a radio man and his plane got hit twice. One time the shell when into the radio. They actually got a metal for being the most shot at squadron. He never left Hawaii ! They towed the targets for the ships to practice on before going out to sea. He said you could tell the rookies from the experienced gunners. The rookies couldn’t hit the 50 foot sock they towed a couple hundred feet behind the plane and the experienced guys shot at the tow line to watch the sock fly away. 
dave s 

Edited by SC38dls (see edit history)
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In the upper center of this shot is a BC348, the liaison receiver used in B29 bombers and other large aircraft in all services.

The lower center is an ART13 liaison transmitter,1944 issue, and paired with the BC348.

Note the the large knobs to permit cold, frightened 20 year-old operators do their job.

 

I think of them every time I go on the air.

 

The receiver on the lower left is a typical ham set c. 1938.

 

new shelf B.JPG

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I have had several opportunities to go aboard B-17s and B-29s. Always, some other demand got in the way and although I have stood next to and under them a few times, I have never been inside one. I really would like to do that. Perhaps, sometime in the next couple years I can find myself down that way without some other demand that I had to go tend to.

I have told this story before, so if you happen to remember reading it? You may skip on ahead.

My personal desire to be in one stems from the fact that my uncle, my mom's only brother, was a navigator aboard a B-17 for much of the war. 

I was a strange kid. I was very interested in history from a very early age, and often asked questions of him and another uncle (an aunt's husband) that had served in the war. Neither of them ever wanted to talk about it. Mom's brother eventually opened up to one of his grandchildren, and she shared his story with all the cousins (for which I am eternally grateful!). 

Missions were flown usually by several planes, with a leader, and others that usually followed. But all the navigators along with the pilots and bombardiers and other crewmembers necessary for the mission had to be up in the wee hours for the mission briefings. Although most of the planes usually followed the lead plane to and from the assigned targets, it was vitally important that every navigator be kept fully informed about not just the day's mission, but best known current locations of battle lines and hot spots, safe areas, etc. Bombings were usually about sunup, and it took hours to get to the areas, so you can guess how early in the morning the day began.

For most of the missions, for my uncle, they were rather routine. Attend the briefings, check out his section of the plane, then go for a ride. Oh, he still had plenty to do. He had to know every minute exactly where they were, had to keep constant track of it on his maps.

Once the day's mission was completed, the very strict rule was, that every able plane make a beeline back to base. Do NOT give the enemy any more opportunity to shoot your plane than you had to. Get it home so that the plane could be made ready for the next day's mission. 

One mission, it wasn't so routine. Their plane was shot and severely damaged. Their payload was dropped, and the other planes made their beeline back to the base. This was the flight my uncle really earned his pay on. The pilots struggled to keep the plane in the air. All they could manage was low and slow. My uncle had to guide them through he safest and shortest routes. While the pilots struggled with the plane, gunners kept their vigilance, other crew gathered anything that wasn't bolted down and piled it near the door. They had to wait until they were on the friendly side of the lines, and by some margin. Then, they could open the door, and throw everything out to lighten the load and make it a bit easier to keep the plane in the air. A bit later than the other planes, they made it back to their base.

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A couple of copies of the Memphis Belle film over at Archive.org: https://archive.org/details/TheMemphisBelleAStoryofaFlyingFortress and https://archive.org/details/MemphisBelle

 

If you thought that things were simple and easy to operate back then watching a training film on ground operations in a B-17 is an eye opener: https://archive.org/details/B-17-GroundOperations

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My Uncle had to jump out of one of those on his third mission in 1944.  Spent the rest of the war as a guest of the Luftwaffe.  Not a pleasant experience.  Did not deter him from continuing to fly, as he served in the Air Force until about 1966.  

 

Good man he was.  

 

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We have a restored B-17 based in Tomball, Texas, where I live. Had dinner with the crew one time and they said that the commemorative pilots today -- all highly experienced and age 45-plus, flew the plane in shifts because there was no hydraulic boost on the flight controls. Anytime you wanted to go up or down or change course, you were fighting the airstream with only muscle. "There was a reason the World War II pilots were 20-year-olds," one of them said. 

 

When World War II erupted, one of my father's friends dropped out of high school to join the Army. He was a math wiz and wound up being a navigator on a B-17. On his first mission, the entire squadron was enroute to the target when they hit heavy clouds and low-level fog. The squadron commander's navigator became lost, and in desperation the commander broke radio silence and asked if any of the squadron's navigators knew where they were. Only on responded positively -- my father's friend -- and he wound up leading the squadron to the target and the mission was a success. From then on he was the squadron's lead navigator, starting at age 18. After the war he attended Rice University on the GI Bill and ultimately became a highly successful engineer and entrepreneur, and a respected collector of antique cars.      

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I had the chance of a lifetime to go up in "FiFi" the B-29 operated by the Confederate Air Force. It was kinda expensive, but worth every penny. I've been fascinated by WW II airplanes since I was a kid and we lived under the flight path of the CFB (Canadian Forces Base) Shearwater Nova Scotia.

 

 

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Great stories. I may never get back to SoCal but this would be worth the trip. My uncle flew in WWII. He told a story one time that for his 21st birthday he was promoted. I cant remember to what rank but he was told that there was no way someone under 21 was going to achieve the rank under the watch of his commander. He flew 'the hump' and was also a pilot during the Berlin airlift. He later became a commercial pilot. 

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I,too,flew in the "Nine-O-Nine" B-17 not long before it was destroyed in that unfortunate mishap.It was the only time I've ever flown in an airplane.As I was talking to a lady next to me before we took off,she asked me if I was afraid since it was my first time to fly.I answered"no,not near as afraid as those 17-18 year old boys flying over Germany on bombing runs in the daytime,dodging anti-aircraft fire and flak,Besides,no one will be shooting at us."

 

When the pilot throttled up for takeoff,it pinned me back in the seat,bringing back youthful memories of my C/MP 1957 Chevy 210 2 door sedan.It was a thrill I'll never forget.

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We are fortunate to have had the Memphis Belle visit us a couple of times in the last few years. It was displayed at Felts Field in Spokane, WA along with a P-51 Mustang. Flights were offered in the Mustang, but the B-17 was display-only. However for those with enough agility it was open  to “tour”. Once up the narrow ladder into the fuselage, you were able to pass into the forward section and look out the plexiglass nose where the nose gunner sat, then through the maze of framework, braces, cables and equipment in the mid section to the tail gunner’s position. It was very tight passage and not recommended for those with physician limitations. At 70+ years, I wondered more than once whether I might need assistance navigating through the plane. That’s probably another reason why the crews tended to be so young. 

 

My 7th grade teacher (in 1955) was a crew member and B-17 tail gunner. One would have thought a man with such a history would be difficult to approach and walk with a swagger. However he was a warm and caring individual and, at about 5’6” and 135 pounds, would never have been thought of as the hero he really was. He never had a “war story” to share.

 

I also had a neighbor, my mechanical and old car mentor, who piloted B-17’s in Europe. He was more of a swashbuckler who occasionally would share some of his military past. As we wrenched, he’d recall some of his exploits during the war - and not all of them about the time he spent in the air! He took advantage of the GI Bill, became an engineer and helped to develop one of the first commercial nuclear reactors for General Electric.

 

Below are two photos of the terminal at Felts Field. First is the backdrop for the Memphis Belle during a recent visit. The second  one shows the same terminal building in 1936 (note: De Soto Airflow and a United Airlines DC-3 (I think). [Same building, just remodeled and enlarged through the years] Felts Field has quite a history including a visit by Amelia Earhart, on a commercial flight in December, 1934, and Charles Lindbergh in September, 1927, on tour with the “Spirit of Saint Louis” after his historic flight (shown in the third photo).

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Edited by f.f.jones (see edit history)
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We live about 3 hours from the Air Force museum here in Ohio. My wife and I took the trip a couple weeks ago, her first time, about the 50th for me.  You can see and touch the real Memphis Bell. Amazing that anyone could fit in that ball turret. 

The planes are amazing but what really is interesting are the other displays, you could spend days just looking at the relics in the display cases.  The Vietnam Nam POW exhibit especially.

 

Admission is free but donations are encouraged.

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