To hell and back: Legendary WWII bomber brought to life again in Dayton


James Verinis’s children never met their grandfather, Jim Verinis, a co-pilot on the iconic World War II B-17 Memphis Belle.

But this week, they will connect with an important part of family and American history as thousands from around the world visit the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force for the roll out of the restored historic four-engine Boeing bomber.

» DANGER UP CLOSE: 5 memories of the B-17 Memphis Belle and the men on the missions

“It really is going to bring my father to life for my 4-year-old son and my 7-year-old daughter,” said James Verinis, 48, who will travel to Dayton from South Kingstown, R.I., with his family. His father died in 2003.

“It’s going to be a tangible reincarnation of his as much as anything else.”

Dozens of family members of the crew will travel across the country to see what their late fathers and grandfathers did to win the war in Europe.

Based at RAF Bassingbourn in England during the war, the Memphis Belle was the first heavy bomber to complete 25 combat missions over Europe and return to the United States. 

» CONTINUED COVERAGE: With ‘regrets,’ Queen Elizabeth will miss unveiling of Memphis Belle in Dayton 

The museum at Wright-Patterson will have a public ribbon-cutting ceremony in front of the restored plane and a new World War II strategic bombing exhibit with dozens of artifacts Thursday, May 17, the 75th anniversary of the Memphis Belle’s 25th and final mission over Europe.

Three days of events Thursday through Sunday, May 17-19, are expected to draw thousands from across the country, highlighted by a World War II plane fly-in and more than 160 re-enactors.

When the Memphis Belle returned stateside in June 1943, the celebrated plane embarked on a whirlwind three-month war bonds tour in the United States that included a stop in Dayton.

Two films, a 1944 William Wyler documentary called: “The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress,” and a 1990 Hollywood film, “Memphis Belle,” marked the plane’s wartime milestone.

Aircraft restorers and volunteers have spent tens of thousands of hours restoring the Memphis Belle since the plane was hauled to Wright-Patterson in 2005 from Tennessee.

Verinis remembers traveling with his father to air shows around the country, marking the legacy of the Memphis Belle and her crew.

“There hasn’t been anything to celebrate and this has been a long time coming,” he said.

‘He believed they were just lucky’

Robert K. Morgan Jr., 72, son of the the Memphis Belle’s pilot Robert Morgan who died in 2004, will travel from San Francisco, California, to pay homage with his family to the crew and the plane.

His father “knew before he passed it would go to the Air Force museum in Dayton and was glad it was going to be preserved,” he said.

Morgan named the bomber after his wartime girlfriend, Margaret Polk, and the plane’s famous nose art was inspired by a 1941 illustration by George Petty in Esquire magazine.

» QUICK READ: Iconic Memphis Belle debut in Dayton: Everything you need to know

The World War II veteran “worked tirelessly” with the Memphis Belle Memorial Association to attempt to restore and preserve the artifact in Memphis before it was moved to the Air Force museum at Wright-Patterson.

“Dad didn’t talk about the war a lot growing up,” he said. “Like most men, dad was trying to move on with his life.

“The thing I remember most is that dad was a pretty humble guy,” Morgan said. “He believed that they were just lucky. He watched way too many planes go down in his squadron and others.

“One of the things dad always said was, because people constantly called him a hero, he said the only real heroes are the ones that didn’t come back,” Morgan said. “That was the thing I remember the most about dad talking about the war.”

After the World War II aviator’s travails in Europe, Morgan signed up for 25 more missions flying the B-29 Superfortress in raids over Japan.

“He just couldn’t get over that plane and wanted to fly it desperately,” his son said.

“He was obviously kind of a wild and crazy guy at times,” Morgan said. “Anybody that would fly 25 missions, see what he saw, saw how many people were lost that he knew, and then go to join the Pacific Theater and fly 25 more missions …”

» INITIAL REPORT: Memphis Belle to go on display at Air Force museum in 2018

Morgan’s commander sent him home from the war front after he completed those last 25 missions in the Pacific, his son said.

The younger Morgan’s connection to the Memphis Belle has been with him for life. He remembers countless viewings of the World War II documentary growing up.

“As kids we used to see it on cold winter days when we couldn’t go outside,” he said.

He first saw the plane on a college road trip through Tennessee in 1967.

Howard J. Hunt, 96, knew the plane from the controls of the cockpit.

He was a ferry pilot who flew the Memphis Belle on a 10-day hopscotching tour between Spokane, Washington and Tampa, Florida in December 1943.

“I didn’t know it was a famous airplane at the time, but just another B-17,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Anchorage, Alaska. “We didn’t seem to attract much attention. It was winter time.”

He’ll be at the museum in his original Army Air Forces uniform to revisit the Memphis Belle this week.

“This time,” he said of the plane, “it’s going to be a real icon.”

» PHOTOS: Memphis Belle restoration taking shape

‘He said it was very scary’

Dean Giambrone’s father, Joseph M. Giambrone, was a ground crew chief who sneaked aboard the Memphis Belle for one flight.

Giambrone, 66, said his father expected a “milk run,” or easy flight.

That wasn’t what he got.

“He said it was very scary,” said Giambrone, who will trek to the Memphis Belle unveiling from the Philadelphia suburbs. “They were surprised at all the flak and the fighter planes that met them.

“He never got too friendly with the flying personnel because he never knew if they were going to return or not,” he added. “He said these guys were faced with this every mission.”

Peggy Evans, sister of bombardier Vince Evans, greeted the returning Memphis Belle on a war bonds tour stop in Fort Worth, Texas in 1943.

“…I remember it looked so huge circling the field and I watched the wheels hit the runway,” she wrote in an email. “I don’t remember what I said to my brother, I was just too excited. I sure gave him a big hug and we went home and I remember the reporters where there and interviewed my brother and wrote about him and took pictures.”

The crew was awash in camaraderie, said Evans, who resides in both Florida and California.

» PHOTOS: 13 years and 55,000 hours of work: restored Memphis Belle

“After all they had been through together, it was certainly understandable,” she said.

For Mary Black, daughter of Memphis Belle radio operator Robert Hanson, it will be the first time she travels with her family from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to see the Memphis Belle.

“It’s going to be very touching,” she said.

Hanson “would be so proud,” she said. “My father never thought that he was a hero or anything else … yet he was very proud that they accomplished the mission.”

He was grateful to survive combat in the skies over Europe.

“I know he was pretty excited because when he got out of the plane he leaned down and kissed the ground,” she said. “I think he felt he was glad to be done with flying those missions. I think they felt pretty lucky to come back alive.”

Jim Black, Hanson’s son-in-law, remembers the radio operator sometimes took on the role of B-17 turret gunner.

“He was always afraid when they were shooting at German fighter planes that he was going to shoot off the tail,” said Black, 74. “He said you had to be so careful.”

» RELATED: Need a way in? AF Museum will open extra gate for Memphis Belle gala

Vincent “Bill” Purple, 94, knew the dangers up close. The bomber pilot flew 35 B-17 missions, including in the forefront of a 1,000-bomber raid against Berlin, Germany on Feb. 3, 1945. Each plane carried ten 500-pound bombs in the punishing raid.

The World War II veteran will travel with family from Petersham, Massachusetts to see the Memphis Belle in Dayton this week.

Morgan and his troops flew many “very, very dangerous” missions. “… To have (the Memphis Belle) restored, I believe in that history, period,” he said.

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By the Numbers

The B-17 Memphis Belle will be unveiled at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force this week after more than a decade of restoration. A ribbon-cutting is set for Thursday, May 17, to mark the 75th anniversary of the plane’s 25th and final mission over Europe. It was the first heavy bomber to reach that milestone and return to the United States.

Here’s a quick look at facts about the plane:

Year it came to the museum: 2005

Number of hours to restore: 55,000

Top speed: 325 mph

Combat radius: 600 plus miles

Weapons: Up to thirteen .50-cal. machine guns and 8,000 pounds of bombs

Number of crewmen on final mission: 11, including film director William Wyler who made a documentary about the plane.

Number of B-17s produced during WWII: 12,700

SOURCE: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

Memphis Belle debut

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.

SOURCE: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

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.



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