DAYTON, Ohio -- The United States didn't have rock stars in 1943, National Museum of the Air Force curator Jeff Duford said Thursday. It had the crew of the Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress nicknamed the Memphis Belle, the first heavy bomber to return home after flying 25 missions in war-torn Europe.
"The airplane has the same cultural significance as the flag that flew on Iwo Jima or the Arizona Battleship at Pearl Harbor," Duford said. "It's a symbol that really shows and demonstrates the sacrifices of Americans to preserve our freedom."
Modern Americans, even those who might consider themselves history aficionados, are much less likely to have heard of the glass-nosed bomber than the flag or the USS Arizona. The Belle showed her age when she arrived at Duford's museum "in need of a complete restoration" in 2005, he said.
Engineers spent more than 55,000 hours over the course of 13 years disassembling the bomber and recreating its World War II-era appearance from photographs. A special point of pride, Duford said, is the glass nose, which hadn't been correctly replicated since the plane retired from service. The transparent nose of the plane allowed bombardiers and navigators to guide it on its course.
It was only with a $55,000 donation from the Elsa Sule foundation and lawyer John Klette, who flew 51 missions in similar bombers during the war, that Duford's team managed to get it just right.
"I lived with that plane every day. I wanted that plane restored, and I worked hard for it," Klette said.
Duford said he hopes displaying the fully restored plane at his museum will help it reclaim its place in American history, reawakening the pride and awe that the world felt 70 years ago.
One person who never forgot was at the exhibit Thursday. Stephen Loch's father, Harold, flew on the Belle as a turret gunner and flight engineer.
"'Why are you doing all this hoopla?'" Loch recalled his father saying after the war. "'We were just doing our job.' That's all he'd say. He never thought of himself as a hero."