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Memphis Belle restoration selected for Air Force Heritage Award

The Memphis Belle has been named by the U.S. Air Force History and Museums Program as a recipient of the 2019 Air Force Heritage Award for its restoration by the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force photo/Ken LaRock)

The Memphis Belle has been named by the U.S. Air Force History and Museums Program as a recipient of the 2019 Air Force Heritage Award for its restoration by the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force photo/Ken LaRock)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Thirteen years, thousands of hours and exhaustive research have paid off as one of the most recognizable symbols of World War II – the Memphis Belle – has been named by the U.S. Air Force History and Museums Program as a recipient of the 2019 Air Force Heritage Award for its restoration by the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

The award recognizes outstanding achievements by Air Force History and Museums personnel that foster a better understanding and appreciation of the Air Force, its history and accomplishments.

The famed B-17F was placed on display in the World War II Gallery last year – exactly 75 years after its crew finished their last mission in the war against Nazi Germany on May 17, 1943.

The three-day celebratory event included WWII-era aircraft on static display, a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Memphis Belle and Strategic Bombing Exhibits; more than 160 WWII military and home front reenactors; and both Memphis Belle films featuring guest speakers in the Air Force Museum Theatre.

The Memphis Belle was the first U.S. Army Air Forces heavy bomber to return to the United States after beating the odds and completing 25 missions over Europe. The USAAF chose the aircraft for a highly publicized war bond and morale-boosting tour from June to August 1943, and its crew was celebrated as national heroes. 

Museum restoration specialists conducted an exhaustive conservation and restoration process on the Memphis Belle since it arrived at the museum in October 2005. The effort included corrosion treatment, outfitting of missing equipment and accurate markings to bring the aircraft back to pristine condition.

“This is a national-level, Air Force-wide award, and the Memphis Belle is one of the iconic symbols of Air Force history and heritage,” said NMUSAF’s lead curator for the Memphis Belle project, Jeffrey Duford. “It symbolizes all the heavy bomber crews who sacrificed and helped win World War II. … It is really apt that this project would be awarded this prestigious decoration from the Air Force.”

The Memphis Belle project was more than restoration of the aircraft, he added.

“It was the wonderful exhibit that surrounds the artifact and the event that took place surrounding the 75th anniversary of the Memphis Belle crew finishing their 25th mission. It was a grand event.”

Family members representing every Memphis Belle crew member were present May 17 to 19, 2018, along with the children of William Wyler, the Hollywood director who directed the 1944 documentary, Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress. Wyler’s daughter Catherine Wyler was present; she co-produced the fictionalized 1990 movie, Memphis Belle, as a tribute to her father.

Duford estimated restoration of the Memphis Belle, by paid museum staff and volunteers, took about 55,000 hours, with internal work continuing. Its completion is anticipated in 2020.

Access to period photos and William Wyler’s Memphis Belle footage helped the restorers fabricate missing parts.

“Their craftsmanship is unparalleled and these parts they reproduced, even from photos, are perfect,” he said. “Restoring an airplane accurately is doing it accurately whether someone sees it or not. It is wonderful that we have a team of people that are so dedicated to doing things right with this national treasure.”

Duford urges people to visit the Memphis Belle and the exhibit, which is 500 linear feet long and displays 130 related artifacts – many collected from Memphis Belle crew members. Interactive screens have been added to further tell the B-17’s story.

“We are honored to receive this award on behalf of the hundreds of people – staff members, folks who supported us, the Air Force Museum Foundation,” he said. “Anyone can come see the fruits of our labor anytime the museum is open.”

More information about the Memphis Belle is available at https://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Visit/Museum-Exhibits/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/195966/boeing-b-17f-memphis-belle/