B-17 Bomber ‘Memphis Belle’ soars over Baltimore

(The restored B-17 from the movie, The Memphis Belle.)

Uncle Bill never really talked about the war.

I only knew about his service from several mementos he had on display in his knotty pine basement.  There was a German helmet, a cracked gas mask, and four beaten-up rifles he had scavenged from the battlefield.  All were interesting objects, but my favorite keepsake was a sepia-toned picture of Uncle Bill – along with his crew – beside a B-17.  It would take almost 25 years, and my being cast in a production of Stalag 17, before I screwed up the courage to broach Uncle Bill on a difficult subject: His last mission in that Flying Fortress and the time he spent as a prisoner of war.

Uncle Bill with B-17 crew 034
Sgt William A. Wesley (kneeling at far right) with the crew of his B-17
A .50 calibre machine gun now sits as a silent sentinel. (Wayne C. Countryman)
A .50 calibre machine gun now sits as a silent sentinel. (Wayne C. Countryman)

Veterans like Uncle Bill – the men and women Tom Brokaw titled “The Greatest Generation” – are passing away today at a rate of just over 600 a day, according to the Veteran’s Administration.  Of the 16 million who served our nation in World War II, only about one million veterans remain.

Also fleeting are the airships which carried the fight to the enemy throughout the war.  Of the  12,731 B-17’s built by the Boeing Company, along with wartime partners Douglas and Lockheed (Vega), only a dozen are still flying.

This weekend, Marylanders will have an opportunity to see one of these rare birds, and perhaps take a ride on the iconic plane, as the B-17 from the movie Memphis Belle makes a stop at Martin State Airport.  Last Monday (Labor Day), my colleague, Wayne Countryman, and I  were privileged to join two veterans and their families for a tour of the Memphis Belle and a taste of the flying experience awaiting area enthusiasts.

The Memphis Belle was the nickname given a B-17F attached to the 324th Bomb Squadron (Heavy) and stationed at Bassingbourn, England during the war.  The airplane and its crew were one of the first to complete the mandated 25 missions intact, inspiring both a 1944 documentary and a 1990 feature film.  After accomplishing its mission, the aircraft and crew returned to the United States to boost morale and to sell war bonds.

The restored tail gunner's position in the Memphis Belle. (Wayne C. Countryman)
The restored tail gunner’s position in the Memphis Belle. (Wayne C. Countryman)

The original Memphis Belle retired from service many decades ago.  This year marks the 70th anniversary of its last bombing mission.  Unfortunately, years of neglect by various entities who shuffled it around, left the plane little more than a sad rusting shell.  Today, the Memphis Belle is undergoing extensive restoration at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.  Once that restoration is done, it will join other Flying Forts (like the Shoo Shoo Baby) – preserved and protected for years to come.

For the 1990 movie, Warner Brothers used two B-17s.  One, a  former civilian firefighter, (B-17G-85-DL), was converted to the wartime configuration of the B-17F.  It is that aircraft which is presently on display at Martin State Airport.

After completion of the filming, owner David Tallichet replaced the Warner Brothers movie version of the nose art and markings with the historic markings found on the original Memphis Belle.  He then leased it to The Liberty Foundation to provide historical flight experiences to the general public.

In converting the staid firefighter to a classic warbird, several military options were installed, such as a Sperry top turret (which flight engineers like my Uncle Bill would have manned), an early-style tail gunner’s compartment, and opposing open side waist gunner’s positions.  This configuration also omitted the familiar chin turret in favor of two side-mounted 30 calibre machine guns just behind the plexiglass nose.

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Joe Burdis, Jr. would have fired one of those forward mounted machine guns.  Burdis was one of the veterans who joined our tour of the Memphis Belle on Monday.  As a radio man and gunner on a B-17, Burdis flew 35 missions out of Thetford, England with the 8th Air Force’s 388 Bomb Group.

Joe Burdis Jr. flew 35 missions in a B-17. (Wayne C. Countryman)
Joe Burdis Jr. flew 35 missions in a B-17. (Wayne C. Countryman)

Burdis was thrilled to see the Memphis Belle and to share memories of the iconic plane with his great-grandchildren, saying he gets, “a lot of questions at home.”  But as his family was touring the airplane, he expressed concern with the state of modern education.

“I look at the history books my (great) grandkids bring home from school, and they only have maybe two paragraphs about World War Two.  It’s amazing, when you think about how many people’s lives were affected by the war.  No wonder so many people today think things like the Holocaust didn’t happen.”

Keeping that history alive is the mission of the Liberty Foundation.  Its volunteers include the crew who ferried the Memphis Belle through stormy skies to Baltimore on Monday.

Pilot Ray Fowler flies commercial jets for Delta and F-16’s for the Alabama Air National Guard.

Co-pilot Melisa Foures is a student at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina.  Flores was sporting a B-17 necklace during the Monday flight but admitted an equal affection for the P-51 Mustang.  Her aunt, a now retired Delta pilot, was the first woman since the wartime WACS, to qualify to pilot a B-17.

Flight Engineer John Ferguson happily explained some of the nuances of the plane while we were on the ground, though his in-flight admonitions were mostly lost to the distinct sound of the powerful Wright Cyclone engines.

The view from the clouds fills Larry Hilte with a rush of memories. Airborne again - Larry Hilte enjoys his nostalgic ride. (Wayne C. Countryman)
The view from the clouds fills Larry Hilte with a rush of memories. (Wayne C. Countryman)

Not lost on this reporter was the joy on the face of Lawrence A. Hilte, who was making his first warbird flight since 1945.

Hilte (who arrived in uniform) served with the 15th Air Force from 1943-1945, flying with the 460th Bomb Group out of Spinazzola, Italy – just west of Bari on the Adriatic Sea.  Hilte said the airfield was situated on about 100 acres of farmland that had been converted into a makeshift air force base for the duration of the war.  Like Burdis, Hilte was a gunner, but unlike the radioman, who had plenty of room to move about in the fuselage of the B-17, Hilte was consigned to the cramped station of the ball turret in a B-24.

“It’s the same kind of ball turret,” he said, while pointing to the minuscule access door on the Sperry unit.  Notably, Hilte did not attempt to demonstrate how he ever got through the tiny portal but did mention that he was only 18 and weighed 124 lbs, when he entered the army in 1943. He also paused for a moment to recite a few lines from the poem, The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.

Co-pilot Melisa Foures is all smiles after our Labor Day flight. (Wayne Countryman)
Co-pilot Melisa Foures is all smiles after our Labor Day flight. (Wayne Countryman)

Hilte told the Baltimore Post-Examiner he shared many of his memories when he was videotaped for the Library of Congress Veteran Project by a class of schoolchildren in Salisbury.  When Hilte’s interview becomes available, those stories can be heard by searching for his full name in the database.

One story which may or may not be in that collection is how Hilte lost his Swiss-made watch over the Alps.

“I used to have one of those Benrus watches.  We were flying home from one of our missions over the Alps, and I was horsing around a bit, just sorta wrestling with one of the other gunners.  My wristwatch came loose and fell down through the ball turret opening, down into the Alps’ snow.  I’ve often thought that perhaps a future skier or a St. Bernard dog would someday find my missing watch.”

It’s hard to say whether or not some future skier will find Larry Hilte’s watch.  But through the efforts of dedicated professionals at military museums and volunteer groups like the Liberty Foundation, the machines that helped veterans like Joe Burdis and Larry Hilte win the war will remain a witness to the Greatest Generation.  Their stories will live on, too, with anyone who will stop and listen.

As the prologue to the film, Twelve O’Clock High rightly states:

“They were the only Americans fighting in Europe in the fall of 1942.  They stood alone against the enemy and against doubts from home and abroad.”

Just before he died, Uncle Bill gave me that picture of him and his crew with their B-17.  He told me that day that he was the only one of those men who came back alive.

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The Memphis Belle will be open to the public – and available for flights and ground tours – this weekend on both Saturday, September 7 and Sunday, September 8 at Martin State Airport in Middle River.  Flights will take place daily between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. with ground tours after the day’s flights have ended.  Reservations to take a ride are recommended.  Information may found at the Liberty Foundation. 

The Memphis Belle offers children a hands-on history experience. (Wayne C. Countryman)
The Memphis Belle offers children a hands-on history experience. (Anthony C. Hayes)