WWII bomber Memphis Belle draws thousands at Air Force museum

The Memphis Belle, made famous in two Hollywood films, was the first U.S. Army Air Forces heavy bomber to complete 25 missions over Europe and return to the United States in 1943.

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Alison and Chris Hoglan traveled to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, from St. Louis to see a legend reborn Thursday.

The mother and son were in a crowd of hundreds who watched a ribbon-cutting to the new B-17 Memphis Belle exhibit, showcasing the historic bomber’s 25 missions over Europe in World War II and the role of strategic bombing in the U.S. victory.

“She’s gorgeous,” said Alison Hoglan, 57.

Chris Hoglan thought the plane looked as if it had taken off and was midflight.

“I really like the way they displayed it with the landing gear up,” he said. “It was worth the trip.”

The ribbon-cutting Thursday morning made the opening of the exhibit official, after the Belle was revealed in a private ceremony for about 1,000 people and family members of the late crew Wednesday night. And after a formation flyover of the museum Wednesday, four World War II-era planes — two B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, a P-51 Mustang fighter and a PT-19 trainer were expected to land on the museum airstrip Thursday morning and remain on static display throughout the day.

Thomas Harrington, 12, a fan of the Memphis Belle, traveled with his family from Northhampton, England, to help cut the ribbon Thursday in front of the famous bomber. “It’s amazing how they have restored it in such good condition,” he said.

Linda Morgan, 72, of Crane Hill, Alabama, the widow of Robert Morgan Sr., got her first look at the restored bomber at Wednesday night’s ceremony. The Belle, she said, “took her breath away.”

“I’ve seen pictures of that plane when it was in tatters and this, it looks better than when it came out of the factory,” she said in an interview with reporters.

Brian Pecon, president of the Memphis Belle Memorial Association, waited decades for the moment. The Belle was brought to the museum in 2005 from Tennessee after a fundraising attempt failed to meet its goal to fully restore and display the plane in Memphis.

“When they dropped that curtain yesterday it was truly awe-inspiring,” Pecon said Thursday. “It didn’t bring tears, but was a great emotional release.”

Glenn Legnon, 72, trekked from Lebanon, Tennessee, to see the spectacle.

“I think it was a good decision (to move the plane to the museum) because the aircraft had deteriorated so much in Memphis,” he said. “It took them from 2005 until now to get it restored.”

Since 2005, aircraft restorers and volunteers have painstakingly researched and labored to restore the famed aircraft to its wartime look, said museum director John “Jack” Hudson.

Parts of the museum grounds look like a military encampment, with more than 160 re-enactors and dozens of military and civilian vehicles as part of festivities through Saturday.

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