Historic Airplanes: A Reliquary for the Spirit and Soul of Their Crews

By Scott Spangler on November 23rd, 2015

MB Crew

NAHA-158The men who united as a crew in the vertical war over Europe after Pearl Harbor have all since surrendered, as we all must one day, to time. Its last living member, radio operator Robert Hanson, passed into history in 2005 at age 85. But their spirits and souls live on in the reliquary that fused their individual personalities into historic airplanes like the Memphis Belle.

Standing before its wingless fuselage in the crowded restoration hangar of the National Museum of the United States Air Force, under its iconic nose art I see the crew of the Memphis Belle, men just past 20, bundled up in sheepskin and thick coveralls. They are, from left, Harold Loch, Cecil Scott, Robert Hanson, James Verinis, Robert Morgan, Charles Leighton, John Quinlan, Casmer Nastal, Vincent Evans, and Clarence Winchell.

Portrayed in an eponymous motion picture, Hollywood history has confused the significance of what these men achieved in the Memphis Belle. It was not the historic airplane before me that successfully flew 25 missions, it was the team that gave it life. Consistent through all the history of the era I’ve read, including The Man Who Flew the Memphis Belle, written by Robert Morgan and Ron Powers in 2001, daylight bombing early in the war endured an 80-percent casualty rate.

Facing such odds, to sustain morale the 8th Air Force said a crewman could go home after completing 25 missions. With a few substitutions between its first mission to the sub pens at Brest, France, on November 7, 1942, and its 25th mission to the sub pens at Lorient, France, on May 17, 1943, the men of the Belle were the first to achieve the goal as a crew of 10. The crew had an 11th member on its last five missions, William Wyler, who filmed and directed the wartime documentary of the crew’s accomplishments.

NAHA-147During that six-month span, the members of that crew changed. The top turret was occupied by three different engineer/gunners. The first, Leviticus “Levy” Dillon, flew missions 1, 2, 3, and 5. On the third he was shot in the leg. He did not report the wound that was bandaged by the sister of Fred Astaire, who was a nurse. After the fifth mission, the Army transferred him to the 306th Bomb Group, which was probably in dire need of his combat experience.

Eugene Adkins took his place in the top turret, where he flew missions 6 through 10, when frozen fingers grounded him. Harold Loch joined the crew for the Belle’s mission to Hamm, Germany, on Valentine’s Day 1943. That turret is now fully restored to its 1943 configuration and awaiting its reunion with the fuselage, and no words adequately convey the emotions felt when peering into this confining dome framed by the breeches of two .50 caliber Browning’s.

And one wonders what emotions filled the mind of right waist gunner Scott Miller, who flew his first 15 missions on the Belle before his experience was needed on another crew. Because he had not fulfilled the 25-mission requirement, he did not join the crew for its 26th mission, a war bond tour of the United States. That position was filled by Casmer “Tony” Nastal, who made but one combat mission on the Belle, after flying 24 raids on other Flying Fortresses.

The Belle herself only flew 21 combat missions. Her crew manned other B-17s, including the Jersey Bounce, Bad Penny, and The Great Speckled Bird, because the Memphis Belle was recovering from combat wounds. Cared for by the maintenance crew led by Joe Giambrone, they replaced both wings, both main landing gear, nine engines, and the tail (twice).

NAHA-156The crew’s 26th mission, to sell the bonds that helped fund the war effort, lasted three months. Between June and August 1943 they flew the Memphis Belle to 31 cities, including Dayton, Ohio, where they met Orville Wright. The airplane returned to Dayton in 2005, where the restoration crew at the Air Force museum started work.

Restoring the B-17F to its configuration of its last mission will hide some of the history the airplane acquired during its 26th mission. Scratched into the aluminum around the tail gunner’s position are the names and ranks of the men who serviced the airplane on its war bond tour. But each of them will be visually documented before the airplane is repainted and put on display, which is scheduled for 2018, the 75th anniversary of the Memphis Belle’s final combat mission.

NAHA-154Closely inspecting the metal of this tiny tail-end cubicle I looked for the patch that covered the hole made by the piece of flak that scratched the leg of tail gunner John Quinlan. Of the 51 decorations, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, presented to the crew, he was the only one to receive the Purple Heart. I couldn’t find it.

As an airplane, the Memphis Belle, is an insignificant artifact, one of thousands employed in a time long past. What makes this historic airplane important and meaningful to those of us who see it today is learning about—and appreciating—the spirit, soul, and sacrifice of the people who brought it to life and weaving its lessons into the decisions that determine the history we write daily. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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3 Responses to “Historic Airplanes: A Reliquary for the Spirit and Soul of Their Crews”

  1. Mel C Says:

    What an amazing story!! I am sharing with my current and former Civil Air Patrol Squadron’s in KY, TX, and MD as an Aerospace Education topic. I look forward to receiving each installment of Jet Whine. Great job!

    Mel Chapman, CAPT
    Civil Air Patrol – USAF Auxiliary
    Deputy Commander, KY-216

  2. Stu Sibitzky Says:

    As a former B52 tail gunner, I am absolutely in awe of the B17/B24 aircrews.

  3. Scott Spangler Says:

    By e-mail I heard from Dale Burnside, a volunteer who is helping restore the Belle at the National Museum United States Air Force.

    “I found your recent article on the Memphis Belle very interesting. I am one of the volunteers working on the restoration of the Belle, specifically the turrets, tail gun position, and the pilots instrument panel.

    “While most of your article seemed accurate, I would respectfully suggest you recheck the number of missions the aircraft completed. My sources tell me that the aircraft also completed 25 missions, but not all were with the original crew.

    “In regards to the tail gun section damage, the entire tail gun cone was replaced during the 25 missions. We have a photo of the original showing considerable damage from flak. The second tail gun section, the one we have,was used in the later missions. While on display at Memphis, the tail section, being lowest, was subject to water damage and corrosion, and several of the lower panels were replaced.

    “Please keep in mind that I am not an official source of news for the Memphis Belle (the Public Relations Staff has that covered), but I always enjoy reading about the Memphis Belle and her courageous crew.”

    Thanks, Dale. On my next visit to the museum I’ll dig into the number of missions the airplane made. I’m sure its logs are in the archives.

    Scott

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