DAYTON, Ohio — Robert K. Morgan Jr.’s voice wavered with emotion when he talked about seeing the Memphis Belle all put together for the first time in 50 years.
His father, Robert Sr., had flown the legendary B-17F on 25 perilous bombing missions in World War II and worked the rest of his life to make sure the airplane was preserved.
The famed “Flying Fortress,” looking better than new, was put on public display Thursday morning after a restoration project that took more than a dozen years and 55,000 hours of labor at the National Museum of U.S. Air Force.
“Dad would be so proud,” said the 72-year-old Morgan, who lives in San Francisco. “I wish he were here. It means everything to me and my family. He’s here in spirit.”
Morgan traveled to Ohio along with families of the other Memphis Belle crew for a private unveiling of the plane Wednesday night and the public opening of the exhibit Thursday at the sprawling museum near Dayton.
The debut came on the 75th anniversary of the Belle’s 25th and final combat mission of the war. Soon after the museum opened at 9 a.m., hundreds of people gathered around the exhibit trying to get the best angle of the famous plane for cellphone photos.
The Memphis Belle was trucked to the museum in corroded pieces in 2005 after efforts to restore it in Memphis ran out of money and steam. It had been displayed outdoors in its namesake city for decades after the war and was in bad shape due to weather and vandalism.
“I promised him when he was dying 14 years ago that I would do anything I could to keep the plane alive,” Morgan said. “He knew before he passed that the plane was going to come to the museum, he knew that we couldn’t keep it in Memphis. And he knew it would be preserved here, he knew it would be restored here. He was extremely glad that it would be here.”
The Memphis Belle was feted as the first B-17 to complete 25 missions and return to the U.S. at a time when most crews in the strategic daylight bombing campaign were lucky to make it to a dozen.
The Belle wasn’t the first B-17 to make the requisite 25 missions, it just happened to be the one that became famous, thanks to newspaper reporters and Hollywood director William Wyler, who decided to build a documentary around the last mission.
A wildly successful 32-city war bond tour around America in the summer of 1943 made national celebrities out of the airplane and crew. Wyler’s 1944 documentary cemented the legacy, and a 1990 movie introduced it to a new generation.
The Belle, with the leggy, swimsuit-clad pinup girl freshly repainted on both sides of the nose, is displayed suspended above the museum floor as if in mid-flight, with bomb-bay doors wide open.
James P. Verinis, 48, came from South Kingstown, Rhode Island, to see the Belle. His father, Capt. James A. Verinis, flew missions on it as co-pilot and later commanded his own B-17.
“I look at it,” Verinis said, “and I wonder if it ever looked this beautiful.”