This famous plane got her nickname from her pilot, Robert K Morgan, who chose to name her in honor of his sweetheart, Margaret Polk. Ms. Polk was a resident of Memphis, Tennessee. Pilot Morgan initially wanted to nickname the plane Little One, which was his pet name for his love interest, but he decided to name her the Memphis Belle after the riverboat owned by the lead character in the movie Lady for a Night.
The Memphis Belle’s world-famous livery, which depicts a pinup girl facing away from onlookers, is a copy of a George Petty drawing that appeared in the April 1941 issue of Esquire magazine. It was painted onto the plane by the 91st Bomb Group’s artist, Corporal Tony Starcer. On the port side, the pinup girl is dressed in blue, whereas on the starboard side, she is resplendent in red.
In addition, the famous livery also contains a series of 25 bombs to indicate each of the missions that the Memphis Belle flew during the Second World War, as well as eight swastikas to indicate how many enemy Axis aircraft the plane shot down during her missions.
The Memphis Belle was actually the first-ever B-17 Flying Fortress ever to complete 25 combat missions and remain intact without a single crew member being lost in action. Flying 25 successful combat missions meant that the crew could return home to the United States for other military duties after their tours.
Following their tour, the Memphis Belle and her crew returned to the US, where they would travel from city to city on a promotional drive in order to sell war bonds to finance the American war effort. She was consigned to the Altus Air Force Base on August 1st, 1945, where she was to be scrapped. Luckily, the iconic airplane was quickly discovered, and the mayor of Memphis, Tennessee bought her for $350.
She was put on permanent display at the National Guard armory near the fairgrounds in Memphis. Sadly, she sat outdoors until the 1980s, with her condition deteriorating due to vandalism and exposure to the elements.
Sometime during the 1970s, the Memphis Belle was actually donated back to the US Air Force, but she was allowed to stay in Memphis on condition that she was adequately maintained. She was placed on Mud Island in the Mississippi River during the 1980s, but she was still exposed to the elements, and pigeons took a liking to leaving their mess all over her as they roosted in the flimsy tarp she was covered with.
Although the 1990s saw the Memphis Belle being immortalized in a British-American war drama movie of the same name, she still didn’t have proper funding or storage to ensure the preservation of her condition. Nevertheless, the Hollywood movie told the story of the famous B-17’s 25th and last mission before her withdrawal from combat.
During the early 2000s, the US Air Force got fed up of this American icon’s predicament (the city of Memphis never seemed to be able to find enough funding to be able to store and maintain her properly), and decided to reclaim the Memphis Belle and restore her to her original glory.
In mid-October 2005, Memphis Belle finally arrived at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. Restoration work was underway soon after, and the work was initially expected to take 8-10 years, but 12 years have elapsed and there is an estimated 14,000 hours of work that still need to go into the airplane before she’s finished.
One of the major problems that the team encountered returning this plane to her rightful state was the fact that many of her parts had long since gone out of production. This meant that a lot of parts had to be hand-fabricated or salvaged from other remaining B-17 Flying Fortresses. Making new parts without blueprints, or with just a fragment of an old part as a reference point, further complicated matters.
More than 100 volunteers have been part of the painstaking project, which has involved literally years of scraping off old paint, bending metal and fabricating parts. Presently, the Memphis Belle is still awaiting new paint, the attachment of her propellers, nose and tail before she is ready ahead of her unveiling as a centerpiece at the National Museum on May 17th, 2018 – the date that marks the 75th anniversary of when she flew her last combat mission.