Fight to preserve a 'flying treasure chest'
Activists hope to save the legendary Memphis Belle from furtherdisrepair.
MEMPHIS, TENN. — The Memphis Belle heroically flew 25 missions over Nazi-occupied territory without losing a single crew member during World War II. It was America's most celebrated aircraft upon its return to Memphis, Tenn., in 1946. Since that time, the national treasure has become a bed for the homeless and a target for pigeon droppings. The Belle currently sits under an open-air pavilion on Mud Island River Park, a popular tourist attraction here. Winter drizzle and fog enshroud the vandalism and corrosion that plague the World War II bomber. "That airplane has suffered worse in 52 years than it did in combat," says Brent Perkins, president of the Memphis Belle Association. "We aren't talking about a 1957 Chevy. We are talking about the most famous plane from the war." For the past 2-1/2 years, the association and city of Memphis have hotly debated the Belle's ownership, location, and renovation expenses - all while the plane falls into further disrepair. As more out-of-staters offer to take the Belle off Memphis's hands, the two parties may have finally worked out an arrangement. The city recently acknowledged that the US Air Force, which has entrusted the association with the Belle's care, does indeed own the plane. For years the city claimed ownership, proudly touting it as a major tourist attraction. And last week, while no definite financial amount was committed, city officials proposed four different plans for the Belle's future. The association decided to accept one of the proposals: to keep the Belle housed at Mud Island, but also to continue searching for a better location. "This is more progress than we have ever made in this fight with the city," Mr. Perkins says. "We still, though, have a long way to go." While many business leaders have finally gotten behind the plane's restoration, the association's Memphis Belle Mission 2000 Maximum Effort would still provide the majority of financing. "We have no intention of allowing the aircraft to leave Memphis if we can avoid it," says John Malmo, Memphis Park Commission chairman. "We have every reason to believe we can." Perkins certainly hopes so. For the past decade, he has fought for a museum dedicated exclusively to the Belle and the men who flew it. Savannah's Eighth Air Force Museum has shown a keen interest in displaying the plane. Barry Buxton, president of the museum, has visions of the Belle as a centerpiece for its Combat Gallery. "If we had the plane, it would be inside," says Dr. Buxton. "We want the best for the airplane regardless of its location because of its unique history." However, he concedes, "it would be nice for it to stay in Memphis." BUILT by Boeing Aircraft Co. in 1941, the Memphis Belle was named for Memphian Margaret Polk, wartime sweetheart of pilot Robert Morgan of the Eighth Air Force. The B-17 was the first bomber to complete its quota of 25 missions over Nazi-occupied territory without losing a single member. After that amazing feat, the plane and its crew toured the US, drumming up support for war efforts. Once the Belle returned to Memphis in 1946, most veterans thought its story ended happily. It didn't. For four years, the plane rotted in the Southern sun on a runway at the Memphis International Airport before a group of concerned preservationists saw the need for a rescue effort. The plane was then moved from the airport to its new home - a large concrete pedestal in front of the National Guard Armory, with only a barbed wire fence for protection. "Homeless people lived in it," Perkins says. "Vandals stole its parts. It was certainly no way to treat a historic artifact." In 1977, the armory moved and the Belle returned to an airport runway. Perkins, who has been fascinated by the Belle since he saw it in an encyclopedia as a child, visited Memphis from St. Louis to search for the plane. His discovery shocked and disgusted him. The plane had reached a pitiful state. "It was covered in bird droppings" recalls Perkins. "I found the president of the association and told him that I didn't care if I had to clean the plane with a tooth brush, I was going to clean it up. He came out and we spent 12 hours washing it." By the mid-1980s, a citywide effort stirred support for the plane when it was moved to Mud Island. Those who had stolen parts from the plane years earlier returned them to the association for the Belle's restoration. In 1990, the movie "Memphis Belle" generated renewed interest, albeit short-lived. Those who visit the plane now find its state inexcusable. "It's pathetic," says Audrey Burtrum Stanley, a World War II buff who often visits the Memphis Belle. "Pigeons leave droppings on it, the sun and rain are fading its paint, and the general condition makes your heart ache. A flying treasure chest of airmen's memories is being robbed by the elements." Perkins hopes a new and better future awaits the Belle, especially with the new-found cooperation. "The excitement has been there before for the Belle," says Perkins. "It's all about keeping that momentum and energy up. I think we all need to do that for the sake of the plane. If we don't, we won't have it for much longer."