Story and photos by Chris Basham
The "Memphis Belle," a B-17F "Flying Fortress," became the first U.S. Army Air Forces heavy bomber to complete 25 successful raids over Europe as of May, 1943. Only 12 World War II-era B-17s are still airworthy, today, and less than half of those tour the country. This weekend, you can tour a restored "Memphis Belle," and ride in it, for an exciting and informative flight over the skies of Baltimore, Md.
The actual "Memphis Belle" is undergoing restoration efforts at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, for eventual display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. The plane visiting Baltimore's Martin State Airport this Saturday and Sunday was manufactured near the end of the war, and did not see combat. It did, however, spend a month at Andrews Air Force Base in 1948, redesignated as VB-17G (staff transport) for Headquarters, Strategic Air Command. The plane was surplussed in 1959, sold to a private company and used as a "water bomber" until 1982, when it was purchased by former B-17 pilot David Tallichet and restored.
Tallichet had it painted to match the original "Memphis Belle," and the plane was used in the filming of the 1990 film about the "Memphis Belle's" historic wartime accomplishments. Since then, the plane has traveled across the nation as part of a fleet of World War II-era aircraft, with a mission to educate the public about the great sacrifices and crucial victory of Allied forces in World War II. Volunteer pilots with the Liberty Foundation, many of whom are active duty service members or veterans, donate their time to transport the plane, lead free, hands-on tours for the public and offer half-hour flights for those able to pay $450 per seat.
"As a kid, the whole reason I got into flying was World War II airplanes," said Liberty Foundation volunteer pilot John Ferguson of Herndon, Va. "It's a dream come true. And it's about honoring veterans, remembering the sacrifices they made in World War II. They did everything for us."
Some of those brave men who flew, fought and risked their lives in bombing raids over Europe seven decades ago are still here to talk about what they did. Earlier this week, two local veterans were on hand at Martin State Airport to see the restored "Memphis Belle" arrive.
B-24 veteran Larry A. Hilte of Towson, Md. was just 18 years old in 1944 when he became a ball turret gunner. He went on to fly 25 missions as a corporal in the Army Air Corps.
"It was scary as hell, going down the runway," Hilte remembered. "The engineer had to go into the top turret and guide the pilot, so it wouldn't go into ditches."
Chosen for his slight build, Hilte was packed into the ball turret for each flight wearing a harness for a parachute, without the parachute attached.
"As soon as we got up in the air, I got in the turret and they locked me in. I couldn't get out by myself. If I had to bail out, they were supposed to let me out and hand me a parachute. There wasn't room for it inside the turret! If I'd had to bail out, it would have been tough luck," Hilte said. "I was in the bottom of the plane, and the German air force always came from underneath."
Hilte credited "wingtip to wingtip" formation flying with making it harder for German planes to attack. He also praised African American pilots of the time.
"The Red Tails were the best we had. When the Tuskegee Airmen were with us, we didn't lose anyone," Hilte said.
Former Tech. Sgt. Joe Burdis of Carroll County, Md. brought his granddaughter, grandson-in-law and great-grandsons to see the "Memphis Belle," and show them the sort of plane he served in as a radio operator/gunner in the 388th Bomb Group, 3rd Division on 35 missions out of England between April and Oct. 1944.
"It was very cold and hazardous duty, 50 degrees below zero all the way, for eight to 10 hours at a time," Burdis said of his runs deep into Germany and Occupied Europe.
"We knew why we were there, and what it was all about. It was a job that had to be done, you know," Burdis said. "The losses were tremendous at the time period that I was over there."
Burdis participated in the D-Day landings, bombed Berlin three times, and in his most hazardous mission attacked the ball bearing plants of Schweinfurt, Germany. Over a 12-and-a-half hour mission, "we lost about a third of our group: Eighteen planes," said Burdis. "We lost an engine and some men on board. It was a job to do, and we set out to get it done. I'm kind of pleased they're still flying several of them. You never forget those days."
Burdis' granddaughter Loni Smith grew up listening to Burdis tell his stories of the war, an experience she feels few young people today have the chance to gain in ordinary life. She brought her sons from York, Pa. to accompany her grandfather to the airport and explore the "Memphis Belle."
"I think this really gives you an appreciation," Smith said. "I'm a school principal, and I think this is becoming lost. The young people don't know anything about it."
The "Memphis Belle" will be at Martin State Airport, 701 Wilson Point Road, Middle River, Md. this Saturday and Sunday. To book a flight, visit www.libertyfoundation.org. Paid flights will be scheduled between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. each day. After 2 p.m., visitors can explore the "Memphis Belle" on the ground, for free, although donations are accepted to provide for the costs of upkeep and fuel.