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World War II veterans take a flight back in history aboard the Memphis Belle

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MT. COMFORT — When the Memphis Belle returned to the United States in 1943 after completing 25 missions in the perilous skies over western Europe, the Boeing B-17 was sent on a public relations tour to tout war bonds and boost morale throughout the country. The 31-city campaign was not unlike the work being done today by her look-alike, currently sitting on the tarmac at Indianapolis Regional Airport.

The old war bird parked at Mt. Comfort is in fact not the original Memphis Belle; she’s undergoing extensive restoration at the National Museum of the United States Air Force near Dayton, Ohio. Instead, visitors this weekend can take a look inside – or even a ride in – a different B-17 painted up and reconfigured to be identical to the original.

The restoration work was done for the 1990 film about the famous plane. “Memphis Belle” starred Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz and John Lithgow and chronicled the story of the plane’s remarkable combat record. Memphis Belle was just the second plane and crew to complete all 25 of her bombing missions over German-held territory without losing a crew member. Casualty rates during that phase of the Army Air Forces’ campaign were high. A B-17 had a crew of 10, which meant staggering losses when numbers were shot down and crews couldn’t be rescued.

After filming in England, the replica Memphis Belle made her way back to the United States, where she now tours the country to remind people of the sacrifices made by the men and women who served during World War II.

“Riders are able to get up and really sense what it was like for the veterans,” said John Shuttleworth, a pilot with the Liberty Foundation. “We use it as an opportunity to open that dialogue with folks.”

For the handful of veterans assembled at the airport Monday, seeing and riding in the Memphis Belle did more than give them a sense of what it was like – she brought back vivid memories.

“They was bombing missions, every last one of them,” said George Gladden, a radar man for 35 missions aboard a B-29 in Japan during the war.

Gladden, 90, of Clayton, said he’s never forgotten the 10 months he spent in the Pacific. He said he and his crew took fire during many of their missions, some of which lasted 17 hours. But his crew never was shot down. His final mission was a bombing raid on Aug. 1, 1945, just five days before the first atomic bomb was dropped.

“This is quite the deal,” he said, watching the Memphis Belle take off at Indy Regional.

The plane is just like the half dozen other World War II vets on hand remembered. The seats were cuts of green canvas fabric hung between poles; gunner stations were on either side of the fuselage; and they had nothing but a narrow beam to cross into the cockpit and nose.

The radio desk, too, was authentic – just the way Jack Averitt remembered. Averitt, 88, of Indianapolis, was a radio operator and gunner based in China from 1944 to 1945.

“It’s been 60 years since I’ve been in one of these,” Averitt said.

Averitt, who flew 47 missions, said the B-17 was just as he remembered it, but the view was a little different.

“There’s no flak coming at us,” he said.

Averitt and his crew were no strangers to enemy fire. Getting shot at was to be expected, he said. Making it home, on the other hand, was not.

“They used to shoot at us, but they always missed me,” he said. “We never thought we’d make it back.”

Averitt said he took the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 personally. Afterward, he not only volunteered for the service, but also for combat. And he was ready to die for his country, he said.

That kind of dedication and sacrifice is what organizers want to honor, said Shuttleworth.

“It’s just awesome,” he said, “getting to hear their (veterans’) stories…”

Scoring a lease on the Memphis Belle was a stroke of good fortune for the Liberty Foundation, which lost its own B-17, the Liberty Belle, in a fire last year.

While en route to Mt. Comfort for a similar function, the Liberty Belle had to make an emergency landing in a field outside Aurora, Ill., after a fire was discovered in one engine.

All seven people on board made it out unscathed, but the same could not be said for the Liberty Belle. The field in which she landed was muddy, making it hard for fire crews to get to the scene. The plane burned to the ground, but 40 percent of the historic aircraft was salvageable and is under restoration. The rest of the pieces are being sourced from other aircraft. Shuttleworth said it will take about six years and $7 million worth of work before she’s ready to fly again.

After the fire, the foundation was without a plane to continue its education mission for about six months. He said the situation has worked out so well with the Memphis Belle, however, that the foundation plans to operate both aircraft once the Liberty Belle is back in action.

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