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‘It took my breath away’: Memphis Belle unveiled at AF museum

The reborn Memphis Belle was unveiled Wednesday night before hundreds including the families of crewmen who flew the famed Army Air Forces bomber into history.

Under theatrical lighting and uplifted above the ground by three metal poles, the Memphis Belle was surrounded by a strategic bombing exhibit with cases filled with artifacts, many personal items of the crewmen who flew aboard the four-engine bomber on the perilous journeys.

Robert K. Morgan Jr., 72, of San Francisco, son of the late pilot Robert K. Morgan who died in 2004, wore his father’s silver wings and a bracelet he kept during the war.

“It means everything to me and my family that he’s here in spirit,” he said. “It’s just one of those once-in-a-lifetime things.”

The Memphis Belle made history as the first U.S. Army Air Forces heavy bomber to survive 25 bombing missions over Germany and occupied France and return to the United States in 1943.

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PHOTOS: 13 years and 55,000 hours of work restored Memphis Belle

Lt. Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, Air Force director of staff and a keynote speaker at the unveiling, said the iconic bomber was at its final duty station and stood as both a symbol of the sacrifice of thousands of airmen in the skies of Europe and the might of the American industry in World War II that produced more than 300,000 aircraft during the war.

“It’s almost overwhelming. It’s almost tearful,” she said of the unveiling of the plane. “When the curtain came down and you saw her and the thousands of hours it took to restore her back to life. She is serving her final duty station to educate America on the sacrifices that our Army Air Corps men and women had in World War II.”

Linda Morgan, 72, of Crane Hill, Ala., and widow of Robert Morgan Sr., said the restored bomber “took my breath away.”

“I’ve seen pictures of that plane when it was in tatters and this, it looks better than when it came out of the factory,” she said in an interview with reporters.

Since 2005, restorers and volunteers have labored over 55,000 hours to restore the famed aircraft to its wartime look.

“After all the years, we’re almost there,” museum curator Jeff Duford said hours before the unveiling. “It’s almost surreal.”

“…What we get from this is an iconic touchstone that people can learn from,” said museum historian Doug Lantry.

Catherine Wyler, daughter of film director William Wyler who produced a 1944 documentary on the Belle and herself was a co-producer of a 1990 movie about the plane, appeared at the Belle’s debut.

“I think it’s fabulous … this is such a dramatic way to show it,”said Wyler, of Washington, D.C. “… I have a very sentimental attachment, not only because of my father, but also because of the film I made.”

Three B-17s and five P-51s flew over the museum in formation Wednesday in a salute to the World War II bomber.

A public ribbon-cutting for the Belle and a new exhibit of personal artifacts of the crewmen, part of a strategic bombing exhibit, was set for Thursday, the 75th anniversary of the crews final mission.

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