Belle Aire

Connection to famous war plane closer to home than you think

Just how brutal is war? Consider this: you report for combat duty in the army air corps in 1942, and you’re told 82% of you won’t make it back.

Clarence “Bill” Winchell and 10 of his crew mates beat those odds and came home to tell their harrowing World War II stories when they flew on the legendary “Memphis Belle” B-17F bomber in Europe. Even their plane survived, although it absorbed a few machine gun and flak shells.

The Belle and her crew were survivors. All aircrews called their planes “flying fortresses.” The plane and crew were featured in two films: a 1942 documentary, “The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress,” and a 1990 Hollywood feature film, Memphis Belle.”

The Memphis Belle was the first aircraft in the 8th Air Force’s European Theater of Operations to complete the required “tour” of 25 combat missions (from November 7, 1942, to May 17, 1943) and the first to return to the USA in one piece. The plane left England in June, 1943 for a War Bond and public relations tour, and has become one of the nation’s most beloved and recognizable military symbols.

Saturday, May 20, is the famous Memphis Belle’s 74th anniversary of its last combat mission. Waist gunner Clarence ‘Bill’ Winchell (far right, above) was a member of that historic crew. His daughter, Jacque Johnson, now lives in Sun City. For a celebration event on May 20, Johnson has donated several Memphis Belle memorabillia of her father’s to the local Sweet Repeats Resale Shop. (Chris La Pelusa|Sun Day Photo)

Saturday, May 20, is the famous Memphis Belle’s 74th anniversary of its last combat mission. Waist gunner Clarence ‘Bill’ Winchell (far right, above) was a member of that historic crew. His daughter, Jacque Johnson, now lives in Sun City. For a celebration event on May 20, Johnson has donated several Memphis Belle memorabillia of her father’s to the local Sweet Repeats Resale Shop. (Chris La Pelusa|Sun Day Photo)

The Belle’s wartime history has been remarkably preserved by a mission diary written by Winchell himself, who was one of two waist gunners on the plane. The crewmembers never suffered serious injuries, but they witnessed a lot of death and destruction among their fellow airmen.

Here are a couple of diary excerpts: (March 22, 1943) – “We crossed the flak-infested Friscian Islands just off the German coast. Fighters came up to meet us just after we crossed into Germany. The dogfight became progressively hotter as we headed north for our target, Wilhelmshaven. A German ME-110 slipped in on us just before we got to the target and almost shot us down, only a violent dive and evasive action threw him off. ‘Bombs away,’ now to fight our way out of here. Capt. McClellan (on another plane) was hit by fighters over the target and went down. Lt. Cliburn on our other wing hit badly in number one engine. The fighters followed us out to sea and then left us. Cliburn limped home on two engines.”

On raid no. 20 a short time later, Winchell caught a Focke Wulf German fighter in his gunsights and “poured about 50 rounds into him, saw him stall, the left wing buckled, and fell off, and he went down in a tight spin. No one to help me confirm it. One of the roughest 10 minutes of my life.”

Fast forward to 2003. Winchell’s daughter, Jacque Johnson, came to Sun City, and a connection between the famous plane and the Huntley community was born. This coming Saturday, May 20, the 74th anniversary of the plane’s last combat flight on May 20, 1943, will be celebrated with a special event at the Sweet Repeats Resale Shop on Route 47 in Huntley. Jacque is a retired elementary and middle school teacher who moved to Sun City with her second husband, Chad, in 2014.

“He and I were married in our house shortly after we came to Sun City, she said. “It was a small family gathering.”

Adding to the plane’s mystique and notoriety was its name. The plane was named by the pilot, Capt. Robert Morgan, in honor of his wartime sweetheart, Margaret Polk, a native of Memphis. According to Wikipedia, Morgan originally intended to call the aircraft, Little One, his pet name for her, but after he saw a movie in which the leading character owned a riverboat named the Memphis Belle, he proposed that name. He obtained a pinup drawing from Esquire Magazine to go with the name. The nose art eventually included 25 bomb shapes, one for each mission, and eight swastika designs, one for each German aircraft claimed shot down by the crew.

“The plane is being completely restored at the National Museum of the Air Force at Dayton, Ohio,” Jacque said. “We took a lot of memorabilia there, and they took some of it. The rest I decided to bring to Cindy, however, at Sweet Repeats. She has picked up on this, and checked things out, and she really has showed a lot of interest in the plane and its history.

“Cindy has found someone who’s interested in acquiring some of it, and she’ll find some good place for the rest, I’m sure,” Jacque said.

The memorabilia includes clothing worn by her father on missions, copies of his diary, and many pictures taken of the plane and crew during and after the war.

Jacque also said the National Museum is developing a separate area for display of the Memphis Belle.

“That entire process is expected to be completed by next spring,” she said.

According to Wikipedia, however, the Memphis Belle almost was lost to postwar neglect and vandalism. Not long after the war, the plane was bought to Memphis and put on display in a public park. The City of Memphis bought the plane for $350 in 1946. But the plane sat outdoors at various locations in and around Memphis, slowly deteriorating from weather and vandalism. In September 2004, the National Museum took control of the aircraft and started a fund-raising campaign to restore it.

“Even though he kept his diary, my father rarely talked to me or my mom about the war,” Jacque said of her father. “He was always trying to help me out of problems and issues, and to make me feel better. We traveled a lot and my dad liked to attend military shows and events.”

Winchell was a staff sergeant when he was on the Belle, and by the end of the war he became a second lieutenant and finished out the war as an armament officer in the training command. After the war, he earned an engineering degree on the GI Bill at Northwestern University, and worked many years as an industrial salesman. Before retiring he worked as a travel and insurance agent. He died in 1994 at the age of 78.”

In a 1992 press interview, he said, “I never dreamed that we would be so honored. I was no damn hero. I was just a lucky son-of-a-gun.”

Today, the Memphis Belle has come home to the National Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. But its memories and artifacts have found a home in Sun City and Huntley.

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