Last Survivor of the Memphis Belle dies

Sorry to hear that , but surprised he was the last member still alive. I thought when Morgan died, most of the crew were still around, and very interested in the rebuilding work currently going on , on the "Belle"

Sad news indeed.
Robert Hanson

(Filed: 18/10/2005)

Robert Hanson, who has died in Albuquerque, New Mexico, aged 85, was the last surviving crew member of the Memphis Belle, perhaps the most celebrated aircraft of the Second World War.

Between November 1942 and May 1943 the Belle, a B-17, became the first American bomber to complete 25 missions over Occupied Europe and to return safely to the United States. At the time, the USAAF squadrons based in Britain - the Eighth Air Force - were conducting daylight raids without adequate fighter escort, and three in four aircraft were being lost within three months of entering combat. In all, 30,000 servicemen of the "Mighty Eighth" were to perish by the war's end.

The survival of the Memphis Belle was thus seen as a considerable fillip to morale, one exploited to full effect by the documentary-maker William Wyler, whose film of the crew in action enshrined the courage of ordinary young Americans. Hanson, the radio operator, and Bob Morgan, the aircraft's pilot, attributed their continued existence to two more prosaic factors: teamwork and sheer luck.

The crew of 10 had come together in the summer of 1942, and after the flight across the Atlantic were based with 324th Bomb Squadron at Bassingbourn, near Royston, Cambridgeshire. The B-17, or "Flying Fortress", was the USAAF's principal striking arm of the war, distinguished by its near 104-ft wingspan and protective armament of 13 Browning machine-guns distributed around the aircraft. The average age of a B-17's complement was 22.

That of the Memphis Belle named theirs for Morgan's girlfriend of the time, and had its nose decorated by a seductively-clad beauty copied from one of George Petty's lubricious paintings for Esquire. Hanson, meanwhile, inscribed the name of his new bride, Irene, by the window where he sat amidships.

Their first raid, on November 7, was on the dockyards at Brest. The main objective of the USAAF at the time was to hinder the German U-boat effort, and most of the Belle's other missions, carried out roughly every 10 days, were to the ports of France, Belgium and Germany. The defence was fierce, but in fact the most reckless of the Eighth's raids, such as those on the aircraft plants at Schweinfurt and Regensburg, in which one in six B-17s were destroyed, did not take place until after the Belle had finished her tour.

Hanson carried a rabbit's foot for luck, and on one occasion was writing in a logbook during a raid when he suddenly felt cold and sneezed. As he jerked downwards, a bullet passed through the air where his head had been and lodged in the book.

On January 23 1943, the squadron bombed the submarine pens at Lorient, France. By now, the German fighter pilots had discovered that the "Forts" were vulnerable to a head-on attack. They picked on the group of aircraft in which the Belle was flying, and for 25 minutes subjected it to constant assault. When an FW-190 came straight at him, Morgan was unable to dive because of B-17s below him, and was forced to pull up into the cannon-shell stream being directed at his aircraft. It blew the tail off, and set the Belle alight.

Morgan's only hope was to set the nose straight down in the hope of extinguishing the flames. As Morgan dived several thousand feet at high speed, Hanson was flung against the roof and then almost out of the gaping back of the aircraft; but the tactic worked, and the bomber was able to return safely to base. On another occasion, she landed bearing 68 separate rips in her fabric. For their part, the Belle's crew accounted for a total of eight Luftwaffe fighters and five more "probables".

Wyler's film The Memphis Belle (1944), which established the crew's fame when shown widely in the United States, was billed as a record of their 25th mission. In fact, he and his cameraman had flown on the penultimate raid, to Wilhelmshaven, and the documentary also incorporated footage shot at other times.

After successfully completing their last run, to Lorient, on May 17, and after 148 hours in combat, the crew was introduced first to the King and Queen, and then sent on a 32-city tour of America to raise spirits and sell war-bonds; they were accompanied by their mascot, a Highland terrier named Stuka. Hanson, in common with the rest, was awarded the US Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf clusters.

Robert John Hanson was born on May 25 1920. His mother died when he was young, and as his father, a road builder, was often absent, Bob and his two brothers were placed in an orphanage. From there they were rescued by a bachelor uncle who raised them at Garfield, Washington, where Bob became a star athlete at high school.

He won a baseball scholarship to university, but chose instead to go out to work, and in the summer of 1941 enlisted in the US Army. Determined not to become an infantryman, after the attack on Pearl Harbor he volunteered for radio training and transferred to the Air Force.

After returning home in 1943, he spent the remainder of the war as a radio instructor. When peace came, he found work as the district manager of, first, a food company and then a sweets manufacturer at Spokane, Washington. The Memphis Belle was kept on show in Memphis, and is soon to move to the National Air Force Museum at Dayton, Ohio. In 1990 Hanson and the other survivors were flown to England to advise on a fictional remake of Memphis Belle, starring Matthew Modine, Billy Zane and Harry Connick Jr.

A family man, with a high sense of ethics and a fondness for laughter, Hanson enjoyed golf and square dancing in retirement. To the end, he liked to finish telephone conversations with the wartime Morse Code sign-off: dit, dit, dit, dah, dit, dah. He died on October 1.


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