Mighty 8th Air Force Museum’s “City of Savannah”

We had the great privilege to get a behind the scenes tour of the progress on the “City of Savannah” at the National Museum of the Mighty 8th Air Force. This is really the story of two B-17s with very different history and a humble tribute to the men who flew and maintained them, followed by a third story of determination to obtain and restore a B-17 by a dedicated group of volunteers and craftsmen in South Georgia.

During WWII, Hunter Army Air Field was abuzz with the sounds and smells of B-17s preparing for war. Newly assembled aircraft and newly trained crews were ferried to South Georgia to prepare for their journey overseas to join the war effort in Europe. Patriotic residents in Savannah Georgia/ Chatham County wanted a B-17 to call their own. Times were hard in the wartime economy, but the people tightened their belts to put forth a War Bonds Drive to raise the $500,000 required for a new B17 and the training of her crew. The fundraising goals were exceeded and a newly minted B-17G, serial number #43-39049 was dubbed the “City of Savannah” to honor the sacrifices of those who contributed. This B-17 was also the 5000th airplane processed through Hunter Field, so the Army invited the local residents to a special ceremony to thank them for their contribution and to congratulate the workers at Hunter.
original “City of Savannah” and her crew

The new airplanes and their ferry crews were not necessarily assigned to each other in the theater, and in this case the crew and “049” parted ways in the UK. Her crew was assigned to the 388th Bomb Group at Knettishall Air Base, and the ‘City of Savannah” went on to the 487th, where she never flew in combat. The original crew of 43-39049 was shot down over Germany on a Bomb run in B-17 42-97542, which they had named the “City of Savannah.” This mission resulted in the death of the tail gunner, and the survivors finished the remainder of the war as POWs. As the war in Europe came to a close, 43-39049 returned to the USA, where it was eventually scrapped, as were many others.

In the post war economy, many other newly manufactured B-17s were sent to storage and eventually scrapped, but many were also sold on the open market for various missions that this capable aircraft could perform in civilian roles.

The robust and reliable design of the Flying Fortress was well suited for high altitude mapping, photography, or cargo hauling purposes. Luckily, B-17G # 44-83814 had such a story. Produced too late in the war to see any action, her first duty was to serve as a War Memorial in North Dakota, she then went on to test the North American RADAR network, then became an aerial surveyor, and finally ended her career saving lives as a fire-bomber. After retirement in 1981, she was traded to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum for two Navy P-2 Patrol aircraft, and the Smithsonian displayed her at the Pima Air Museum. In 1984, 44-83814 flew her final flight from Pima to Washington DC for a long rest in storage.

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Thanks to Tom Janney for assistance with these pictures.

Meanwhile, back in Savannah, the Mighty 8th Museum’s visionaries were once again looking for a B17 that they could call their own. Between Judge Ben Smith, an 8th AF WWII veteran, and Dr. Walter Brown, the museum’s CEO, every rumor and lead on any B-17 that surfaced was pursued to the end. The museum made it a “mission” to find a B17 to honor the 8th Air Force history and its veterans, as well as the citizens of Savannah who contributed to the war effort.

A coincidental conversation was struck up between a museum member and a Smithsonian employee about 44-83814, still in storage in DC. This eventually led to the Mighty Eighth obtaining the airplane, on the condition that she never be flown again. 44-83814’s final mission was to serve as a tribute to the people and the original “City of Savannah.”

Volunteers from the Mighty 8th Museum rushed to the DC to disassemble and transport the Flying Fortress back to Georgia. In Jan of 2009, the doors of the museum’s rear entrance were disassembled to make room for the bomber to move inside for one last time.

Since that time, a dedicated team of volunteers have spent over 45000 man-hours on the meticulous restoration and presentation of this B-17. Craftsmen have disassembled/ cleaned/ painted/ and reassembled #3814 into a nearly perfect example of of a war ready B-17. The team’s stated goal is to have the finest example of a static B-17 display in the world.

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The aircraft has had many notable corporate sponsors for various parts, and the Museum specifically mentioned the following people and groups for this article:

1. Gulfstream Aerospace – interior painting, technical support, laser etching cockpit panels, sheet metal work, 3-D printing of various parts, several volunteers on the project.
2. LMI Corporation – control surface recovering, plexiglass pieces except nose bubble, right cheek fairing.
3. Chroma Corporation – 2 complete power supplies to provide electrical power to the aircraft.
4. Savannah Technical College – fabrication of various parts.
5. Tommy Garcia – national B-17 restoration consultant- technical advice & support, overall guidance of project, donation of various parts.
6. Dr. Harry Friedman – President of the National B-17 Co-Op – project support & guidance, donation of various parts.

We would like to thank the National Museum of the Mighty 8th Air Force and Joel Hedgpeth for their assistance with this article.

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