TAMPA — It was a joking refrain spoken with fear and bravado by hundreds of inexperienced World War II air crews who trained at what was then MacDill Field: "Once a day in Tampa Bay."
Planes crashed all the time. In September 1942 alone, 31 crews flying B-26s ditched in those warm waters.
It usually comes as a surprise to even those who think they know a good deal about the history of what is now MacDill Air Force Base to learn the name of one B-17 Flying Fortress that had a few close calls of its own at the base.
The Memphis Belle.
The virtually forgotten history of the Memphis Belle's days at MacDill may soon get a very public boost with the work of a local history and aircraft aficionado who, in a sense, rediscovered the famous aircraft's rich local ties.
Tampa businessman Charlie Brown, who volunteers at the base so often he was named an honorary chief master sergeant for life in 2005, was researching a MacDill aircraft exhibit planned for the Tampa Bay History Center this year when he hit pay dirt.
He learned the Memphis Belle was at MacDill for nearly two years starting in November 1943, after it won fame as the first aircraft to fly 25 missions in Europe and return to the United States.
The aircraft, named after the former Memphis girlfriend of pilot Robert Morgan, was the subject of a 1990 movie.
Now, the plane's local cachet is expected to be part of a History Center exhibit that will include detailed models of planes that have been stationed at MacDill during its 71-year history. The exhibit is still in the planning and research stage, and no opening date has been set.
Brown, 59, said he also has discussed with MacDill officials the possibility of one day opening an identical exhibit at a base visitor's center just off its main gate on Dale Mabry Highway. He is trying to raise up to $10,000 for the project.
And with next year marking the 70th anniversary of both the Memphis Belle's final mission and its assignment to MacDill, Brown said he is hoping a replica of the aircraft — the same B-17 used in the movie — can be scheduled for the 2013 MacDill Airfest.
"It's a good reminder that we've had a lot of historical things that have happened in our community," Brown said. "It's important for people to know the Memphis Belle was here. It was a tangible part of Tampa history."
It shows, he said, that history isn't just some dusty set of facts in textbooks.
His discovery all started late last year, Brown said, in a conversation after a visit to the Tampa Bay History Center with Chief Master Sgt. Vicki Gamble, command chief at the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill.
Gamble, who could not be reached for comment, thought it would be worthwhile to have a timeline display telling museum visitors about the major aircraft that have been assigned to MacDill since its dedication in 1941.
Center officials liked the idea, so Brown began his research.
A phone call with a writer who had written about a variety of aircraft told Brown three months ago, "You know the Memphis Belle was based in Tampa, right?"
It's hard to find someone who knows more about MacDill history than Brown, former president of the Tampa Historical Society. His father was assigned to the base for about eight years ending in 1963. MacDill is in Brown's blood.
Brown said of the Memphis Belle's MacDill days, "I didn't believe it. I had never heard that."
But Brown's skepticism soon disappeared when he got a copy of Memphis Belle — Dispelling the Myths by Graham Simons and Dr. Harry Friedman, the most-detailed account of the aircraft with a good deal of information about its time at MacDill.
The Memphis Belle was assigned to MacDill after it completed its part in a national war bond tour. Friedman said in an interview it was often the fate of warplanes returning from Europe to serve as training aircraft back in the states.
But this wasn't just another B-17. MacDill personnel often had their pictures taken standing in front of the famous aircraft. Crewmen lucky enough to actually fly it sometimes signed their names inside.
One green crew, according to an account in Friedman's book, was practicing night landings at MacDill when they got the Memphis Belle stuck in soft dirt with its tail section still sticking out over the runway.
The plane survived everything the Nazis threw against it, but an incoming bomber nearly collided with it that night, according to an account in Friedman's book.
Another time, Capt. Morgan was flying the Memphis Belle when he noticed a lawn party near MacDill.
Morgan, who died in 2004, later recounted, "I decided to buzz that party. Man, I almost set that plane down in the punch bowl. What I didn't know was that it was our commanding general who was having the … party."
Morgan was chewed out the next day.
Sam Reeves, a native of Memphis, was a ball-turret gunner in training at MacDill in 1944. He ended up flying in the Memphis Belle twice above the Gulf of Mexico to shoot at targets towed by other planes.
"It wasn't a big excitement for me," Reeves, still a Memphis resident, said in a phone interview. "It was just another B-17 to me."
Reeves, 86, remembers another aircraft more fondly. It was called the Screwball Express. It was shot down over Germany on April 5, 1945. Reeves bailed out safely and was not captured.
"If I had to pick my favorite aircraft," he said, "it was that one."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.