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Robert Hanson, 85; Last Living Crewman of the Memphis Belle

Obituaries

October 10, 2005|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Robert Hanson, the last surviving member of the storied Memphis Belle B-17 bomber crew, which was the first to fly 25 bombing missions in Europe during World War II, has died. He was 85.

Hanson, the radio operator of the famed aircraft, died Oct. 1 in Albuquerque of congestive heart failure.

The exploits of the B-17 were detailed in a 1944 documentary "The Memphis Belle," made by William Wyler. Its final mission was recalled in a fictionalized 1990 feature film "Memphis Belle."

Hanson, addressing his grandson's high school class after the feature film was released, was asked if everything in the movie actually happened.

"No, it didn't all happen to the Memphis Belle," he told the class, "but everything in the movie happened to some B-17."

In 1989, Hanson had accompanied pilot Robert Morgan and other crew members to Binbrook Royal Air Force base in England to meet with the young cast of the movie.

"They're not quite as good-looking as we were," said Hanson, known for cracking jokes and his happy-go-lucky nature, "but they are young and enthusiastic -- exactly like we were."

Hanson was a construction worker in Spokane, Wash., when he joined the Army in 1941 -- three months before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, drawing the U.S. into World War II. During his training at Walla Walla, Wash., he was assigned to the Memphis Belle.

The "Flying Fortress," as the giant bombers were called, and its 10-man crew flew to England, their wartime base, in September 1942. Between Nov. 7 and May 17, 1943, they flew 148 hours and dropped more than 60 tons of bombs over Germany and France.

They were credited with shooting down eight enemy aircraft and five "probables," and damaging a dozen more. Four members of the original crew died in combat as the plane was hit by cannon and machine-gun fire.

Although Hanson and the rest of the crew survived unscathed to become early war heroes, they had several close calls.

"When we got the tail shot off, Capt. Morgan put the ship into a terrific dive and we dropped two- or three-thousand feet. It pretty nearly threw me out of the airplane," Hanson recalled on the Memphis Belle Memorial Assn. Inc. website.

"I hit the roof. I thought we were going down and wondered if I should bail out. Then he pulled up again and I landed on my back. I had an ammunition box and a frequency meter on top of me. I didn't know what was going on."

On another bombing run, Hanson was writing in a logbook when he sneezed, jerking his head. A bullet missed him when he moved, and instead hit the log book, which he kept the rest of his life.

At that early point in the war, Morgan told filmmakers in 1989, the Allies were losing 82% of their planes and men. He attributed the Belle's survival to teamwork and luck -- which Hanson courted by carrying a lucky rabbit's foot.

After the Belle became the first bomber to complete 25 missions, it also became the first sent into retirement. But prior to that, the plane and its crew were ordered on a special mission -- to tour the United States, rallying support and encouraging the purchase of war bonds.

When the Belle landed at Long Beach on Aug. 19, 1943, it generated rousing cheers from thousands of Douglas Aircraft Co. workers, who built B-17s.

The nearly 75-foot-long airplane's best-known motif was the scantily clad "Memphis Belle" on its nose, named for Morgan's girlfriend and copied from a 1941 painting in Esquire magazine by George Petty. But by its goodwill tour, the plane had added other decorations -- 25 orange-colored bombs for its missions and eight swastikas for the Nazi planes it shot down.

"The old girl really went through hell," the pilot told aircraft workers in 1943. "She's had to have a whole new wing, a new tail, a new landing gear and nine new engines.... Why, one time we came back with 62 gashes in her."

Each crew member, including Tech. Sgt. Hanson, received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal and three Oak Leaf Clusters.

At the 1943 ceremonies on the steps of Los Angeles' now-razed State Building on 1st Street, Gov. Earl Warren praised the crew for "doing more than a war job."

"You're helping change the character of the world," said the future U.S. chief justice, "knitting it closer together through the ocean of the air."

After the war, Hanson became a salesman and later regional manager for Nalley Fine Foods in Walla Walla. He also worked for a candy company in Spokane before retiring to Mesa, Ariz., and recently moving to Albuquerque.

Alluding to his wartime duty as a radio operator, he ended his phone conversations throughout his life with the Morse Code sign-off of "dit, dit, dit, dah, dit, dah."

In 1946, the city of Memphis, Tenn., for which the bomber was named, rescued the Flying Fortress from a virtual scrapheap in Altus, Okla. Memphis had hoped to preserve and display the plane in its own museum. But in 2004, unable to raise necessary funds, the Memorial Assn. relinquished permanent control to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where it will be displayed after restoration.

Hanson is survived by his wife of 63 years, Irene; a daughter, Mary Black of Albuquerque; a son, Richard of Spokane; a brother, Harold of Los Angeles; a half-sister, Ann Blatt of Arlington, Wash.; and six grandchildren.

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