Robert Hanson, the last surviving crew member of the famed “Memphis Belle,” died on Oct. 1 of congestive heart failure. He was 85.
The native of Walla Walla, Wash., joined the military in 1941. After completing his training, Hanson was assigned to be the radio operator on a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress known as the “Memphis Belle.” That aircraft made history for flying 148 hours and dropping more than 60 tons of bombs on the enemy.
Despite suffering some close calls in battle, the Belle was the first 8th Air Force World War II bomber to complete 25 combat missions — many in daylight — over Europe and still return to the United States intact. All of the Belle’s major parts were replaced at least once during its two-year tour. Four of its crew died in combat.
Hanson, who kept the bomber’s logbook, was almost killed on a mission. A bullet pierced the plane’s walls and headed right for his head. At that exact moment, Hanson sneezed and the bullet hit the logbook instead. Hanson also wrote his girlfriend’s name (Irene) on the wall of the Belle so the military would know who to contact in case he died. The couple later wed, and remained married for 63 years.
The Belle’s final mission was completed on May 17, 1943. Upon its triumphant return to the U.S., the crew embarked on a 30-city tour to boost morale and help sell war bonds. The exploits of the Belle gained renewed attention in 1990 when Hollywood produced a feature film about the bomber and her crew. The preserved remains of the actual plane were declared a national historic treasure by the Air Force. They’re currently in the process of being moved to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.
Hanson returned to Washington state after the war and worked as a salesman for a food distribution company. Friends say he would often end his phone conversations with the phrase “dit-dit-dit-dah-dit-dah,” which is how radio operators sign off in Morse code.