Young Airman Ralph Barrett had no idea what that strange looking part he had found in Memphis was, but it looked interesting so he picked it up and decided to hang onto it.
The part eventually made it to his tool box at home and remained there unseen for more than 40 years.
But according to Barrett, while cleaning out his tool box a couple of years ago, he saw the piece again and instantly remembered where it was from.
“I was in flight engineer school at the Tennessee Air National Guard in Memphis and one day in the mid-1960s I found this part laying on the ground there and thought ‘what in the world is this?’” Barrett said. “I just saw the word ‘primer’ was stamped on it and what did that mean?”
The B-17F Memphis Belle had been on display on the grounds of the Army National Guard Armory a few miles away and Air National Guardsmen would perform periodic maintenance on it, but Barrett wouldn’t make a connection between the part and the world-renowned aircraft until a few years ago when another B-17 flew into the Gallatin Airport, near Nashville, to sell rides to the public.
“That’s when I figured out what the thing really was,” said Barrett.
The part that Barrett had all these years turned out to be the Memphis Belle’s engine primer knob from the co-pilot’s side panel – something the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force had been searching for in their efforts to restore the aircraft. After seeing a documentary on the Memphis Belle on TV and doing more research online, Barrett learned that the museum was looking for original parts from the aircraft and made arrangements to turn the knob in to the museum.
According to the museum’s Restoration Chief Roger Deere, finding original parts for the Memphis Belle has been quite a challenge.
“It is rare to find original parts for World War II era aircraft, and even rarer for original parts to be returned on world famous aircraft such as the Memphis Belle,” said Deere, who is in need of many more original parts from the Memphis Belle, including the left-hand instrument panel and data plate. “We are extremely grateful to Mr. Barrett for returning the engine primer knob and would like to highly encourage others who have original Memphis Belle parts to return them as well.”
Both Deere and Barrett agree that these parts are out there and identifying them may be half the battle. Some may be forgotten or lying in one’s parents’ or grandparents’ attic, others sold in garage sales or even considered to be trash by those who are unaware of what the item really is.
For Barrett though, once he recognized what he had, it was just a matter of doing the right thing to help complete the restoration of the aircraft, and he urges others to do the same as well.
“What good is a part to somebody – it’s not like I’m going to put it on my car or my airplane or whatever,” Barrett said. “They just need to turn them in and keep the plane original.”
For more information on the Restoration Division or to donate an item, please contact the Restoration Division Chief at firstname.lastname@example.org