Robert Hanson

Robert Hanson, Memphis Belle crewman

Born: 1920, in Walla Walla, Washington. Died: 1 October, 2005, in Albuquerque, aged 85.

ROBERT Hanson was the last surviving member of the now famous Memphis Belle B-17 bomber crew, which was the first to fly 25 bombing missions in Europe during the Second World War.

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 fictionalised 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, the aircraft's radio operator, had accompanied Robert Morgan, the pilot, and other crew members to Binbrook Royal Air Force base, in England, to meet with the young cast of the film.

"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, Washington, when he joined the army in 1941 - three months before Japan bombed Pearl Harbour, drawing the US into the Second World War. During his training at Walla Walla, in Washington State, he was assigned to the Memphis Belle.

The "Flying Fortress", as the giant bombers were called, and its ten-man crew flew to England, their wartime base, in September 1942. Between 7 November and 17 May, 1943, they flew 148 hours and dropped more than 60 tonnes 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, Captain Morgan put the ship into a terrific dive and we dropped 2,000 or 3,000ft. It pretty nearly threw me out of the airplane," Hanson recalled on the Memphis Belle Memorial Association 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 for the rest of his life.

At that early point in the war, Morgan told filmmakers in 1989, the Allies were losing 82 per cent 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 19 August, 1943, it generated rousing cheers from thousands of Douglas Aircraft workers, who built the B-17s.

The nearly 75-foot-long aircraft's best-known motif was the scantily clad "Memphis Belle" on its nose, named for Morgan's girlfriend, Margaret, 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-coloured bombs for its missions and eight swastikas for the Luftwaffe 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. One time we came back with 62 gashes in her."

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

After the war, Hanson became a salesman and later regional manager for a food distribution company. He also worked for a confectionery company in Spokane before retiring to Arizona, and recently moving to Albuquerque.

Alluding to his 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, for which the bomber was named, rescued the Flying Fortress from a virtual scrapheap in Oklahoma. Memphis had hoped to preserve and display the plane in its own museum. But in 2004, unable to raise necessary funds, the Memorial Association relinquished permanent control to the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, where it will be displayed after restoration.

Hanson is survived by his wife of 63 years, Irene; a daughter, a son a brother, a half-sister and six grandchildren.