'Memphis Belle' gunner revisits England, dies during 'final mission'

A retired U.S. Air Force master sergeant who returned to England this month for the first time in 71 years to visit the country he defended during World War II has died during his “final mission.”

Melvin Rector, 94, served in England with the 96th Bomb Group in 1945 as a radio operator and gunner on B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, including on the Memphis Belle, the first heavy bomber to compete its 25-mission tour of duty with its crew intact.

Operating out of RAF Snetterton Heath in Norfolk, Rector flew eight combat missions over Germany during the spring of the final year of the War, with his plane coming back one time dotted with bullet holes on its wings, Stars and Stripes reports.

Rector, hoping to return to the base, decided to leave his home in Barefoot Bay, Fla., to visit Britain as part of a travel program organized by the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

"He planned it for like the last six months," Darlene O'Donnell, Rector's stepdaughter, told Florida Today. "He couldn't wait to go."

Susan Jowers, who accompanied Rector on the trip, said on May 6 he stepped foot on British soil for the first time in 71 years and visited RAF Uxbridge in London.

After Rector toured the Battle of Britain bunker, a command center where airplane operations were coordinated during D-Day, he told Jowers he felt dizzy.

There, right outside the bunker, Rector quietly died on the soil where he risked his life to defend decades ago.

"He walked out of that bunker like his tour was done," Jowers told Florida Today. "He completed his final mission."

Rector's daughter, Sandy Vavruich, said he never got to visit RAF Snetterton Heath again, but “he couldn't have asked for a better way to go.”

Before his remains were sent back over the Atlantic, Jowers was honored in a special service filled with servicemen and women from the U.S. and British Armed Forces, Stars and Stripes reported. The American Embassy in London donated a flag to drape over Rector’s coffin.

"I do know of his sacrifice and his family's sacrifice, so you do him and his family a great honor by being here today,” one American serviceman said.

Rector’s funeral will be held in the U.S. at the First Baptist Church of Barefoot Bay on June 9.

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