Soaring Above Europe: The Memphis Belle

Memphis Belle was the nickname of a B-17F Flying Fortress during the Second World War that inspired the making of two motion pictures: a 1944 documentary film, Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, and a 1990 Hollywood feature film, Memphis Belle. It was the first U.S. Army Air Forces heavy bomber to complete 25 combat missions. The plane and crew then returned to the United States to sell war bonds. The original airplane is undergoing extensive restoration at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

Combat history

The Memphis Belle, a Boeing-built B-17F-10-BO, serial 41-24485, was added to the USAAF inventory on July 15, 1942, and delivered in September 1942 to the 91st Bomb Group at Dow Field, Bangor, Maine. It deployed to Prestwick, Scotland, on September 30, 1942, to a temporary base at RAF Kimbolton on October 1, and then to its permanent base at Bassingbourn, England, on October 14. Each side of its fuselage bore the unit identification markings of the 324th Bomb Squadron (Heavy)

Captain Robert Morgan’s crew flew 29 combat missions with the 324th Bomb Squadron, all but four in the Memphis Belle. The aircraft’s 25 missions were:

* November 7, 1942 – Brest, France
* November 9, 1942 – St. Nazaire, France
* November 17, 1942 – St. Nazaire
* December 6, 1942 – Lille, France
* December 20, 1942* – Romilly-sur-Seine, France
* December 30, 1942 – Lorient (flown by Lt. James A. Verinis)
* January 3, 1943 – St. Nazaire
* January 13, 1943 – Lille
* January 23, 1943 – Lorient, France
* February 14, 1943 – Hamm, Germany
* February 16, 1943 – St. Nazaire
* February 27, 1943* – Brest
* March 6, 1943 – Lorient
* March 12, 1943 – Rouen, France
* March 13, 1943 – Abbeville, France
* March 22, 1943 – Wilhemshaven
* March 28, 1943 – Rouen
* March 31, 1943 – Rotterdam, Netherlands
* April 16, 1943 – Lorient
* April 17, 1943 – Bremen, Germany
* May 1, 1943 – St. Nazaire
* May 13, 1943 – Meaulte, France (flown by Lt. C.L. Anderson)
* May 14, 1943 – Kiel, Germany (flown by Lt. John H. Miller)
* May 15, 1943 – Wilhelmshaven
* May 17, 1943 – Lorient
* May 19, 1943* – Kiel (flown by Lt. Anderson)

* Sources disagree on which two of these three missions the Memphis Belle received mission credits for.

Morgan’s crew completed the following missions in B-17s other than the Memphis Belle:

* February 4, 1943 – Emden, Germany (in B-17 DF-H 41-24515 Jersey Bounce)
* February 26, 1943 – Wilhelmshaven (in B-17 41-24515)
* April 5, 1943 – Antwerp, Belgium (in B-17 41-24480 Bad Penny)
* May 4, 1943 – Antwerp (in B-17 41-24527, The Great Speckled Bird)

The aircraft was then flown back to the United States on June 8, 1943, by a composite crew chosen by Eighth Air Force from those who had flown combat in it, led by Capt. Morgan, for a 31-city war bond tour. Morgan’s original co-pilot was Capt. James A. Verinis, who himself piloted the Memphis Belle for one mission. Verinis was promoted to aircraft commander of another B-17 for his final sixteen missions and finished his tour on May 13. He rejoined Morgan’s crew as co-pilot for the flight back to the United States.

Namesake

The plane was named for pilot Robert K. Morgan’s sweetheart, Margaret Polk, a resident of Memphis, Tennessee. Morgan originally intended to call the plane Little One, after his pet name for her, but after Morgan and his copilot, Jim Verinis, saw the movie Lady for a Night, in which the leading character owns a riverboat named the Memphis Belle, he proposed that name to his crew. Morgan then contacted George Petty at the offices of Esquire magazine and asked him for a pinup drawing to go with the name, which Petty supplied from the magazine’s April 1941 issue.

The 91st’s group artist Corporal Tony Starcer reproduced the famous Petty girl nose art on both sides of the forward fuselage, depicting her suit in blue on the aircraft’s port side and in red on its starboard. The nose art later included 25 bomb shapes, one for each mission credit, and 8 swastika designs, one for each German plane claimed shot down by the crew of the Memphis Belle. Station and crew names were stencilled below station windows on the aircraft after its tour of missions was completed.

Postwar history

In his memoirs, Morgan claimed that during his publicity tour, he flew the plane between the Buncombe County Courthouse and the City Hall of Asheville, North Carolina, his home town. Morgan wrote that after leaving the Asheville Regional Airport he decided to buzz the town, telling his copilot, Captain Verinis, “I think we’ll just drive up over the city and give them a little goodbye salute.” Morgan flew north and turned the bomber east down Patton Avenue, a main thoroughfare, toward downtown Asheville. When he observed the courthouse and the city hall (two tall buildings that are only about 50 feet (20 m) apart) dead ahead, he lowered his left wing in a sixty degree bank and flew between the structures. He wrote that the city hall housed an AAF weather detachment whose commanding officer allegedly complained immediately to the Pentagon, but was advised by a duty officer that “Major Morgan…has been given permission to buzz by Lieutenant General Henry Arnold.”

After the war the Flying Fortress was saved from reclamation at Altus Air Force Base, where it had been consigned since August 1, 1945, by the efforts of the mayor of Memphis, Walter Chandler, and the city bought the plane for $350. It was flown to Memphis in July 1946 and stored until the summer of 1949 when it was placed on display at the National Guard armory. It sat out-of-doors into the 1980s, slowly deteriorating due to weather and occasional vandalism.

In the early 1970s, another mayor had donated the historic plane back to the Air Force, but they allowed it to remain in Memphis contingent on it being maintained. Efforts by the locally-organized Memphis Belle Memorial Association, Inc. (MBMA) saw the aircraft moved to Mud Island in the Mississippi River in 1987 for display in a new pavilion with large tarp cover. It was still open to the elements, however, and prone to weathering. Pigeons would also nest inside the tarp and droppings were constantly needing removal from the plane. Dissatisfaction with the site led to efforts to create a new museum facility in Shelby County. In the summer of 2003 the Belle was disassembled and moved to a restoration facility in Millington, Tennessee for work. In September 2004, however, the National Museum of the United States Air Force, apparently tiring of the ups and downs of the city’s attempts to preserve the aircraft, indicated that they wanted it back for restoration and eventual display at the museum near Dayton, Ohio. The Memphis Belle- The Final Chapter in Memphis, a documentary film by Ken Axmaker, Jr., focuses on the history of the Belle in Memphis and emphasizes the final days and the volunteers who tried to keep one of the most famous aircraft in the world and another Memphis icon from disappearing.

On August 30, 2005, the MBMA announced that a consultant that they hired determined that the MBMA would not be able to raise enough money to restore the Belle and otherwise fulfill the Air Force’s requirements to keep possession of the aircraft. They announced plans to return the aircraft to the National Museum of the United States Air Force near Dayton, Ohio after a final exhibition in Millington, Tennessee on September 30 – October 2, 2005. The Belle arrived safely at the museum in mid-October 2005 and was placed in one of the Museum’s restoration hangars.

While the aircraft was in Memphis, it sat outside unattended; vandals and souvenir hunters removed almost all of the interior components. No instruments were found in the cockpit, and virtually every removable piece of the aircraft’s interior had been scavenged, often severing the aircraft’s wiring and control cables in the process.

The Museum has placed restoration of Memphis Belle near the top of its priorities. In the magazine Friends Journal of the museum’s foundation, Major General Charles D. Metcalf (USAF-Ret.), the director of the museum, stated that it might take 8–10 years to fully restore the aircraft.
Memphis Belle during refurbishment in 2003.By the Spring of 2009, considerable preparatory work had been accomplished, but the fuselage and wings were still disassembled.After stripping the paint from the aft fuselage of the aircraft, hundreds of names and personal messages were found scratched in the aluminum skin. During the plane’s war bond tour, people were allowed to leave their mark on this war-time hero.

Film portrayal

Two B17’s were used in the filming. A former firebomber B-17G-85-DL, serial 44-83546, registered N3703G, was converted into a B-17F configuration by installing a Sperry top turret, early-style tail gunner’s compartment and waist gunner’s positions, and omitting the chin turret. It subsequently appeared in the 1990 fictionalized version of the Memphis Belle story and continues to make air show appearances in that guise. Originally painted with the Warner Bros. movie version of the nose art and markings, the B-17 (owned by David Tallichet) now carries the historic markings found on the actual Memphis Belle. It currently operates out of Geneseo, New York.

The Sally B was also used in filming as the Memphis Belle. She is the last airworthy B17 in the UK and is based at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford. She is part of the USAAF WWII Memorial Flight and makes dozens of appearances across the UK and North Europe. She is maintained and run by volunteers, relying solely upon donations.

Other planes named Memphis Belle

* A Republic F-105D Thunderchief (60-0504) from 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron of the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing based at Takhli Royal Thai Air Base during the Vietnam War was named Memphis Belle II in honor of the original B-17F. The aircraft claimed two MiG-17 kills in addition to numerous bombing missions, and was the last F-105 to fly. It is currently preserved at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. It was donated in April 1990. Picture of Memphis Belle II
* A Rockwell B-1B (86-0133) was named Memphis Belle. In 1996, Colonel Robert K. Morgan, pilot of the original Memphis Belle, received the opportunity to fly in this aircraft, while it served with the 116th Bomb Wing at Robins AFB, GA.
* A General Dynamics FB-111 (68-0267) was also nicknamed Memphis Belle II for a period during the 1980s. It is currently located at the Strategic Air and Space Museum. Picture of Memphis Belle II
* Two Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses have carried the name Memphis Belle B-52G (59-2594) was named Memphis Belle III and took part in the 1991 Gulf War It was sent to the AMARC in October, 1992, and the first B-52H (60-0001) was named Memphis Belle IV It is currently based at Barksdale Air Force Base, flying for the 2nd Bomb Wing and has seen action in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
* A Lockheed C-141 Starlifter (67-0024) became the Memphis Belle V. It has recently been transferred to the AMARC inventory.
* A Lockheed C-5 Galaxy (69-0025) is named the Memphis Belle X.

Note: all the photographs were taken by me at the Airpower over Wayne Airshow in 2007.  The first photograph was taken and edited by me in Photoshop

Advertisements
Explore posts in the same categories: aircraft, military history

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

7 Comments on “Soaring Above Europe: The Memphis Belle”

  1. slamdunk Says:

    Great history lesson. Thanks for the education and fantastic photos.

    • eastofeton Says:

      thanks, I had all these photos lying around from that airshow and this is just my medium to help educate those that want to learn more about military history

  2. Chi Mcgill Says:

    If only I had a penny for every time I came here… Superb writing.


  3. Super interesting article. Honestly.


  4. If only I had a buck for each time I came to eastofeton.wordpress.com… Great read!


  5. If only more people could hear this..

  6. Amado Daley Says:

    If only I had a penny for every time I came here… Great post!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: