Memphis Belle is the nickname of a Boeing 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. The aircraft was one of the first B-17 United States Army Air Forces heavy bombers to complete 25 combat missions with her crew intact. The aircraft and crew then returned to the United States to sell war bonds. As of 2014, the aircraft is undergoing extensive restoration at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio.
Crew of the Memphis Belle
The Memphis Belle, a Boeing-built B-17F-10-BO, USAAC Serial No. 41-24485, was added to the USAAF inventory on 15 July 1942, and delivered in September 1942 to the 91st Bombardment Group at Dow Field, Bangor, Maine. She deployed to Prestwick, Scotland, on 30 September 1942, moving to a temporary base at RAF Kimbolton on 1 October, and then finally to her permanent base at Bassingbourn, England, on 14 October. Each side of the fuselage bore the unit identification markings of the 324th Bomb Squadron (Heavy) - DF: A.
Captain Robert K. 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:
- 7 November 1942 - Brest, France, (Brittany)[N 1]
- 9 November 1942 - St. Nazaire, Brittany 
- 17 November 1942 - St. Nazaire, Brittany 
- 6 December 1942 - Lille, France
- 20 December 1942* - Romilly-sur-Seine, France 
- 30 December 1942 - Lorient, Brittany (flown by Lt. James A. Verinis)
- 3 January 1943 - St. Nazaire, Brittany 
- 13 January 1943 - Lille 
- 23 January 1943 - Lorient, Brittany 
- 14 February 1943 - Hamm, Germany 
- 16 February 1943 - St. Nazaire, Brittany 
- 27 February 1943* - Brest, Brittany [N 2]
- 6 March 1943 - Lorient, Brittany 
- 12 March 1943 - Rouen, France 
- 13 March 1943 - Abbeville, France 
- 22 March 1943 - Wilhelmshaven 
- 28 March 1943 - Rouen 
- 31 March 1943 - Rotterdam, Netherlands 
- 16 April 1943 - Lorient, Brittany 
- 17 April 1943 - Bremen, Germany 
- 1 May 1943 - St. Nazaire, Brittany 
- 13 May 1943 - Meaulte, France (flown by Lt. C.L. Anderson)
- 14 May 1943 - Kiel, Germany (flown by Lt. John H. Miller)
- 15 May 1943 - Wilhelmshaven 
- 17 May 1943 - Lorient, Brittany 
- 19 May 1943* - Kiel (flown by Lt. Anderson) [N 3]
* 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:
- 4 February 1943 - Emden, Germany (in B-17 DF-H 41-24515 Jersey Bounce)
- 26 February 1943 - Wilhelmshaven (in B-17 41-24515)
- 5 April 1943 - Antwerp, Belgium (in B-17 41-24480 Bad Penny)
- 4 May 1943 - Antwerp (in B-17 41-24527, The Great Speckled Bird)
The aircraft was then flown back to the United States on 8 June 1943, by a composite crew chosen by the Eighth Air Force from those who had flown combat aboard, 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 16 missions and finished his tour on 13 May. He rejoined Morgan's crew as co-pilot for the flight back to the United States. It is important to realize the claim to fame is based on the crew completing their tour. The notoriety was not based on the aircraft's completion of 25 combat missions. That honor belonged to another B-17.
The "Hell's Angels" B-17 (41-24577) of the 303rd Bomb Group completed 25 combat missions on 13 May 1943, becoming the first B-17 to complete the feat, one week before the Memphis Belle.
Source of the name
The aircraft was the namesake of pilot Robert K. Morgan's sweetheart, Margaret Polk, a resident of Memphis, Tennessee. Morgan originally intended to call the B-17, Little One, after his pet name for her, but after Morgan and his copilot, Jim Verinis, saw the movieLady for a Night, in which the leading character owns a riverboat named the Memphis Belle, he proposed that name to his crew.[N 4] 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 the starboard. The nose art later included 25 bomb shapes, one for each mission credit, and eight swastika designs, one for each German aircraft claimed shot down by the crew of the Memphis Belle. Station and crew names were stenciled below station windows on the aircraft after her tour of duty was completed.
In his memoirs, Morgan claimed that during his publicity tour, he flew the B-17 between the Buncombe County Courthouse and the City Hall of Asheville, North Carolina, his home town. Morgan wrote that after leaving a local 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 turned the bomber 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 ft (20 m) apart) dead ahead, he lowered his left wing in a 60 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 General Henry "Hap" Arnold."
Display in Memphis
After the war, the Memphis Belle was saved from reclamation at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma where she had been consigned since 1 August 1945, by the efforts of the mayor of Memphis, Walter Chandler, and the city bought the B-17 for $350. She was flown to Memphis in July 1946 and stored until the summer of 1949 when she was placed on display at the National Guard armory near the city's fairgrounds. She sat out-of-doors into the 1980s, slowly deteriorating due to weather and vandalism. Souvenir hunters removed almost all of the interior components. Eventually no instruments were left 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.
In the early 1970s, another mayor had donated the historic aircraft back to the Air Force, but they allowed her to remain in Memphis contingent on her 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. She 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 B-17. 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 at the former Naval Air Station Memphis 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 her back for restoration and eventual display at the museum at Wright-Patterson AFB 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.