Memphis Belle— Dispelling the Myths

by Graham M. Simons and Harry Friedman, GMS Enterprises, Peterborough, UK, 2008, $120.

The Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress Memphis Belle is certainly the best-known aircraft of World War II. Scholarly histories and popular journals alike have repeated variations of the legend that Belle was the first Eighth Air Force heavy bomber to complete a 25-mission tour, and that it did so with an “intact” crew. This thoroughly researched and lavishly illustrated volume demonstrates that the truth deviates somewhat from the legend, yet does so without diminishing the achievements or heroism of the personnel involved.

The heart of the book is the analysis of the missions flown by Memphis Belle from its base at Bassingbourn, England, during 1942-43. These are presented in exhaustive detail, drawn from surviving primary documentation (including maintenance logs, an often overlooked resource). The authors attempt to resolve discrepancies between original re – cords and subsequent accounts, including the oft-cited memoirs of Belle’s pilot, Captain Robert Morgan, and the U.S. Army Air Forces’ official published account, 25 Missions. Their painstaking work reveals a messier, yet ultimately more fascinating story.

The crewmen who subsequently toured the United States with the bomber were neither the “original” crew, nor did they fly all (or even most) of their 25 missions in Belle. Morgan himself did not fly the much-photographed “final” mission of the aircraft, as he had completed his own tour of 25 missions some days before. Most controversially, the authors conclude that Memphis Belle flew only 24 missions, with four aborts. This conclusion is supported by available primary documentation, and the authors make a strong case. They also have a good grasp of the practicalities of the times. There was a war on; record keeping was secondary, and the sometimes-competing pressures of combat operations and public relations were ever present.

The book also chronicles Belle’s War Bond tour of the U.S. during the summer of 1943 (referred to as the “26th mission”), and de – tails the brief life and sad end of the war time romance between pilot Morgan and Margaret Polk of Memphis, Tenn., for whom he named his aircraft. Also noteworthy is an excellent account of the making of William Wyler’s 1944 documentary and of the aircraft’s postwar life, culminating in its transfer for complete restoration to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

This pricey book is a labor of love, but it is not without flaws. The ultimate conclusion— that Memphis Belle was “the most important aircraft of WWII” because of its role in generating support for the daylight bombing offensive—is perhaps overstated. The writing tends to be breathless at times, with exclamation points dotting the pages. The authors can be ungenerous: The late Roger Freeman, who probably did more than any other individual to tell the story of the Eighth Air Force, is treated dismissively. Yet no one interested in WWII’s most famous plane can ignore this exhaustive study.

 

Originally published in the July 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here