A recording of a B-17 fly-over will play to help honor Col. Robert Knight Morgan (1918-2004) on Aug. 14. The six-foot-three flight commander led the 10 men of the Memphis Belle, as a captain. Theirs was the second heavy-bomber crew to complete 25 WWII combat missions over Europe, doing so a week after the Hell’s Angels crew did. Instead, Memphis Belle was celebrated — as the first to return intact to the United States.
Belle missions lasted a half-year, in 1942-43. There were 17 to occupied France, six to Germany. The Belle helped destroy Rotterdam, Neth. in a pivotal raid on March 31, 1943. The Belle dropped over 60 total tons of bombs, mostly on factories and submarine pens. Morgan piloted 22 of its 25 missions.
The Belle’s final mission — with 350 planes — was to batter German aircraft factories on May 17, 1943.
They were in the 8th Army Air Corps 91st Bomb Group’s 324th Bomb Squadron, stationed in central England. There, they typically played football while awaiting repairs, and the next death-defying mission. Not one crew member died. But every major part of the bomber was replaced.
In the first three months, 80 percent of the 91st’s bombers were shot down by ground artillery or fighter planes — long before reaching 25 missions. Two of every three airmen died, early on. Americans were more visible by bombing in daylight, leaving safer night bombing to the British. Long-range, high-altitude strategic bombing was new — and thus a work in progress.
Col. Morgan earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, with two oak leaf clusters. “He’s a damn good pilot. He always brought us home,” a crew member proclaimed. Morgan credited “divine intervention” for survival, in his memoir. He also praised the tactic of formations “so tight, that the wings were often almost touching.” Other assets were an accurate bomb sight, and an “amazing amount of firepower.” The B-17 could fire back at enemy fighters with 13 .50-caliber machine guns (two in the tail); ball, top and chin turrets; and waist and cheek guns.
Twenty-five missions was a morale-boosting milestone, entitling flight crews to finish active duty. Morgan’s crew flew four 324th missions in other planes, including to Antwerp, Belgium. The men thus reached 25 missions before their Belle did.
The original crew toured in the Belle in 32 cities in three months, starting in June 1943, to promote buying war bonds to finance the war. Morgan was 25. He wrote he was urged by brass to buzz the reviewing stand at Washington National Airport, the tour’s first stop. He obliged. Dignitaries ducked, and cringed.
After the tour the Belle flight heroes were “offered cushy jobs,” Bob’s nephew David Morgan of Asheville said, “But he decided to fly some more.”
So, as a major, Bob Morgan commanded the 869th Squadron of the new and larger B-29 Superfortress. He flew in 26 missions over Japan. On Nov. 24, 1944, Morgan led the first B-29 bombing raid on Tokyo and first bombing of Japan since Gen. Jimmy Doolittle’s B-25 raid two years earlier. Morgan named his B-29 Dauntless Dotty, after one of his wives.
Realizing inevitable U.S. intervention against Nazi expansionism, he joined the military in 1940. That was a year before the nation entered the war. He was among the original Americans stationed overseas. The lifelong Asheville resident retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1965. His 2001 memoir is The Man Who Flew the Memphis Belle.
One of his more amazing feats happened during the war bond air tour, in Asheville. In a surprise aerial maneuver, he zoomed low over downtown in the huge Belle. A B-17F could go 325 mph, and climb to 25,000 feet. Morgan buzzed his hometown, flying a mere 200 feet above ground.
This stunt reflected his adventurous spirit. “He had a strong, dynamic personality. He was very outgoing,” David Morgan said of his uncle, who joined the family furniture business after returning from the war. “He was stern, in many ways. But he had a good sense of humor.”
David Morgan founded The Tribune and is its overall publisher. He was an Air Force navigator flying cargo to South Vietnam, during that war.
In his memoir, Col. Morgan wrote how he flew the Belle between the Buncombe County Courthouse and City Hall. He considered it a fun “goodbye salute,” which he said Gen. Hap Arnold authorized.
He flew east down busy Patton Avenue toward downtown. Spotting the two tall buildings merely about 50 feet apart, he flew between them after lowering his left wing in a 60-degree bank. He passed over low buildings, where the jail now is, then over Beaucatcher Tunnel. “He had to climb high and fast enough to get over that hill,” Vietnam Air Force combat veteran Dr. Carl Mumpower said.
The deep-throated roaring four-engine sound replicating this fly-over will be briefly played as part of festivities, according to co-organizer Mumpower. He said the sound is from a tape of an actual B-17 fly-over. He plans for it to sound out for about 45 seconds on Stewart Sound’s 30,000-watt speaker system.
“We’re trying to duplicate as close as we can the sound of a B-17 flying over at approximately 200 feet,” and along the fly-over path, Dr. Mumpower said. The tribute is at the octagon-shaped garden the City of Asheville installed over a year ago, between City Hall (at 338 Hilliard Ave.) and the courthouse. “It’s in front of the stairs going down between the buildings, by both buildings’ fronts,” Mumpower explained.
The privately-funded black granite monument is rectangular. It is about 5.5 feet tall, and four feet wide. “The City courteously built the garden, in preparation for the monument,” former councilman Mumpower said.
The audio tape of the fly-over is from the Commemorative Air Force, and will play just ahead of the memorial unveiling. Mumpower said, “People can close their eyes, and imagine” an actual Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress overhead.
It is costly (for fuel) to stage a B-17 fly-over and too dangerous to try a low one with Asheville more developed than in ’43, Mumpower noted. Sound recreation is the next best action, he said. He knows of merely two B-17s on tour.
The Air Force classified the original Memphis Belle as a national treasure. It was built in 1942. It is being restored, for display soon in the Air Force’s National Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio.
WWII bombers were known for artwork on the nose. The Memphis Belle’s famed image is of the leggy pinup girl from Esquire’s April, 1941 issue. George Petty designed such “Petty Girls” for Esquire. Morgan contacted Petty to draw pinup art for the bomber. An airman artist reproduced it. The woman is in a blue bathing suit on the port side and in red on the starboard, perched above the name. One bomb shape at a time was added for each mission, also eight Nazi swatstikas for each plane the crew claimed to down. Crew names were stenciled in after the Belle finished its duty.
Memphis Belle is the riverboat in John Wayne’s movie Lady for a Night. Morgan and his co-pilot saw the film the night before the crew voted on a name. Thus, Morgan changed his idea for the plane name to “Memphis Belle,” from “Little One” which he called his sweetheart. She was Margaret Polk, then 19, of Memphis. She suddenly became the Memphis Belle, in his heart and on his plane.
Bob Morgan wrote that his romance embodied “whirlwind courtship interrupted by war … What made our version special — or at least highly visible to the media — was that lilting name, and the sexy illustration emblazoned on the nose of my B-17.”
This image was immortalized in a 1943 documentary, then 1990 film “Memphis Belle” starring Matthew Modine as Morgan’s taskmaster character who keeps a snapshot of his girlfriend in the cockpit. The film shows the Belle taking over as lead bomber, after two predecessors are blasted. The crew improvises to survive the landing at the base, lowering a jammed wheel with a hand crank. The movie used five of the eight B-17s then able to fly. This is out of 12,750 Boeings made in 1935-45. Nearly 5,000 B-17s were shot down; others were scrapped.
Psychiatrist Mumpower and realtor Steve Duncan are on the monument committee, with architect Danie Johnson and Frank Carr (who knew Col. Morgan) who both will unveil the monument. Hailing Morgan will be Mumpower, Duncan, and retired A.F. Gen. C. Jerome Jones. Jones was vice-commander of the Air Force Special Operations and Component commands. He was a highly-decorated combat pilot in the Vietnam War.
There will be a group prayer, and a reading of one of Morgan’s favorite passages, John 12:46: “I have come as Light into the world, so that everyone who believes in Me will not remain in darkness.” Big band music will play, after the unveiling.
The tribute is for Morgan’s war contributions — far more than his local flying stunt in ’43, Mumpower emphasized. “He’s a native whose military service was exceptional, and merits special recognition.”