“Memphis Belle”: The Story Of A Legendary Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress

Memphis Belle today. (Image credit: Author).

What began as any other B-17 to roll out of the Boeing assembly line and became an aircraft of legendary status.

The reason for “Memphis Belle” being a legend? Belle was one of the first heavy bomber aircraft to complete 25 missions with its crew intact, and successfully return to the United States. A feat many thought impossible, as the average for the 8th Air Force at the time was 18 missions before loss of the aircraft and or crew.

The History

Memphis Belle started off as any other Boeing B-17F-10-BO, quietly rolling off the assembly line en route to U.S. Army Air Corps inventory. Bearing the manufacturer’s serial number 3470, USAAC Serial No. 41-24485, Belle was added to the USAAC Inventory on July 15th 1942. In September she would be assigned to her unit, the 91st Bombardment Group in Bangor Maine. A month later her journey to war would begin, and on October 1st she would fly to her permanent home in the 324th Bomb Squadron at England’s RAF Bassingbourn.

Named after pilot Robert K Morgan’s sweetheart, Margaret Polk, who was a Memphis Tennessee resident, he originally intended to name the aircraft “Little One”, which was his pet name for her. Shortly thereafter, Morgan and co-pilot Jim Verinis watched the film “Lady for a Night,” in which the leading actress owns a riverboat dubbed the “Memphis Belle.” Out of a film and successful proposition to his crew, the name was set. Morgan then contacted George Petty of Esquire magazine, asking for a pinup girl to go with the name. Petty agreed and supplied the now famous art from the April 1941 issue. The art was then painted on by the 91st’s group artist, Corporal Tony Starcer.

Memphis Belle today, at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio (Image credit: Matt Haskell)

On November 7th, 1942, Belle flew out for her first mission. At times, due to aircraft availability, the Belle stayed home for repairs, while the crew flew another available aircraft. Belle was a tough girl, repeatedly taking the hits and continuing to fly, among the damage repaired by Crew Chief Joe Giambrone, includes the replacement of 9 engines, both wings, two tails, and both main landing gear.

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

Following the conclusion of the 25th mission the aircraft was flown back to the United States on June 8th 1943, using a composite crew of members who had flown missions on board the Belle, whom were chosen by the Eighth Air Force for a 31 city War bonds tour. It was during this trip that the names of the crew were added to the aircraft, in addition to its 25 bombs signifying 25 successful missions. Other markings on board the aircraft include 8 Swastikas, signifying the 8 German fighters shot down by the crew on board.

The crew of the “Memphis Belle” after their 25th mission. From Left to Right, TSgt. Harold Loch (top turret gunner/engineer), SSg.t Cecil Scott (ball turret gunner), TSgt. Robert Hanson (radio operator), Capt. James Verinis (copilot), Capt. Robert Morgan (pilot), Capt. Charles Leighton (navigator), SSgt. John Quinlan (tail gunner), SSgt. Casimer Nastal (waist gunner), Capt. Vincent Evans (bombardier), and SSgt. Clarence Winchell (waist gunner) Image Credit: U.S. Air Force

Following the War Bonds tour, Memphis Belle was saved from the scrapyard axe by the Mayor of Memphis Tennessee. She was ultimately placed into storage until 1949, when she was moved to be placed on display at the city’s National Guard Armory near the fairgrounds. It was here she sat until the 1980’s, outdoors and in the elements deteriorating, plundered for souvenirs, and vandalized. in the 1970s, another Mayor returned the aircraft to the U.S. Air Force, who allowed the city to keep the aircraft under the condition that it be restored to its former glory.

Memphis Belle on 9 June 1943, Image USAF

In 2003 Belle was moved to an indoor restoration facility after many years of inaction, but again never acted upon. It was this and her condition that led to the U.S. Air Force requesting that the aircraft be returned to their custody, ultimately to be fully restored and placed on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton Ohio. In October of 2005 that became a reality, and the true restoration of Memphis Belle was to begin.

Memphis Belle under restoration, Image USAF Museum.

Over the course of a 12 year painstaking restoration, the dream of a restored Memphis Belle was finally realized. As part of the most extensive restoration in USAF Museum history, Belle was totally torn apart, rebuilt, and repainted to exactly how she was upon landing following her 25th mission. It was during this restoration that it was even discovered that hundreds of names and personal messages were found scratched in the aluminum skin, with people having been allowed to do so during the War Bonds tour. With this completion of restoration in 2017, the Belle was ready to go on public display. In May of 2018, the exhibit was unveiled to the public with much fanfare. Located within the WW2 hall, she now serves as the centerpiece of the collection.

The legacy and story of the Memphis Belle not only lives on within the museums, but also amongst film. In a 1944 color film, Footage from the Belle’s second to last mission was used as a method of building morale on the homefront. Another film, again titled after its namesake, utilized an A list Hollywood cast and premiered in 1990. This film utilized multiple surviving airframes, and was a dramatization of the final mission. Many of the B-17s used for the movie still fly at airshows today, including one converted to a G model, and painted to resemble the Belle.

Despite the major accomplishments of the Belle, and its history, there are some common misconceptions. Among common belief, is that Belle was the first to reach the 25 mission milestone. That honor belongs to the B-24 Liberator “Hot Stuff” of the 330th Bombardment Group, which completed the incredible milestone 3 and a half months prior. Unfortunately, that Liberator crashed while en route to the United States for its own War Bond tour, after completing an additional 5 missions over Europe.

The crew of the 358th Bomb Squadron Boeing B-17F ‘Hell’s Angels’ completed its 25th mission on May 13, 1943. It became the first 8th Air Force B-17 to complete 25 combat missions. The Memphis Belle crew completed its 25th mission on May 17, 1943, few days after the ‘Hell’s Angels’. However, director William Wyler had been filming the ‘Belle’s’ missions and crew for a feature film on the strategic bombing campaign over Europe, so the Memphis Belle crew was the first 8th Air Force B-17 to complete 25 missions and return to the U.S. Hell’s Angels went on to complete 48 missions and delayed returning to the U.S. for its own “Flag-Waving Tour” until Jan. 20, 1944. (U.S. Army Air Forces photo)

Belle also wasn’t the first B-17 to complete the 25 mission feat, just barely having been beaten by 6 days. That honor belongs to “Hells Angels” of the 303rd Bombardment Group, which elected to fly a second tour, flying 48 missions before returning to the U.S. for a War Bonds tour. Named after the Howard Hughes movie about World War 1 air warfare, among its exploits include the first bombing raid on Berlin, and awarding two crewmembers with the Congressional Medal of Honor. Ultimately Hells Angels met the fate of far too many aircraft from the war, and was sold and destroyed for scrap in August of 1945, erasing her from existence.

Clearly elated at the completion of their 25th mission, many of the crew, would go on to additional combat tours including pilot Robert Morgan who would fly 26 more missions in B-29s in the Pacific. (National Archives)

The Crewmembers of The Belle

The crew of the Belle consisted of both steady members, and temporary members. In addition to the missions above, the crew would also fly 5 other missions in other aircraft, due to aircraft availability. those missions were as follows: February 4th, 1943 over Emden, Germany in B-17 41-24515 “Jersey Bounce”; February 26th, 1943 over Wilhelmshaven, Germany in B-17 41-24515; April 5th, 1943 over Antwerp, Belgium in B-17 41-24480, “Bad Penny”; & May 4th, 1943 over Antwerp, Belgium, in B-17 41-24527, “The Great Speckled Bird”.

Flying the Belle, was Captain Robert K Morgan. Born in 1918, Morgan not only flew the Belle for 25 successful missions, but he went on to continue to fight. Following a promotion to Lt Colonel, he would continue to fly B-29 Superfortresses over Japan in the Pacific theatre of the war, completing 26 missions, including the first B-29 mission over Japan. Morgan passed away in 2004.

Captain Robert K Morgan (Image USAF).

Captain James A. Verinis was the Co-pilot for the Belle. Born in 1916, Verinis initially started out training to fly fighters, but ultimately would have difficulties and bad luck, driving him to fly B-17 bombers. After his time with the Belle, Verinis would continue to fly B-17s, becoming command pilot for a plane of his own, “The Connecticut Yankee”. Jim was also the crewmember who purchased the crew’s mascot, A Scottish-Terrier named “Stuka”. Verinis passed away in 2003

Captain Charles B. Leighton served as Navigator to the Belle. Born in 1919, Leighton would later go on to serve as a teacher and school counselor, utilizing his degree in Chemistry. Among his accomplishments, Leighton would save the Belle and additional B-17’s after identifying false German radio beacons that were designed to lure unwary B-17s into a trap. Leighton passed away in 1991.

Captain Vincent B. Evans served in the crucial role of Bombardier. Born in 1920, Evans was an incredibly skilled bombardier, and would often be the reason the Belle was chosen to be lead aircraft in formation. Evans would continue to serve, electing to serve another tour of duty along with Morgan in B-29’s. Following the war, he would go on to do many things in Holwood, and even drive race cars. Evans passed away in 1980.

Tech Sergeant Robert Hanson served as Radio Operator. Born in 1920, He was famously photographed kissing the tarmac following the 25th mission. Known for his luck, Hanson carried a lucky rabbits foot with him on every flight. In one instance, when the tail was shot off, the resulting dive nearly sent him out of the aircraft, however, he survived. At another point Hanson sneezed into his logbook, only to have bullets fly through where his head had just been. He kept the bullet ridden log book until his death in 2005.

Tech. Sgt. Robert J Hanson, radio operator on the Boeing B-17 ÒMemphis BelleÓ, kissed the ground on the flightline at Bassingbourn, England after the crew successfully completed its 25th mission, May 17, 1943. (U.S. Army Air Forces photo)

Staff Sergeant Cecil Scott served as Ball Turret Gunner. “From down there I could see everything”. Born in 1916, Scott fired at a many German fighters and achieved one “Damaged” credit, despite the high likelihood of having shot down multiple aircraft, the criteria for a “kill” requires a witness to the event. Following the war, Scott spent 30 years with the Ford Motor Company, Scott passed away in 1979

Sergeant John P. Quinlan served as tailgunner for the Belle. Born in 1919, JP scored 2 German fighter kills from the rear of Memphis Belle, and would later score even more kills from the tail of a B-29, downing 3 Japanese Zeroes before his B-29 went down. He landed in occupied territory and was captured by the Japanese, only to escape and make his way to Chinese territory. He carried his lucky horseshoe for all 25 missions. Quinlan passed away in 2000.

Tech Sergeant Clarence “Bill” Winchell, served as Left Waist Gunner. Born in 1916, Winchell kept a diary of his time with the Belle, it was this diary that formed much of the account of the Belle. Winchell notably had an astigmatism in one eye, earning him the nickname of the “one eyed gunner”. He managed to pass the eye exams, only by having a copy of the eye chart swiped, for his memorization. Winchell passed away in 1994.

Staff Sergeant Emerson Scott Miller served as the Belles Right Waist Gunner for most of the Belle’s lifespan. Born in 1919, Miller would ultimately fly 15 missions on the Belle, however he did not partake in the War Bonds tour because he had not yet completed the 25 missions necessary to go home himself. He is often referred to as “The Lost Crewman”, because following the war he disappeared from the public eye. Miller passed away in 1995.

Staff Sergeant Casimer “Tony” Nastal also served as the right waist gunner for the Belle, replacing Miller, but only serving one mission. Born in 1923, Nastal was the Belle’s youngest crew member, at only 19 years old. By the time he had been assigned to join the crew, he had already flown 24 missions on other bombers. Following a brief tour with the Belle, Nastal returned to the war to fly another 24 missions. Nastal passed away in 2002.

Staff Sergeant Leviticus “Levy” Dillon served as the Belle’s first flight engineer & top turret gunner. Born in 1919, Dillon would serve on Belle for her 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th missions. On his 3rd mission, he was shot in the leg, and was subsequently bandaged by Fred Astaire’s sister. He never reported the injury. Ultimately a disciplinary issue he claims he did not partake in, but kept quiet as to who did, involving an an officer resulted in him being demoted and transferred to the 306th Bombardment Group following the 5th mission. He would quickly regain his rank. Dillon passed away in 1998.

Tech Sergeant Eugene Adkins served as the Belle’s second flight engineer & top turret Gunner. Born in 1919, Adkins ultimately served on the Belle for 6 missions, taking the place of Levy Dillon following his transfer to another squadron. Adkins would ultimately be replaced on the crew due to frostbite. Following the war, he returned to ultimately become an officer and a pilot of strategic jet bombers such as the B-50, B-36 and B-52, retiring as a Major. Adkins passed away in 1995.

Staff Sergeant Harold P. Loch served as Belle’s 3rd flight engineer and top gunner. Born in 1919, Loch initially served in the 324th Bomb Squadron, and would replace Adkins as flight engineer and top gunner in Feb of 1943. Loch would remain with the Belle for the remainder of her combat flights, and her subsequent War Bond tour. He would not return to the war, and would later continue into the construction business, initially as a contractor, later in real estate. Loch passed away in 2004.

Master Sergeant Joseph Giambrone, Memphis Belle’s Crew Chief. Born in 1918, Joseph would keep the Belle flying for 6 months during her arduous combat time. He even set records by changing a B-17 engine in 4 hours. He painted the bombs after each mission, and he replaced and rebuilt many of her parts to keep her flying. After Belle left for home, Giambrone went on to serve as crew chief for another embattled B-17, Yankee Doodle. Giambrone passed in 1992.