PROLOGUE

I still go over to Memphis and see her once in a while. She looks pretty good for an old girl. We’ve both been through a lot since we first met back in 1942, and I’m always amazed at how well she’s held up through it all. After more than half a century she’s still about the most gorgeous thing I ever saw. She’s had a little help in that department from some specialists in the field, but then you name me one great beauty that has not.

I look at her and the memories come flooding back. I can stand there at her side and all of a sudden an hour has passed and it has all streamed through me again at high speed, the images and the noises and the terror and the ecstasy and the grief and the triumph. And then all the decades since.

And maybe when I come out of that reverie I have to put my hand against her for a minute to steady it. That cool smooth exterior. And her? Not a tremor. Nothing ever seemed to bother her much. Nothing ever brought her down.

I come to visit her at least once a year from my home in Asheville, North Carolina. "Visit" isn’t quite strong enough a word. It’s a pilgrimage. I still enjoy being with her. Of course, things will never be the same between us as back then, but that doesn’t matter. Hell, we’d all be in a pretty pickle if they were. No, what matters is that she is not forgotten—not by me, and not by the country she helped save. That, and the fact that she has a good, secure place to spend the rest of her days, even if it is in a theme park. Damn, I whisper to her sometimes. Could either of us ever have predicted this? That you’d end up in a theme park on an island in the Mississippi River? With 150,000 people coming to admire you each year, there amidst all the gift shops and the restaurants and the children’s playground and the musicians blowing jazz in the summer?

Sometimes, maybe on a Saturday or a Sunday when the crowds are biggest, I stand off to one side and watch the people drift into the little domed museum on Mud Island, where she’s been housed since 1987. I watch them as they form a circle around her and take off their sunglasses and look up at her—perhaps aim a flash camera in her direction—and try to hear what they have to say. Or to read their thoughts—most of them have fallen silent.

Silent in the presence of the Memphis Belle.

Very few of them look my way. To them, I’m half-invisible, just another senior citizen out to enjoy the weekend sunshine and a few minutes of nostalgia for a time that is fast fading from America’s firsthand memory.

It’s mostly the old and the very young who come to see the Belle: groups of retirees on bus tours and whole classes of schoolchildren with their teachers and chaperones still excited from their ride over the river on the Monorail. Maybe this is just one stop on a busy schedule that will include a look inside the Mississippi River Museum, a few minutes on board the full-scale reproduction of an 1870s-era steamboat, a souvenir T-shirt; then back to the Monorail and out onto I-55 for a visit to Elvis Presley’s Graceland, a quick stroll and a barbecue sandwich on Beale Street, the Home of the Blues; a pilgrimage to the Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King was shot.

Lots of American history in Memphis.

I enjoy watching these folks come and go. I enjoy eavesdropping on the questions they ask the two or three World War II veterans who serve as guides inside the dome. I am moved by how they are moved, watching it dawn on them that they have wandered into the presence of something huge and mysterious and fascinating.

This quaint-looking but still elegant and splendidly designed flying war machine rose from a field in England again and again to rain down fiery destruction on occupied France and Nazi Germany in a war that pitted America’s and the world’s common people against the forces of unspeakable tyranny. In doing so, she flew through torrents of gunfire and flak that kept her crew in constant jeopardy as plane after plane burst into flames in the Allied formations around the Belle.

This B-17 airplane became a wartime legend for surviving twenty-five brutal missions over western Europe in 1942 and 1943, and returning to America with its crew. The Belle was the first bomber to accomplish that feat in an Allied campaign that sacrificed two out of every three young fliers to the cause of turning back Adolf Hitler’s aggression: 26,000 boys killed or missing in action, another 28,000 taken prisoner.

This airplane, with its beautiful pinup girl painted on each side of its nose, symbolized not only the valor of all American wartime fliers, but also a wartime romance that caught the imagination of the American people back home, a romance between its pilot and the young Memphis girl for whom the Belle was named.

 

I watch the good folks drift in and out of the dome, in and out of the Memphis Belle’s silent yet magnetic aura. From my half-invisible vantage point I observe them putting on their holiday faces again, after those few moments of unexpected solemnity; watch them make ready to enjoy the wonders of this island theme park, of the city, of America in these first moments of its new century. This is as it should be. This is what we fought to allow them to do.

It’s hard to tell where each departing group of visitors to the Memphis Belle Museum is headed. But there are two places where I am sure they will not go.

One place is a certain address on an older residential street in Memphis called Patricia Drive. Just a whiteframe bungalow with a small swimming pool in the back, where more than sixty-five summers ago people from the whole neighborhood would come over for a dip. That house was the family residence of Margaret Polk, the Belle pilot’s sweetheart and the airplane’s namesake. The young girl whose photograph is still taped to the instrument panel of the cockpit of the Memphis Belle. Where I put it.

The other place they will never go is into that cockpit. That cockpit belongs to history now.

And in my heart, it still belongs to me. My name is Robert Morgan. I was the pilot of the Memphis Belle.

 

Sometimes I can’t help asking history to move over. Let me be honest about it: I get up into that cockpit every time I go over there. I sit there with my hands gripping the yoke and my feet on the rudder pedals, and I close my eyes and everything we lived through together overwhelms my consciousness. I’m there again. I can hear the sounds of machineguns firing. I can actually feel the vibrations of a great warplane thumping along through the high winds over Europe, buffeted by flak bursts and the slipstreams of German fighters. These sensations are beyond description, more real to me than anything in my present world. I look at the instruments on the panel in front of me. They’re all still there. I look at the picture of Margaret, still right where I taped it. In the photograph she’s still young and beautiful, though she’s been dead these many years.

I whisper to her briefly. I say, "Hi, Gal. We did it, didn’t we? We did it together. You, me, the airplane, the crew. All of us working together."

Yes, sir. This senior citizen knows what it was like to have been inside that cockpit, to have heard those four engines come alive and roar, and then to push the throttles forward. I know what it was like to have given up a life of Southern affluence and rakehell glamour for the privilege of flying that airplane into combat.

I also know what it was like to return and find that my pre-war life did not exist any longer, that it had been transformed, like the rest of America, by the war the Belle and my crew and I helped fight and win.

So, yes, I still go over to Memphis and see her once a year. After all, she has been a part of my life since I was twenty-two, and I’m in my eighties now. I don’t really know where she stops and I begin. She sure made me a different person than I started out to be. She made me look at life in a different way, and value life more.

Yet she’s not mine. She doesn’t belong to anybody. A lot of people, a lot of groups, would like to claim her, but she’s not for sale. She’s America’s airplane, and that’s the way it ought to be.

If you have a little time to spare before heading off to the next attraction, stay awhile. I’ll tell you all about it.

Reprinted from The Man Who Flew the Memphis Belle by Col. Robert Morgan, USAFR, Ret., with Ron Powers by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright Robert Morgan and Ron Powers, 2001. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.