An important milestone was reached in May 1943, when two bomber crews of the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) became the first to be officially recognized as having survived their 25-mission tour. On May 13, the B-17F “Hell’s Angels” (s/n 41-24577), assigned to the 358th Bomb Squadron of the 303rd Bombardment Group based at RAF Molesworth, returned successfully from its 25th mission. A week later, on May 19, B-17F “Memphis Belle” (s/n 41-24485), assigned to the 324th Bomb Squadron, 91st Bombardment Group based at RAF Bassingbourn, completed its 25th mission.
As told by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver in his book CLEAN SWEEP VIII Fighter Command against the Luftwaffe, 1942–45, the event was important to the command because it “proved” to the crews it was possible to survive their tour and return home. The fatal statistics of bomber losses were clear to many: most crews were gone by their fifth mission; statistically, a man flying his sixth mission was “on someone else’s time.”
The two bombers’ records of survival were important to VIII Bomber Command, and the command’s public relations office had made plans for a major celebration when the event occurred. The Eighth Air Force now had an embarrassment of riches, with two bombers and their crews achieving the goal; they also had a public relations nightmare.
The plan to celebrate this event included returning the “first” bomber and its crew to the United States; that was, according to the records, “Hell’s Angels.” Crew and airplane would participate in a national recruiting drive and war bond tour. As such, the B-17 and its crew would represent the Army Air Forces – and specifically VIII Bomber Command – to an American public that was still recovering from the cultural shock of hearing Clark Gable exclaim, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!” at the end of Gone With The Wind. There was a not-insignificant part of that public guaranteed to express moral outrage to their local newspaper editors and their representatives in Washington at the “sacrilege” of a bomber named “Hell’s Angels” touring the country as the representative of all the God-fearing “fine American boys” defending the country.
The command looked for some way to change the order of seniority and send home the bomber with the “right” name.
Both bombers and their crews had flown their first missions in November. “Memphis Belle” was “senior,” having flown her first mission to Brest on Nov. 7, while “Hell’s Angels” had bombed St Nazaire on Nov. 17. There was the problem that the crew of “Hell’s Angels” had flown all 25 missions in their airplane, while the “Memphis Belle” crew had only flown 21 of their missions in their airplane, with the other four having been flown in other aircraft while the “Belle” had been grounded for repairs. A different crew had actually flown the bomber’s 25th mission. Nevertheless, “Memphis Belle” got the nod and pilot Captain Robert Morgan and his crew departed Scotland for the United States on Jun. 8, 1943. After six months being wined and dined across America, Morgan would return to combat on Nov. 5, 1944, as pilot of the B-29 “Dauntless Dottie,” lead ship on the first mission to Tokyo since the Doolittle Raid.
“Hell’s Angels” remained at Molesworth and the 303rd adopted its name for the group. The bomber flew 48 missions by January 1944, when it was flown back to the United States to tour war factories. While “Memphis Belle” escaped the scrappers the summer after the war and was eventually displayed at the National Museum of the Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, “Hell’s Angels” was sold for scrap in August 1945 and likely ended up a part of the aluminum-siding craze in American housing during the 1950s. Thus, “Memphis Belle” is carried in the records as the first bomber to complete 25 missions and return to the United States.
CLEAN SWEEP VIII Fighter Command against the Luftwaffe, 1942–45 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
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