Aviation History

Did you know the “Memphis Belle” was almost called “Little One”? The story of how B-17 Army 41-24485 got her legendary name

Why the name “Memphis Belle”? Bob Morgan wanted to name the B-17 in honor of his sweetheart, Miss Margaret Polk.

America had been up to its neck for almost eight months in a world war. The second world war in a single generation to be thrust on the nations of the globe by the same country—Germany.

As explained by Brent William Perkins in his book Memphis Belle: Biography of a B-17 Flying Fortress, just eight months before one special day, the Japanese had inflicted terrible devastation and death on the US Navy at Pearl Harbor. And at this time the German Army had been perfecting “Blitzkrieg”—Lightning War—in the flat and fertile fields of Poland.

The German people were inflamed by perhaps the most successful madman of the 20th Century. A decade earlier Adolf Hitler, who had played on middle-class resentments, a fear of communism, and industrial ambitions, fanned the monarchists, political officers, and even the church. Hitler and his hodgepodge National Socialists (NAZI) party seized power and gained control of the Reichstag.

Years later on Jul. 2, 1942, two days before America would celebrate her Independence Day, a significant event was taking place at the Boeing Aircraft Company in Seattle, Washington…hut nobody knew it then.

Bread was a nickel per loaf, gasoline was about fifteen cents per gallon, a trip to the movies would cost you and your girl less than a buck, and a brand-new Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress ran about three hundred-thousand dollars.

On this day, one of a few brand new B-17s would see the light of day for the very first time. Built under the contract order number B-17F-10B0-3170, it had no graceful name painted on the nose, not even an army tail number. Olive drab paint was applied from com nose to tail, and this bomber even smelled new.

Who could tell that only ten months later this very airplane was would become the most recognized bomber to fly during the largest conflict man has ever known.

The”Memphis Belle” on tour at Patterson Field, Ohio.

Army inspectors crawled through the plane looking for manufacturing flaws. Both company and military pilots climbed inside to run the engines and even take her around the field, just to see if the she behaved like a B-17 should. Thirteen days later the Government took possession of her. She would now be known forever officially as Army 41-24485, and the Government was billed $314.109.00.

Army ‘485 was sent immediately to Wright field near Dayton, Ohio, to be outfitted for war. By the end of August, bristling with machine guns and with her bombing equipment checked and military radios installed, the B-17 was flown to a staging area for brand new combat ready Flying Fortresses at Dow field near Bangor, Maine.

Here is where the plane would meet the pilot. Dow field was the place where the newly formed Ninety-First Bomb Group (Heavy) was marshalling before departing the “Zone of the Interior”-the US.

Who can say after all these years what his first impression was. After all, he had trained on the bigger and faster B-24 Liberator. He had seen crews lost in training and he was headed off to war. He did not even know if he would return home alive. But there must have been a moment where this tall lanky twenty-four year old Army Air Force Lieutenant stopped in awe when his eyes first met this gleaming B-17. He could not have known that he was set for destiny and fame when he first climbed aboard and took the Aircraft Commander’s left seat. The date was Sep. 3, 1942, and the gleaming bomber had only sixteen hours logged before Morgan took her up on their first flight together.

Robert Knight Morgan, from Asheville, North Carolina, was the man assigned to this B-17, and he would grow to know it like no other. He would fly this bomber into the very center of the action taking place in the freezing skies of Nazi held Europe. He would command nine men who would be right there with him. And he, like hundreds of thousands of other young men, had to go. There was no not doing it.

Bob Morgan’s crew was going to war in a bomber that they all agreed to christen with a name that rings of southern gentility, charm, and grace. A name that represented the girl he loved. No other name would do. By the time Morgan pointed the nose of this B-17 over the Atlantic Ocean towards war torn Europe, Army yellow lettering was applied to the nose of Army ‘485. She was now called “Memphis Belle.”

And why the name “Memphis Belle”? Bob wanted to name the plane in honor of his sweetheart, Miss Margaret Polk. She was just nineteen years old and had visited her sister who lived near Walla Walla, Washington. Margaret was in fact from Memphis, Tennessee.

B-17F Memphis Belle

There was a training base near Walla Walla where the 91st Bomb Group was in final training. Bob Morgan met Margaret Polk there. A relationship flamed immediately, and the two fell in love. He had a pet name for her. It almost became the name of the airplane—”Little One.”

As the crew finished their training and went on to Bangor, Maine, before going overseas, Morgan and his Copilot, Lt. James A. Verinis, decided to stop one evening at the base theatre to see a film. Destiny was somehow again smiling on this story.

The movie was “Lady for a Night,” a new Hollywood release. A romantic drama that starred Ray Middleton, Joan Blondell and John Wayne. The film was set in Memphis, Tennessee, in the late 1800s aboard a gambling riverboat where the starlet marries the wrong man in order to gain a coveted social position. At least twice in the eighty-eight minute feature the phrase Memphis Belle is spoken, referring to the boat as well as the “lady.” The viewer can even see the name painted on the side of the riverboat in the beginning of the film.

In the movie the name was not meant as a compliment, but it was suddenly the only name that seemed fitting for Rob Morgan’s B-17. “Little One” would have been a good name, but “Memphis Belle” was perfect! During a year 2000 interview with George Birdsong (who flew the B-17 “Delta Rebel no.2″ with the 91st BG, and who was also in the theatre at the same time with Morgan and Verinis) Birdsong recalled Morgan’s reaction the moment the words `Memphis Belle” were spoken in the film. Evidently Morgan immediately stood up and announced to everyone in the theatre ‘That’s what I’m gonna name my plane!” An unknown jesting voice was heard in reply from the back of the theatre that said, “That’s great Bob, but you’ll never make Captain you S.O.B.!”

Just eighty-five days after the Belle rolled off the assembly line the Ninety-First Bomb Group left the US for England. The date was the Sep. 25, 1942.

By May of the following year they had logged more than twenty thousand miles in combat, shot down eight German fighter planes, damaged twelve, and claimed three more as “probables.” These men and the Memphis Belle would deliver sixty tons of bombs to enemy targets and lose nine engines, both wings, landing gear, and two tails on their brand new B-17. They were going to bring back a bomber filled with bullet and flak holes.

Memphis Belle: Biography of a B-17 Flying Fortress is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

The Boeing B-17 “Memphis Belle” is pictured on her way back to the United States after completing 25 missions from an airbase in England. Jun. 9, 1943.

Photo credit: ERcheck at English Wikipedia / U.S. Air Force

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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