The painting on the nose of the B-17 Memphis Belle is often mistakenly referred to as “The Memphis Belle,” but it is actually titled “I‘m the one with the part in the back.”
The Belle distinguished herself at her very first taste or combat when, by fate, she became the first bomber of the 91st Bomb Group over an enemy target. She is then, of course, famous for becoming the very first bomber of the Mighty Eighth Air Force to complete the required twenty-five missions and return to the US. Memphis Belle was assigned to the First Air Division of the First Combat Wing. She is the very first bomber to have been assigned to a War bond and morale tour.
While finishing her twenty-five missions, Memphis Belle was the first American bomber to be reviewed by England’s King George VI and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. After completing, his mission requirements on the Belle her skipper, Bob Morgan, rode into more American military heritage, as he was the lead pilot for the first B-29 Superfortress raid on the city of Tokyo, Japan, in November 1944.
The Memphis Belle is also the first American bomber to be remembered for featuring a very distinctive nose art.
As explained by Brent William Perkins in his book Memphis Belle: Biography of a B-17 Flying Fortress, for as long as men have gone to the sea in ships, they have ex pressed a love for their vessels in the female metaphor. And in the mind of a combat airman, only a debutante of the species and her “class” can bring to mind a fitting ideal for comparison.
She was first seen in the pages of Esquire magazine. The publication was popular for printing the works of Alberto Varga and George Petty as gatefolds or centerfolds. Along with thousands of other servicemen, Lt. Morgan was an avid reader. At some time during 1941 Morgan noticed one of the girls in the magazine and knew immediately that it was the work that would grace the nose of whatever bomber would be assigned to him.
He wrote to the magazine and asked for permission to use the painting. They were all too happy to help and sent their approval, along with a copy of the print, which was immediately applied to Morgan’s bomber. This was in the days just before his crew left for England from Dow Field at Bangor, Maine.
Morgan found a base worker there to apply the Petty Girl to his B-17, but it was not a very good job, and when he arrived in England, the Petty Girl was touched up and re-painted by none other than Corporal Tony Starcer. He was becoming known around the ma 91st BG as a pretty good painter, and actually ended up painting more than one hundred-fifty of the 91st BG B-17s!
The painting is often mistakenly referred to as “The Memphis Belle,” but it is actually titled “I‘m the one with the part in the back.” The model for this piece was the sixteen year old daughter of the artist—Marjorie Petty-Macleod.
The story made its way around the bases in England during the war that German fighter pilots knew the B-17 with the leggy girl on the nose and vowed to shoot it down.
It was even said that during a German propaganda broadcast over the radio, a threat had been made. The announcer reportedly said “If the Memphis Belle comes back to Germany, she will never go home again.”
At least eight German fighter pilots attempted to hold that reporter to his word and paid for it with their very lives.
The painting represents Miss Margaret Polk, the wartime sweetheart of pilot Robert Morgan (Their love story was well-publicized, but their engagement ended during the war bond tour). It is not, as many believe, a direct painting of Margaret herself.
Memphis Belle: Biography of a B-17 Flying Fortress is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and MLWatts via Wikipedia