Memphis Belle


In August 1942, the 8th Air Force began its bomber offensive against the Third Reich. Its B-17 heavy bombers usually flew their missions in daylight to improve bombing accuracy, and at the time there were no fighters which had adequate range to accompany them deep into occupied Europe and Germany itself. Flying through heavy antiaircraft fire and under constant attack from German fighters, American bombers suffered grievous losses of aircraft and personnel. Aircrews were expected to fly a tour of twenty-five missions before they would return home. By early 1943, the 8th Air Force averaged a loss rate of eight percent per mission, meaning that a complete tour of duty was statistically impossible.

Memphis Belle, a B-17F (serial number 41-24485) assigned to the 324th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 91st Bombardment Group, was the plane flown by Lt. Robert Morgan when he and nine others became the first aircrew to complete twenty-five missions. This historic event, a bombing raid against submarine pens in the French seaport of Lorient, took place on 17 May 1943. Two days later, a different crew flew the Memphis Belle to Kiel, Germany, to strike submarine and harbor facilities. This marked the plane's twenty-fifth mission, making it the first 8th Air Force bomber to match the number of completed missions that its former crew had flown. On 9 June, Lt. Morgan and his crew left England aboard the Memphis Belle for the United States, where they flew across the country on a three-month tour to raise money for war bonds and boost morale on the home front.

While the Memphis Belle flew its last missions, an Army Air Forces film crew flew aboard it and other aircraft of its group to produce footage for a documentary movie. The documentary, directed by noted Hollywood producer and director William Wyler, was released to the public in 1944, and a dramatization of the original film was produced in 1990.

After the war ended, the Memphis Belle was placed on display in the city which inspired its name. Over time, the plane fell into disrepair. It is
currently being restored and will be placed on display at the National Museum of the USAF, May 17, 2018.

Dr. Christopher N. Koontz, Historian, AFHSO.

See the National of Museum of the USAF fact sheet:  Heavy Bomber Firsts.