Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Man Who Flew the Memphis Belle

The World War II era has always intrigued me. I love everything about it – the music, the innocence, the patriotism. When Bobby and I married, he introduced me to what would become another area of interest from the 1940s – the emerging Air Force and those wonderful planes.

A precursor to my generation’s Top Gun F-14 Tomcats, the P-51 Mustangs were the fast, sexy fighters, but they weren’t my favorite plane. My heart was stolen by the B-17. The B-17 appeals to me because it’s basically a football team in the air. Every crew member is important. However unlike a lineman missing a tackle, if a crew member on the B-17 didn’t do his part the crew was in danger of losing not a game, but their very lives. This bomber would break the back of the Axis in Europe while her younger (and bigger) sisters, the B-25 and B29, would wreak havoc on Japan.

One of the most celebrated B-17s was the Memphis Belle. Famed director William Wyler even did a wartime documentary on the Belle. In the 1990s, Hollywood again put the Belle’s story on celluloid (although this time it was more fiction than fact).

A year or two after we married, Bobby and I attended an air show in Bowling Green where I had the pleasure of meeting Col. Robert Morgan, the pilot of the Memphis Belle. I was awestruck. (I actually cried afterwards.) So while browsing the clearance section at Joseph Beth Booksellers when I saw “The Man Who Flew the Memphis Belle,” I quickly brought it and began devouring it.

In the early part of the air war, the Allied campaign was sacrificing 2 out of 3 flights. The first three months of the Allied offensive, the loss rate reached 80%! To counter this devastating statistic, an incentive was dangled in front of the airmen: The 1st crew to complete 25 missions would be sent home. The crew of the Memphis Belle was the first to accomplish this feat.

Trying to put this in context, Col. Morgan writes, “We were participants in a style of warfare that had been made technically feasible less than half a century before it took form in the skies over Europe and the Pacific Ocean. We, and our enemies, were still improvising rules and tactics every time we left the ground for a new day of confrontation above the clouds. The air war demanded skills that even its best surviving practitioners found hard to communicate to their families, friends, and historians – levels of competence, concentration, physical endurance, discipline, and teamwork bordering on brotherhood. Over it all was the constant grim prospect of a sudden helpless spiraling descent to violent death. . .”

Written in a Sam Spade, first person narrative style which fits its content to a “T”, this book recounts the story of a young man from the mountains of North Carolina who attended parties at The Biltmore, flew bombing runs over Germany and partied with Clark Gable and then went on to fly in the first B-29 bombing runs over Japan. Morgan doesn’t hesitate to state his aerial prowess, but he is even quicker to heap praise and credit on his crew members. He writes of a sense of equality among the men each with an important job to do. Morgan is equally generous in his praise of the Belle’s maintenance crew chief, Joe Giambrone, crediting him with keeping the Belle going through her 25 missions.

Like most real-life heroes, Col. Morgan’s hat was not pure white, but grey. His valor in the air was not matched by fidelity on the ground. His womanizing and even adultery would be at odds with his complete faith in God and His Providence – a disconnect that would cause him later in life to ask Billy Graham why God had spared him when his life was at odds with God’s commandments. Morgan’s Cromwell-esque “warts and all” self portrait is a great glimpse into society in the 1930s-40s, as well as the beginnings of our Air Force. It reminded me somewhat of Tom Wolfe’s novel on the early days of the space program. Morgan certainly lacks Wolfe’s prowess as a writer, but he has given us a wonderful history lesson nonetheless.