Colonel Bob Morgan, 1918-2004
A Tribute
Colonel Bob Morgan, who has died aged 85, was the pilot of the B-17 Flying Fortress Memphis Belle, the first American bomber to survive 25 missions over occupied Europe during the Second World War and to return to the United States; a documentary was made about it in 1944, and a feature film in 1990.
In October 1942, Morgan and his crew were detailed to fly the bomber across the Atlantic to join the 91st Bomb Group (the "Ragged Irregulars') of the USAAF Eighth Air Force. It was traditional for bombers to carry "nose art", and Morgan dedicated his aircraft to his fiancée at the time, Margaret Polk. A swim-suited pin-up representing the beautiful brunette was painted on each side of the aircraft's nose.
At that time, the USAAF had little experience of strategic bombing, and elected to make daylight raids in large formations, initially without fighter escort. For the first three months most targets were in France and the Low Countries, allowing the crews to gain experience. On November 7, Memphis Belle was sent to attack the French U-boat port of Brest.
Early in 1943, the bombers turned to Germany, where the 91st suffered 80 per cent casualties. They flew their first mission over Germany on February 4, when they attacked Emden. Throughout that spring, the bombers faced a dense barrage of anti-aircraft fire and attacks from fighters.
On one occasion, Morgan experienced a new tactic, when the Luftwaffe dropped fragmentation bombs on to the tightly packed formation of Flying Fortresses. On another, his aircraft was badly damaged by a fighter, and he had to dive 5000 ft to extinguish a fire in its rear.
Morgan's crew had great faith in him. One member described him as "a damn good pilot. He always brought us home". In turn, Morgan established a close bond with his crew and their aircraft. Before each mission he briefed them "If only one aircraft comes back today, it's going to be us." He also firmly believed that "God was watching over us".
There was an element of the buccaneering spirit about Morgan. Returning from a sortie over France, he had to land at Exeter to rectify a faulty engine. With a party invitation for that night, he was determined to return to their airfield at Bassingbourn, near Royston, but was unable to start the rogue engine. He therefore told his crew that he would take off on three engines and allow the slipstream to turn the propeller and start the fourth. Apart from the engineer, the crew refused to go along with the idea. Morgan took off, the fourth engine started, and he landed back at Exeter to pick up the eight remaining crewmen. He arrived in time to keep his date.
By May 1943, when Memphis Belle was about to embark on its 25th mission, the Americans recognised the opportunity to gain much-needed publicity and support for the war effort. The film director, William Wyler, who had joined the Air Force Film Unit, was told to produce a documentary. His cameramen flew with Memphis Belle, recording the sights and sounds of the crew's 25th mission, an attack on the docks at Wilhelmshaven on May 17. Also using combat film shot by cameramen in other bombers, Wyler produced a 45-minute colour documentary. In it, a narrator described the 10-man crew as "simple average American boys doing a tough job". The film was highly acclaimed, and is still shown regularly as a true representation of the USAAF's bombing campaign.
A dramatisation, based on the original documentary, was produced by Warner Brothers and released to cinemas in 1990. With Matthew Modine playing Morgan, it was a dramatised account of the 25th and final sortie of Memphis Belle, and was produced by Wyler's daughter Cathy. The flying shots were taken on location at the RAF airfield at Binbrook, near Grimsby. Visiting the set, Morgan and some of his crew were amused to see their screen characters; one crewman was heard to comment: "They seemed to have packed all our experiences of 25 missions into just one."
In June 1943, the 23-year-old Morgan and his crew were introduced to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth before they took their aircraft back to America, where they were treated as heroes. They embarked on an exhausting tour of 30 cities to boost morale and help sell war bonds. Morgan was awarded the DFC and the Air Medal with three clusters.
Robert Morgan was born on July 31, 1918 at Asheville, in the North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains where he lived most of his life. He attended the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania before volunteering for the Army Air Corps. Having gained his pilot's wings, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant five days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Following his tour of American cities in 1943, Morgan volunteered to return to operations. He converted to the B-29 Superfortress, and in October 1944 he deployed to the Far East in his new bomber, Dauntless Dotty, named after one of Margaret Polk's successors.
Having been appointed to command the 869th Squadron of the 497th Bomb Group, on November 24 1944 he led the first B-29 raid on Tokyo -- the first such attack since General Doolittle's in 1942. He went on to complete 25 missions; then his general ordered him home "before your luck runs out".
After the war, Morgan served with the USAF Reserve. He retired in 1965 as a colonel, but maintained his pilot's licence into his eighties. He worked in real estate, and maintained close links with his former crew members and with Memphis Belle, which is on permanent display at Memphis.
In October 1999, he was invited to fly in the USAF's B-1B strategic bomber. Subsequently, one was named Memphis Belle, and the appropriate nose art was painted on the aircraft.
Morgan's blend of swagger and humility won him many admirers during the war and afterwards. He was in regular demand to make appearances at air shows and aviation events and he made many visits to Britain. In 1997, he was invited to the American Air Museum at Duxford when it was opened by the Queen.
Morgan did not marry Margaret Polk, but they remained close friends until her death in 1990. His first wife, Elizabeth, died in 1992 and, later that year, he married Linda Dickerson, herself a pilot of light aircraft. They were married at a ceremony held under the wing of Memphis Belle, with seven of his former crewmen in attendance and his co-pilot acting as best man.
Bob Morgan died on May 15 2004. His second wife survives him.
Editors Note: The 91st BG suffered the highest number of airplanes MIA (197) of any Group in the 8th USAAF.
There were more than 1,000 91st BG crewmen in German PoW camps by 1945.