“MEMPHIS BELLETHIS IS THE STORY OF THE B-17 FLYING FORTRESS “MEMPHIS BELLE,” HER CREW AND THEIR 25 SUCCESSFUL WW II MISSIONS, FROM 17 MAY 1942 TO 7 NOV 1943.”
Public domain film from the National Archives, slightly cropped to remove uneven edges, with the aspect ratio corrected, and mild video noise reduction applied.
The soundtrack was also processed with volume normalization, noise reduction, clipping reduction, and/or equalization (the resulting sound, though not perfect, is far less noisy than the original).
The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress is a 1944 documentary film which ostensibly provides an account of the final mission of the crew of the Memphis Belle, a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. In May 1943 it became the first U.S. Army Air Forces heavy bomber to complete 25 missions over Europe and return to the United States.
The dramatic 16 mm color film of actual battles was made by cinematographer First Lieutenant Harold J. Tannenbaum. The film was directed by Major William Wyler, narrated by Eugene Kern, and had scenes at its Bassingbourn base photographed by Hollywood cinematographer Captain William H. Clothier. It was made under the auspices of the First Motion Picture Unit, a branch of the United States Army Air Forces. The film actually depicted the next to last mission of the crew (see below) on May 15, 1943, and was made as a morale-building inspiration for the Home Front by showing the everyday courage of the men who manned these bombers…
Morgan’s crew had not flown all of its missions together. Captain Verinis had originally been Morgan’s co-pilot at the beginning of their combat tour but had become a “first pilot” (aircraft commander) in his own right on December 30, 1942, after which he flew 16 missions as commander of a replacement B-17 he named Connecticut Yankee after his home state. Verinis finished his tour two days before the rest of Morgan’s crew.
Nor was Morgan’s crew the one originally selected by Wyler for filming. He had been following Captain Oscar O’Neill (whose bomber was named Invasion 2nd) of the 401st Bomb Squadron until O’Neill’s B-17 and five others were shot down over Bremen, Germany, on April 17, 1943. Morgan was then selected and his crew re-united by the Eighth Air Force to complete its tour together and to return to the United States for a war bond drive. Wyler also informed Morgan when asked that had the Memphis Belle been shot down on the crew’s final mission, Wyler had a backup crew working with another B-17 about to finish its 25 missions, Hell’s Angels of the nearby 303d Bombardment Group. Ironically, Hell’s Angels actually completed 25 missions first, on May 13 (the date of the 21st for the Memphis Belle).
Morgan states in his memoirs that he was approached by Wyler in late January 1943 after his crew’s eighth mission. Wyler told Morgan he wanted to film the Memphis Belle and her crew because of “a certain mystique” to the aircraft’s nickname, and that Morgan’s reputation as a pilot meant that Wyler would be “in the center of the action…(with) a pretty good chance of coming back.” Morgan agreed after assurances from Wyler that the film crew would not interfere with operation of the airplane in combat in any way.
The first mission flown in filming, ironically, was not aboard the Memphis Belle, but aboard the B-17 Jersey Bounce on a February 26, 1943, mission to Wilhelmshaven, Germany. (The Memphis Belle was being repaired after severe battle damage incurred on February 16.) The mission experienced heavy German fighter attacks and two of the 91st group’s B-17s were shot down. Despite the hazards, Wyler filmed at least six more combat missions with Morgan’s crew, not all of them aboard the Memphis Belle, using a set-up that placed mounted cameras in the nose, tail, right waist, and radio hatch positions. The camera setup is documented in the photograph of the Bad Penny, which Morgan and Wyler flew on a mission to Antwerp on April 5, 1943.
The 16 mm color film used did not include sound, and this was added later in Hollywood. The original crew, during their war bonds drive in the United States, made typical appropriate comments to each other while watching the silent movie in a studio. The result was difficult to distinguish from real combat recordings.
King George VI (wearing a Marshal of the Royal Air Force uniform) and his consort Queen Elizabeth are seen congratulating the crew on May 18, after Morgan’s final mission but the day before that of the B-17…
Boeing B-17 History
The Boeing B-17 is by far the most famous bomber of World War II. In 1934 the Boeing Aircraft Company of Seattle Washington began construction of a four engine heavy bomber. Known as the Model -299, first flight was achieved on July 28th 1935. As a result, the U.S. Government placed an order for production of 13 of these aircraft and began to take delivery of the 13 production aircraft between January 11th and August 4th 1937.
The B-17, dubbed the “Flying Fortress” as a result of her amount of defensive firepower, underwent a number of improvements over its ten-year production run. B-17 Models ranged from the YB-17 to the B-17G model. Throughout the war the B-17 was refined and improved as the combat experience showed the Boeing designers where improvements could be made. The Final B-17 production model, the B-17G was produced in the largest quantities (8,680) than any other previous model and is considered the definitive “Flying Fortress”. With its 13 .50-caliber machine guns, Chin, top, ball and tail turrets; waist and cheek guns the B-17 was indeed an airplane that earned the respect of its combatants. In addition, the flight crews loved the B-17 for her ability to take and withstand heavy combat damage and return safely home.
During WWII, the B-17 saw service in every theater of operation, but was operated primarily by the 8th Air force in Europe and participated in countless missions from bases in England. A typical B-17 Mission often lasted for more than eight hours and struck targets deep within enemy territory. During the war, B-17’s dropped 640,036 tons of bombs on European targets in daylight raids. This compares to the 452,508 tons dropped by the B-24 and 464,544 tons dropped by all other U.S. aircraft. The B-17 also downed 23 enemy aircraft per 1,000 raids as compared with 11 by B-24’s and 11 by fighters and three by all U.S. medium and light bombers.
There were a total of 12,732 B-17’s that were produced between 1935 and May 1945. Of these 4,735 were lost in combat. Following WWII, the B-17 saw service in three more wars. B-17’s were used in Korea, Israel used them in the war of 1948 and they were even used during Vietnam.
Today, fewer than 100 B-17 airframes exist and fewer still are in airworthy condition. At one time, more than 1000 B-17’s could be assembled for mass combat missions, now less than 15 of Boeings famous bombers can still take to the sky.