Everybody knows by now the story of the Memphis Belle — the famed B-17 Flying Fortress that was the first bomber to complete 25 missions over Europe during World War II. The plane piloted by Captain Robert Morgan and named after his Memphis sweetheart, Margaret Polk. The plane that returned to the states, took part in war bond drives, was put on display in Memphis, and eventually became one of the most famous airplanes in history.
But how do you really know the story? Did you learn it from the 1940s documentary produced by acclaimed Hollywood director William Wyler? Did you hear about the plane by reading newspaper reporter Menno Duerksen's 1987 book, Memphis Belle: Home at Last? Did you learn about the Morgan/Polk love story by reading the pilot's own autobiography, The Man Who Flew the Memphis Belle? Or did you — God forbid — learn about this airplane from the godawful 1990 movie of that name starring Matthew Modine?
Well, according to Graham Simons and Harry Friedman, the co-authors of Memphis Belle: Dispelling the Myths, if those were your sources, then the story you know about the Belle is almost certainly wrong. The movies and books are just riddled with errors, and one book in particular about the plane (which I won't even mention here) is "barely adequate." The 1990 movie was filled with "clichés that dropped like bombs." Even the book written by Morgan himself "manages to muddy the waters further ... and indeed one has a strong suspicion that within this book was an active attempt to erase Margaret Polk from the pages of history."
So Simons and Friedman took it upon themselves to set the record straight, by examining thousands and thousands of pages of official wartime records and other historical documents, relying on these instead of the faulty memories of individuals involved, or the sensation-seeking efforts of Hollywood directors. The result — which the authors say "has been 30 years in the compilation" — is a whopping 534-page tome that details in every possible way the entire history of the Memphis Belle, from her construction, through her celebrated missions over wartorn Europe, and her final days after the war.
As Friedman writes in his introduction, he wanted to tell the plane's true story, but it was also his goal to create a tribute "to honor the incredible bravery of each and every man and woman who worked for and flew with the American Eighth Air Force in general, and the men who flew and worked on the Memphis Belle in particular."
An especially important goal of this book, he says, "is to record Margaret Polk's true and accurate place in history." If that comment intrigues you, it should.
The book is rather pricey, at $120, but if you want to get the real scoop on one of our city's icons, then it's worth every penny. It's packed with vintage photos, war records, letters, and all sorts of information that I've never encountered before. I highly recommend it for anybody interested in this plane and everyone involved in it.