May 16, 2004 in Nation/World

Pilot of WWII’s famous Memphis Belle dies at 85

Associated Press
 

ASHEVILLE, N.C. – Col. Robert Morgan, commander of the famed Memphis Belle B-17 bomber that flew combat missions over Europe during World War II, died late Saturday of complications from a fall, his wife said. He was 85.

Morgan was hospitalized April 22 with a fractured neck after falling following an air show at Asheville Regional Airport, said Carole Donnelly, spokeswoman for Mission Hospitals, where Morgan was treated.

His condition deteriorated and Morgan was taken off life support systems, his wife, Linda, said.

A native of Asheville, Morgan became famous as the pilot of the Memphis Belle, which flew 25 combat missions over Germany and France during World War II. Morgan co-authored a book about his experiences, “The Man Who Flew the Memphis Belle,” with Ron Powers.

Morgan and three other members of the Memphis Belle’s crew were made honorary colonels of the state of Tennessee in 2000. The airplane is parked on Mud Island in the city whose name it honors.

The crew completed its 25th bombing mission during World War II on May 17, 1943. It was a historic number; the Belle was the first heavy bomber in the European theater to last 25 missions, the magic number to be sent home.

“Twenty-five doesn’t sound like much until you start flying them,” Morgan later said.

Morgan and his crew were assigned to the plane Sept. 1, 1942. The pilot named the craft after his wartime sweetheart’s hometown.

The Belle flew to England in late September and departed on its first bombing mission on Nov. 7.

In the next six months, the Belle flew missions over France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. She was struck by flak, 20mm cannon shells and machine gun bullets. Every major part of the plane was replaced at least once, including the engines (nine times), both wings, tails and main landing gears. Four of the plane’s crew of 10 died in combat.

According to Army records, the plane flew 148 hours, dropping more than 60 tons of bombs, all on daylight missions.

“Some of them were pretty rough missions. The Luftwaffe (the German air force) boys would sometimes fly into their own flak to get at us. They were mean devils, I tell you,” said top turret gunner Harold Loch of Green Bay, Wis.

There were many close calls: engine fires, bullet holes, confrontations with fighter planes. Somehow the Belle always made it back to base when other planes went down.

Morgan said he and his men never talked about crashing or dying.

“Every time we were going to fly, we gathered in a huddle and we just told ourselves that if only one plane was coming back, it was going to be ours,” he said.

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