When Propaganda Wasn’t Viewed with Alarm
George Larrimore and Willy Bearden are co-founders of PropagandaTV.
Tennessee now has an Official State Airplane. It hasn’t been seen in public since 2005 and it’s doubtful the Official Airplane will ever grace the skies over Tennessee again. But it’s certain that no airplane has ever carried the name of its namesake city higher, further or to greater glory than that plane, The Memphis Belle.
We launched our business, PropagandaTV, by digging through a vast archive of films made by and for the American government. While the word propaganda today is seen as negative, it hasn’t always been. During World War II, numerous films beat the drums to remind the folks back home of the courage of our fighting men, to keep up morale, and to help sell War Bonds.
One of the best of these films is The Memphis Belle: A Story Of A Flying Fortress. In a way the movie is what really made the Belle famous.
The Belle was just one of more than 12,000 B-17 bombers, but when the movie was shown in theatres in 1944, the Belle came to represent American courage in the skies. You have to remember that 40,000 American airmen were killed (mostly between 1943 and 1945) and 23,000 planes were lost.
The Belle was chosen because (if it could avoid being shot down) it was about to complete twenty-five bombing missions over Europe. It would be the first plane and crew to do that. To William Wyler, the Hollywood director (and an Army Major) who was in charge of the film, the Belle had a “certain mystique.” Part of it was the plane’s captain, Robert Morgan, who had a reputation for bringing his planes back. One crewman said of Morgan “He always brought us home.” And part of the mystique was the wartime love story behind the name.
The actual Memphis Belle was a Memphis teenager named Margaret Polk. She was on vacation and Morgan was in flight training in Walla Walla, Washington when they met. The now famous “nose art” for Morgan’s B-17 was by illustrator George Petty, from a pin-up in the April 1941 issue of Esquire magazine. An Army Corporal painted the image (a long-legged blonde talking on the phone) on both sides of the fuselage, in a red swimsuit on one side, in blue on the other.
The Belle was put into service in July of 1942. In October it went into action from the Royal Air Force base at Bressenbourn, England as part of the 91st Bombardment Group, the 324th Bombardment Squadron.
The film is widely viewed on our website, and via AppleTV and Roku, because it’s a great film. William Wyler was a Hollywood master, and he understood this war. In 1942, his film “Mrs. Miniver” had won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, for Wyler. It was the story of the stalwart courage of the British people in war’s early days.
“The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress” begins in the pastoral English countryside (filmed in color) with scenes of cows, barns, churches. And the squatting, olive drab forms of the B-17s. The narration of the film is understated. As ground crews prepare the planes the narrator almost whispers to the audience “Wouldn’t want anything to go wrong that would be your fault.”
Meanwhile, the flight crews, impossibly young in their bomber jackets and green flight suits, are shown the day’s targets. We are told what they’re feeling. “Sometimes your face turns white when you find out where you’re going” and “sometimes the feeling you won’t come back tightens your insides.” An officer shows a chalkboard drawing of the formation, the route to the target and back. He tells the flyers what’s waiting; weather, anti-aircraft fire, fighter planes. He reminds them what to do if they are captured. It’s “the Big League of sky fighting,” the narrator says. It’s May 15th, 1943.
We see the “wheels up” when the Belle takes off. Wyler and the 1st Motion Picture Unit have mounted four cameras inside the plane. Another is in the hands of a cinematographer who has been ordered by Morgan to not get in the way.
The finished film includes action shot on board other planes on other missions. And this particular bombing run was actually mission number twenty-four for the Belle’s crew. Twenty-five would be flown a few days later. But what happens on the mission is extraordinarily dangerous. Wyler had cameras going in another plane at the same time, in case the Belle were lost. A cinematographer with Wyler’s unit was killed when a B-17 was shot down in April of 1943.
Inside, the plane is cramped, with ten crewmen plus the camera operator. With five thousand pounds of bombs, thirteen machine guns and ammunition and almost two tons of fuel, it lumbers up to cruising altitude. It’s loud, with the wind roaring past an opening for the waist gunners and, at twenty five thousand feet, it’s forty below zero.
There’s music in the movie, the roar of engines, later the sounds of guns and anti-aircraft explosions. All that was added back in Hollywood. But the tension in the young faces is palpable. Eyes peering out at anything that doesn’t belong in the high blue sky. Then, the explosions start, anti-aircraft shells bursting like popcorn, only black. The plane is churned by it, and by Captain Morgan constantly turning the ship to avoid being hit. The sky is full of explosions and shrapnel.
Suddenly the gunners are shooting. German fighters, their guns blinking red, race down at the bombers. Inside the Belle, the top turret, the ball turret, the door gunners all wrestle the guns back and forth trying to catch the fighters as they streak past. These are moments of concentrated hell for the B-17 crews, and hell for the fighters too. There’s a streak trailing a fighter. A hit. A win for us. Then smoke pours from the engine of another bomber, it starts to lose speed and altitude. The fighters will find it and kill it. Then another one of ours is hit, falls out of the formation and hurtles, spinning, toward the ground. The Belle’s crew wish for parachutes, then count them. Then the bombardier makes the drop, the formation turns for home, for England.
It seems almost miraculous that any plane could survive this. Fuselages blown out by explosions, ripped by bullets, stripped by fire. But most of them do, the young fliers, back on earth, laughing, bragging, smoking. Anguishing.
After the mission, all the crew of the Memphis Belle were decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross. They met the King and Queen. The narrator promises planes like the Belle will “bomb the enemy again and again and again until he’s had enough. Until we can all go home.”
The next act for the Belle was a War Bond drive back in the States. The crew and plane were famous. The romance between dashing Captain Morgan and Margaret Polk didn’t survive the war. But they remained friends for life, tied together by the Belle.
The long post-war journey of the plane was hard. It sat for years in Memphis, weather-ravaged and vandalized, until volunteers rescued it. The Belle spent years on display in a pavilion by the Mississippi River, where visitors could see it and touch it. Ultimately the Air Force wanted the Belle for the National Museum of the United States Air Force. It is, after all, one of the five most famous planes in American history. It is so famous that, in 1990, Hollywood made a feature film about the mission.
Tennessee State Representative Ron Lollar co-sponsored the legislation that brought the Official Airplane designation. “When it was first restored I got to sit in it and go through it. It was such a thrill,” he says. “The Memphis Belle is truly not just a Tennessee treasure but a national treasure.”
The re-constructed Memphis Belle will next be on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, in 2018, the 75th anniversary of her glory days.