The Truth Behind the Memphis Belle Legend
If you’ve seen the 1990 film “Memphis Belle,” you know the story of the B-17 and her trusty crew, the first heavy bomber of World War II to complete 25 missions and return home. It’s a stirring tale and the movie included an all-star cast. Only problem is, it isn’t true. The Memphis Belle was not the first to complete the required number of missions. In fact, she may have been the third.
On a recent post on Warbirds News, U.S. Air Force veteran Jim Lux stated “The first heavy bomber in the 8th Air Force to complete 25 missions in World War II was the B-24 Liberator ‘Hot Stuff’. It completed its 25th mission on February 7, 1943, three and a half months before the B-17 Memphis Belle.”
While the article on Memphis Belle had included the qualifier “first B-17 United States Army Air Force heavy bomber to complete 25 combat missions with her crew intact,” which on a factual basis at least made the article “correct” insofar as it specified that it was the “first to 25 missions with her crew intact,” but the truth is that, until recently, the name “Hot Stuff” didn’t spark any particular recollection.
In 1942, during the first three months of America’s combat flights over Europe the average bomber crew was expected to complete eight to 12 missions before being shot down or disabled. This in mind, the US Army Air Force decided that 25 missions while serving in a heavy bomber of the 8th Army Air Force would constitute a “completed tour of duty” because of the “physical and mental strain on the crew.”
While the 25 Mission edict was a tall order when it was made, it was a number crews could believe in, and provided some hope of light at the end of the tunnel, particularly necessary with the grim statistics bomber crews faced early-on, before long-range fighter escorts significantly improved mission survivability when they arrived later on in the course of the conflict.
The 25-mission milestone becomes harder to pin down when considering changing crew members due to rotation, death, injury, illness, leave and equipment failures leading to spare planes pressed into service, errant wartime record-keeping, etc. Setting aside all the caveats for the moment, the research performed and documentation provided by Jim Lux seems to conclusively show that the 93rd Bombardment Group, 330th Bombardment Squadron’s B-24 Liberator Hot Stuff and her crew flew their 25th mission on February 7, 1943 dropping bombs on Naples, Italy, and went on to fly five additional missions thereafter, before “Hot Stuff” and her crew were recalled to the United States, where they were scheduled to go on a War Bonds Tour, a home front publicity junket, where combat aircraft and crews of significant accomplishment were sometimes pulled from frontline service and flown back to the United States to serve as the stirring personification of the heroism of America’s military, helping move the paper and boosting public morale.
The 303rd Bombardment Group 358th Bombardment Squadron, B-17F Flying Fortress “Hell’s Angels”, after which the Group later named itself, completed its 25th mission on May 13, 1943. It became the first 8th Air Force B-17 to complete 25 combat missions and at the end of their tour, the crew of Hell’s Angels signed on for a second and continued to fly, going on to fly 48 missions, without ever turning back from their assigned target no less, before the aircraft was returned to the states on January 20, 1944 for its own publicity tour.
The 91st Bombardment Group, 324th Bombardment Squadron’s B-17F Flying Fortress Memphis Belle’s crew flew their 25th combat mission on May 17, 1943, against the naval yard at Lorient, France. Interestingly, this raid was the Belle’s 24th combat mission as the original crew occasionally flew missions on other planes and other crews took the Belle on missions as well. Those uncertainties aside, on May 19, the Memphis Belle flew its 25th combat mission on a strike against Kiel, Germany, though manned by a different crew. Those who flew the Memphis Belle did seem to have particularly good luck though as none of her crew died or was significantly injured on her missions, despite being routinely riddled with bullets and damaged by flak, reportedly going through nine engines, both wings, two tails, and both main landing gear assemblies over the course of her seven month combat career.
The story of “Hot Stuff”, heading home at last after at least 30 missions completed, ends in tragedy. The plane and her crew was on the return flight to the states for a War Bonds publicity and morale-boosting tour on May 3, 1943, and Lieutenant General Frank M. Andrews, Commander of the European Theatre of Operations needed to get back the states as he had been summoned to Washington DC by the General of the Army, George Marshall. Andrews and his entourage hitched a ride on “Hot Stuff”, and in doing so bumped five crew members from the flight. Andrews, an experienced, instrument-rated pilot, bumped the normal co-pilot off the plane and flew in his place. Also aboard were Andrews’ staff and four clergymen, who bumped five other crewmen.
There are plenty of anecdotal sources that say the real purpose of General Andrews’ travel was that he was going back to Washington, D.C., to be blessed by Congress and the president, awarded his fourth star, and formally named Supreme Allied Commander in Europe,” revealed Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Professor William Waldock, an accident investigator and “aviation archaeologist.
Though they were supposed to refuel at Prestwick, Scotland before heading out over the Atlantic, the crew elected to skip stopping at Prestwick and proceed to their next waypoint, Reykjavik, Iceland. They arrived to find the weather at their destination quite dicey with snow squalls, low clouds and rain. After several landing attempts, the B-24 crashed into the side of 1,600-foot-tall Mount Fagradalsfjall, near Grindavik, Iceland. Upon impact, the aircraft disintegrated except for the tail gunner’s turret, which remained relatively intact, and 14 of the 15 aboard died except the tail-gunner who, though injured, survived the crash.
Because the B-24′s commander was a captain and the co-pilot was a three-star general, Waldock believes that it’s likely that Andrews was making the decisions, contributing to the disaster.
U.S. officials, hoping to divert attention from the crash and death of a high-ranking military official, decided to promote the “Memphis Belle” as the first aeroplane to complete 25 missions and sent the crew on the promotional tour, Waldock said.
After Andrews’ death, Dwight D. Eisenhower was named Supreme Allied Commander, and went on to become president.
“Hot Stuff” and her crew were soon forgotten, while Lieutenant General Andrews is remembered through Joint Base Andrews in Maryland being named in his honour. Discovering the historical discrepancy in 1999 through a friend and fellow Commemorative Air Force member, USAF Major Robert T. “Jake” Jacobson, who was one of the bumped crew members that fateful night, Jim Lux began seeking to correct what he sees as an injustice perpetrated by history and is working on not only getting “Hot Stuff” and her crew their place in the history books, but is also working to have a monument erected near the site of the crash, enlisting the US Ambassador to Iceland, Luis E. Arreaga as a liaison to the Republic of Iceland and has gained the support of a growing number of other Air Force retirees who after seeing the documentation, agree that the crew of “Hot Stuff” is getting short shrift. Lux has also been in contact with the National Museum of the United States Air Force, turning over to them debris he recently retrieved from the site of the crash and is negotiating with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum for a “Hot Stuff” display.
Through his fundraising efforts, Lux in 2013 returned to Iceland for a 70th anniversary memorial service attended by some of the descendants of the crew of “Hot Stuff” and a plaque was installed telling the story of Andrews, Hot Stuff and her last, ill-fated flight.
Doubtless, “Hot Stuff” and her crew deserve to be remembered for their heroic accomplishment, as does the crew of “Hell’s Angels”, and all the other pilots and planes who served, regardless of circumstances of their sacrifice. That the “Memphis Belle” and her crew had a more storybook quality to their military careers that better fit with the narrative that the government desired for home-front consumption is obvious. After all the adversity, damage and close calls, no one was ever seriously injured, and her entire crew made it home. In fact, the mythic “Memphis Belle effect” was such that there wasn’t a death among those who had served on her for nearly 40 years after her last combat flight, in defiance of actuarial norms, and Americans, for better or worse are conditioned to respond to a happy ending, especially when it goes against all probability.
The old saw goes “the first casualty of war is truth,” and it is entirely likely that there were other planes and/or crews between “Hot Stuff” and “Memphis Belle” that completed the vaunted 25 missions that constituted a “completed tour of duty,” a bar that was moved at various times to 25, 30, and 35 missions, depending on the overall loss rates, the degree of mission difficulty, as well as the conditions that they were operating in. In the end the significance of specific mission counts are completely arbitrary. That the “Memphis Belle” story, though abetted by a government anxious to report uplifting and inspiring stories of the war to its people at home, captured the public’s imagination, doesn’t make the story any less inspiring and does not and should not be perceived as taking something away from the countless others who made sacrifices for their country, just as the recognizing the achievements of the crews of “Hot Stuff” and “Hell’s Angels” don’t diminish the sacrifices made by those unfortunate souls who went down in flames whether on their first, fourth or 24th mission in service to their country.