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Volume VII Issue II Fall - 2004
Farewell, COL. Morgan
By R. E. Smith Jr.

Bob Morgan died recently in Asheville, North Carolina. I never met him, but I feel an historic connection and I’m saddened by his death. He was 85 years old and died prematurely from a fall after attending an airshow in Asheville. His heroic life and sacrifices are honorable and worth remembering. Morgan and 16 million of his generation recognized evil and risked their lives to destroy it.

Col. Robert K. Morgan commanded the B-17 bomber known as the Memphis Belle, during World War II. Morgan and his crew of 10 flew the "Flying Fortress" with the Eighth Air Force on 25 combat missions over Europe. Their plane was hit many times, but never downed.

I was a pre-teen in 1942 and ’43 when Morgan and his men were risking their lives to stop the Nazi war machine. Many of us underage youngsters wished we could have joined them, but we had to be content doing our part for the "war effort" by collecting scrap metal and paper; helping our parents grow vegetables in our "Victory Gardens;" and learning to spot enemy aircraft from silhouette cards.

My dad, a tool designer, and many home front men and women within a two-hour commute by car, bus and train of our small upstate town, Sidney, New York, had a more direct role in the war supporting our "boys" overseas. The Scintilla Magneto Company acquired by the Bendix Aviation Corporation about 1930, had been operated by two Swiss engineers since 1925. They perfected the Scintilla magneto. With their "brilliant, flashing sparks," these well crafted, dependable "mags" were in high demand as ignition systems for aircraft engines during World War II.

More than 9,000 employees worked at our "war plant." All the factory windows were blacked out in case of an enemy air raid on our strategic factory. Fortunately, none came, thanks to men like Bob Morgan who kept them away from our shores. I remember the company band playing at war bond rallies held outside the plant, just behind our house. We were proud of our work to help "keep ‘em flying."

Earlier on the day Bob Morgan died I visited the restoration site of his plane just north of Memphis. The Memphis Belle Memorial Association is committed to completely restoring the old Boeing B-17-F— a three-year project. Inside hanger N7 at the Millington Municipal Airport, teams of energized volunteers with the Jim Webb Restoration Facility are pulling the plane apart, literally rivet by rivet. They plan to put it back together in nearly original condition. The fuselage and wings reside in the main hanger; the 1200 hp Wright-Cyclone engines meticulously being rebuilt in another room, tail-sections in another, and the ten .50 and .30 caliber Browning machine guns and gun-turrets in yet another.

War time Air Corps tradition allowed the pilot to name his plane, usually after a female pinup, as a morale booster. Col. Morgan chose his Memphian sweetheart, Margaret Polk. The colorful figure of a leggy young woman clad in a one-piece bathing suit, in a sensual pose, is painted on both sides on the nose of the plane. Beside her figure many little painted bombs and swastikas represent bomb loads dropped on targets and confirmed enemy aircraft downed by the crew.

Bob Holbrook, our tour guide and knowledgeable restoration volunteer, said, regardless of who the lady honored on the aircraft, they all seemed to resemble famous pinup Betty Grable. Memphis Belle was drawn from a picture in a 1941 issue of "Esquire" magazine. She was the crew’s good luck charm.

Twenty-four year old Col. Bob Morgan and his crew survived combat with the 324th squadron, 91st Bombardment Group. After their required 25 missions they were ordered back to the States in June 1943 (I had my 10th Birthday that month.). Back home they did tours for the Army Air Corps to promote War Bonds and raise morale.

Bob Morgan died on Armed Forces Day 2004, a day of remembrance little noticed now. It was appropriate. President Dwight Eisenhower said it is fitting to devote a day as tribute to "those whose constancy and courage constitute one of the bulwarks guarding the freedom of this nation and the peace of the free world." The men of the Memphis Belle had the constancy and courage of which General Eisenhower spoke. They sacrificed to guard our freedom and bring peace to much of the world.

But peace isn’t a permanent condition. It must be watched over, and we must be ready to fight for it. Words spoken by General Omar N. Bradley on Armed Forces Day, 1950 are appropriate today. He said, "Vigilance, not appeasement, is the byword of living freedom."
God bless you, Col. Morgan. Rest in peace.

Robert E. Smith Jr. is a freelance writer who lives in Wilmington, North Carolina. He is a contributing editor to the Carolina Journal in Raleigh, NC.