The Story of a WWII Icon

Our first “blast from the past” is the iconic nose art from the Memphis Belle. Belle was one of the first B-17s to complete 25 combat missions over Europe without losing a single crew member to enemy action.

Because of all the publicity Belle received, many don’t realize that she was not the first B-17 to complete the 25-mission milestone.  That honor goes to a B-17 from the 303rd Bomber Group that went by the name “Hell’s Angels.”  She completed her 25th mission just days before the Memphis Belle.

A B17 and her crew
The crew of “Hell’s Angels” (and numerous other members of the 303rd) pose with the historic aircraft.

After completing its combat missions, the Memphis Belle toured the United States to boost morale and promote war bonds. The nose art, in conjunction with the aircraft’s remarkable service record, turned the Memphis Belle into a wartime legend.

The Inspiration for the Artwork

The heavy bomber was named after pilot Robert K. Morgan’s sweetheart, Margaret Polk, a resident of Memphis, Tennessee. The nose art itself was inspired by a 1941 George Petty illustration in “Esquire” magazine. The original art on the Belle featured a seductive young woman dressed in a blue bathing suit, gracefully perched on her right leg. This artwork became synonymous with the aircraft and was a symbol of pride for the crew.

Margaret Polk and Robert Morgan
Robert Morgan stands in front of the Memphis Belle with Margaret Polk. Image courtesy of the Preservation and Special Collections Department, University Libraries, University of Memphis

Seeing Red

Yes, I realize in our featured image the Belle is wearing a red bathing suit. Originally, it was indeed blue when it first appeared on the aircraft. However, the color was changed to red when the plane was restored for display. The reason for this alteration is not entirely clear, and there’s no widely accepted or documented explanation for the color change.

It could be that the change was a result of an incorrect restoration or a decision made for aesthetic reasons. Some have speculated that the color change might have been made to make the artwork more visually striking or to more closely match a different version of the original Petty illustration.

inspiration for the nose art on Memphis Belle
Here is a detail from the original piece of art of a “Petty Girl” featured in the April 1941 edition of Esquire magazine.  The title of this piece is, “I’m the one with the part in the back.”

The Original War Department Documentary

To shine some positive light on the war effort, The U.S. War Department sent Hollywood director William Wyler to create a documentary about the Memphis Belle, focusing on its 25-mission milestone. This brought the aircraft and its crew significant fame, overshadowing other B-17s that had achieved the same feat.