The Two Memphis Belles
The romance behind the famous B-17’s name.
- By Elaine de Man
- Air & Space magazine, May 1990
Courtesy of Margaret Polk
(Page 2 of 3)
In the last months of 1942 the Allies sustained heavy losses in Europe, and American morale needed a boost. Every little victory made headlines. When the editor of the Memphis Press-Scimitar learned that one of the airplanes doing battle in Europe was named for a local woman, he immediately put a reporter on it. The next day pictures of Margaret and Bob were on the front page. “I about fainted,” says Margaret, who came home from school and discovered she was famous.
From then on news about the Memphis Belle’s victories appeared regularly. Margaret lost some 15 pounds waiting for cables, letters, and news from England. Then, on May 31, she received the cable she’d been waiting for. “SAFE TOUR OF DUTY COMPLETED FINGERS CROSSED ADORE YOU BOB.” She started eating again.
As one of the first airplanes to complete its overseas missions and the star of a War Department documentary, the Memphis Belle and its crew were selected for a stateside tour. The second stop, after Washington, D.C., was Memphis, where the young couple would be reunited. When the airplane landed, Margaret was escorted to it by an Army Air Forces public relations officer. Quite unwittingly, and without compensation, Margaret had been drafted.
The Belle flew on to Nashville and the northeast states. Margaret was flown to Cleveland by Bob’s pre-war employer to surprise him. Surprise indeed: he already had a date for the evening. Still, he swept Margaret into his arms for the cameras and insisted they get married on the spot. A store was opened so Margaret could buy a wedding dress, but she declined, envisioning a less frantic ceremony.
Margaret went home to Memphis and the Belle flew west. Her scrapbooks are full of newspaper clippings that show women clambering over one another to get an autograph from the handsome pilot of the Memphis Belle. She recalled that when Bob was in town, women called her house looking for him. “Some wanted to ask about their brothers who were still overseas,” she says. “But some of them just wanted to flirt.” She also learned that Bob had already been married.
On August 1, Margaret phoned him at the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver. “I don’t remember what made me so mad,” she says. “Some woman must have answered the telephone, or she must have come and talked to him while he was talking to me. But something happened.” Margaret broke the engagement.
“I was just devastated,” she says. “He may have tried to call the next day, but I went over to my friend’s house. I remember sitting out on her front porch just crying my heart out.”
Margaret also called her Army Air Forces contact. “He said, ‘You can’t break that engagement.’ I said, ‘Well, the hell I can’t. I’ve already done it.’ He said, ‘You hold fire now, I’ll get back to you.’ Then he called me back and said, ‘Well, don’t you get it to the newspapers. Let’s keep this under cover.’ But it was too late.”