From the April/May 1990 issue of Air & Space/Smithsonian. Reprinted by permission.
From This Story
Margaret Polk sits at a table in her sunroom leafing through a scrapbook. It is a dreary winter day in Memphis. The backyard swimming pool is covered and the bird feeders are bare. “Those little bastards,” she says, looking out the window. “I feed them all winter long and as soon as they start turning pretty, they fly away.”
There is a hint of stubbornness in the set of her jaw, but her eyes have a mischievous gleam. As she leafs through the scrapbook it is difficult to recognize her as the 20-year-old girl in the yellowed newspaper clippings. But Margaret Polk, 47 years older and a lifetime wiser now, is the original Memphis Belle.
Margaret was catapulted into the public eye when her fiancé, Captain Robert Morgan, returned to Memphis from the war in England flying “her” B-17, the Memphis Belle. Morgan had named it after Margaret, and the city dutifully adopted both the couple and the bomber. Local bigwigs were on hand when it touched down at Memphis Municipal Airport on June 19, 1943, but Margaret was oblivious to the reporters assigned to cover her. When the Memphis Belle finally landed on that summer day and Bob Morgan jumped out to sweep Margaret into his arms, the photo of their embrace made the front page of the afternoon paper.
Margaret says that was the happiest day of her life. “All I could think about was that he was coming home and we were going to get married,” she says. “But anytime the government gets involved they’ll screw things up. And they wanted a romance, not a marriage.” The wedding was postponed.
Margaret had met Bob the previous summer while visiting her sister in Walla Walla, Washington. To Margaret, he was just another pilot stationed at the airbase. But Bob was not to be ignored. Every morning he buzzed her sisters’s house with his B-17. Weeks later, flattered but not swayed, Margaret drove back to Memphis to finish her senior year at Southwestern University. At home, a letter from Bob was waiting.
“My dearest ‘Polky,’ ” it read. “I miss you ‘little one.’ I miss you more than you’ll ever know or understand…. I know now that I have never loved before…. If we can’t have OUR LIFE before the war is over I know I shall come to you afterwards, providing you still want me…. Write soon, ‘little one.’ I send you all the love in my heart. Forever yours, Bob.”
That got her attention. When Bob sent a telegram a few weeks later to say he’d be in Jackson, Mississippi, that evening, Margaret drove all night to spend a few hours with him. They were engaged on September 12. Bob named his new B-17 the Memphis Belle, had one of Esquire’s Petty Girls painted on its nose, and flew off to England. If he had named the bomber Little One, as he had originally intended, Margaret’s life—and his—might have turned out quite different.
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.