The Two Memphis Belles

The romance behind the famous B-17’s name.

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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.”

A small item ran in the August 3 Memphis Commercial Appeal: “Wedding Bells Won’t Ring Out for Memphis Belle and Flier.” Within a week Bob was engaged to a woman in San Antonio. That too made the news, but the romance didn’t last. Soon Bob was again begging Margaret to reconsider.

She needed more time, but the war wouldn’t wait. By December Bob had a new assignment and a new airplane to fly in the Pacific. He wrote to Margaret and thanked her, on behalf of the whole crew, for allowing them to name the Memphis Belle after her. Then he married Dorothy Johnson of Asheville, North Carolina, his hometown. A year later he led the first B-29 raid on Tokyo in a bomber named Dauntless Dotty.

Margaret Polk still lives in Memphis, where the Memphis Belle is on permanent display. She occasionally shows up at the Memphis Belle Pavilion to sign autographs. Often she’s asked if she’s the girl in the bathing suit perched up there on the nose of the airplane. She’s not, but she tells them she is—just to see their “little ol’ mouths fall open.”

“I’m still crazy about Bob,” she says. In the 1950s Margaret married a traveling tractor parts salesman, but the five-year marriage never approached the intensity of the romance she had with Bob, who eventually divorced Johnson and remarried.

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