The first 'Memphis Belle' was actually shot down before it completed 25 missions

You’ve probably heard of the Memphis Belle, especially after the 1990 film starring Matthew Modine and Harry Connick, Jr.

That film took a lot of liberties with the story of the actual B-17 that was the subject of a documentary done during World War II, “Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress.”

But history can also be very malleable, especially in the hands of Hollywood.

When Hollywood director William Wyler was doing a documentary for the U.S. government on the first Allied bomber crew to complete a 25-mission “tour” over Europe, he took some liberties. Why? Because it was World War II, and the bombing campaign over Europe was a bloody affair. In fact, the Directors Guild of America notes that during the filming of the documentary, cinematographer and World War I vet Harold J. Tannebaum was killed when the Nazis shot down the B-24 Liberator he was in.

The Memphis Belle in the sky, June 1943. (USAF photo)

According to the memoirs of Robert Morgan, the pilot of the Memphis Belle, Wyler had picked a different bomber for the feature film, a B-17 known as “Invasion 2nd.” That plane – and five others – were shot down on an April 17, 1943, mission to Bremen. The Memphis Belle was chosen to replace Invasion 2nd – Morgan related how he was told that another plane had a back-up film crew on a bomber called “Hell’s Angels” in case the Memphis Belle went down. Wyler actually filmed parts of multiple missions for the documentary – the mission portrayed on the film was actually the Memphis Belle’s 24th mission.

Of course, the Memphis Belle did complete the tour – and she got all the accolades of being the “first” to do so. The crew of Hell’s Angels, though, actually flew their 25th mission a week before the Memphis Belle flew her 25th mission. The documentary, though, became a classic.

The Memphis Belle on a War Bond tour. (USAF photo)

Wyler went on to direct a documentary about the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt’s operations in Italy, titled, “Thunderbolt!” He was wounded by an exploding anti-aircraft shell, losing some of his hearing.

After the war, he went on to direct the classic films “The Best Years of Our Lives” — a movie about veterans who returned home that won nine Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director — and “Ben Hur,” featuring former B-25 gunner Charlton Heston, which won 11 Oscars.

Today, “Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress” is available via the Internet Archive and Netflix is also streaming the film. It is also on Youtube. Feel free to watch it below. The Memphis Belle is currently being restored at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, Ohio.

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