Just last week the North Carolina Room got a phone call. “Is it true that Asheville’s famous World War II fighter pilot, Robert Morgan, really flew the Memphis Belle between the Asheville City Hall and the Buncombe County Courthouse?” They were working on an aviation display in Greensboro and wanted to include the story. They found it mentioned in the book Asheville and Western North Carolina in World War II by Reid Chapman and Deborah Miles. It was one of those “eye-roller” questions, because we had gotten it before, and never been able to prove that it was true.
Just earlier in the month we were asked the same question. A newspaper article from 1979 when Morgan and others were trying to find a proper home for the Memphis Belle, Morgan was relating the story of the homecoming and parade the crew were given when they returned to Asheville in August 1943. Speaking to the reporter Morgan says, “There has been some speculation here for years about whether I actually flew the Belle between the Court House and City Hall during that visit. In the past I have steadfastly refused to answer questions about that. And I think I’ll continue to refuse to answer.” [A C-T July 1, 1979.]
Having the date of when Morgan flew out of Asheville, I diligently looked through the microfilm of the Asheville Citizen and the Asheville Times. Nothing. Another urban legend, we surmised.
Three days later a resident of North Asheville, Cissy Dendy, who lives in a house her parents bought in 1940 on Madison Avenue, walked in with a large bag of family photographs for us to scan. She started telling us about her father, John Brooks Dendy, who had been a caddy at the Asheville Country Club, and who became a three-time Negro National Open champion. She mentioned that her father was friends with “Colonel Morgan.” My mouth dropped.
“You know who Colonel Morgan is don’t you? Cissy asked. “He’s the one who flew his plane between the City Hall and the Courthouse.”
“That’s true?” I gasped.
“What? Do I have to tell you folks about your white history, too!”
I explained that I’d tried to verify that story for years and not been able to.
“He wrote about it in his memoir. You all have his memoir don’t you?”
If I’d known about Robert Morgan’s memoir, I’d forgotten it. It’s easy to get stuck on thinking that the newspaper is proof if something happened or not. We are usually pretty good at sniffing things out and pursuing questions to the end of the world. Morgan’s book is The Man Who Flew the Memphis Belle: Memoir of a WWII Bomber Pilot” published in 1991, and if you’ve read it, you knew the right answer. If you haven’t read it, it’s a very good book and includes a lot of information about Asheville.
In seven months, between between November 7, 1942 and May 17, 1943, the Memphis Belle flew 25 successful missions over occupied France and Nazi Germany, and the Memphes Belle was the first bomber to do so.
On June 13, 1943, the crew left for home. It was their 26th mission: General Eaker gave them their orders: “This is your most important mission. You’re to go home and thank the American public for what they’re doing, and ask them to continue to send us planes and guns and ammunition and all those things they’re making in our factories. Remind them that what they have done has made possible what you-all have done. That’s your mission. Carry it out.”
After stops in several cities including Washington, DC, Pittsburg, Cleveland and Mobile, they came on to Asheville arriving at the Asheville-Henderson Airport.
But first you must know something about Robert Morgan. His departure from the training field in Camden, SC was delayed because they had made a mistake in recording his flying hours and he was asked to log in another half hour in the air. He shortly found himself “banking and looping back and forth over Camden” and then dropped into his landing approach and “thought to himself he might just go down and take a real close look.” At this point, in that glitch of one more ride, “was born one of my most famous, or infamous, maverick traits as an Army Air Forces pilot.” Morgan didn’t know there was a term for it but he found out when he got to the ground. “Morgan, you buzzed this field!” ‘No buzzing’ was part of ground school, it was one of the rules of the Army Air Forces. Morgan himself felt that “the first buzz of his career was not exactly a grass-cutter. I didn’t get any lower than 200 feet.”
His next to last buzz, as far as I know, was on his homecoming day when he buzzed the Biltmore Forest Country Club Golf Course. “I took the Belle down by the eighteenth hole, low enough that you could have pinged her underbelly with an eight-iron shot, and I noticed that some of the golfers were heading for the woods.”
The Memphis Belle crew left Asheville Saturday, August 14. “Taking off from the Asheville airport the next day, I found myself once again in the grip of my favorite vice. . .”We took off to the north and then turned east up over Patton Avenue. Down ahead of us, on a square at the crest of a gradual rise in the center of town, City Hall and the Courthouse stood, separated from one another by not a whole lot of space at all. “Oh Boy,” I said to myself. “Should I go between those building?” Yes, my self answered. I think I should. I figured that a sixty-degree bank would squeeze us through all right. And so, heading east, I banked the plane and put the left wing right down between the Courthouse and City Hall. It was kind of a tight fit, but we made it. Then I turned the Memphis Belle left and pulled her up over Sunset Mountain, and we were out of town.”
The Asheville City Hall at that time happened to house the office of the Weather Wing Unit of the Army Air Forces. The Lieutenant Colonel in command of that unit happened to be looking out the window as the Belle slanted past . . . Before we had even reached our cruising altitude he was on the telephone to the Pentagon, sput-sputtering about how Morgan had damn near taken half of greater municipal Asheville with him on leaving the town. As I understand it, the reply he got thoughtfully addressed all his concerns. “Major Morgan,” the Pentagon officer replied, “has been given permission to buzz by Lieutenant General Henry Arnold.”
Post by Zoe Rhine Librarian