The Memphis Belle

by J. C. Sprott

My parents must have enjoyed Christmas Eve in 1941. I surmise as much by subtracting 266 days from my birth date of September 16, 1942. I mention this not just because conception is a logical starting point for one's memoirs, but because it seems curious that my father, Frank Sprott, and his wife Ila would choose to have a child two weeks after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I suppose they had to do something while waiting for their other child, a 10-year-old son named Frank Jr., to fall asleep so that they could put the customary Christmas presents under the tree. But it's hard to escape the conclusion that I was an accident, although I never sensed that I was unwanted.

The odd timing was compounded by the fact that my father joined the Navy shortly after the US entered World War II. The other sailors called him "Pop" because he was married with children and at age 32 was somewhat older than most of them. His age probably kept him out of combat, but he spent the first year of my life apart from the rest of the family who lived in Memphis.

ROTC in 1960For anyone who witnessed the sacrifices and suffering during the War or for one born a few decades later when wars were not so noble, it's hard to understand the feelings that children who were born during or shortly after World War II had about the military and about the scientists who developed the bomb that so abruptly ended the War. A favorite children's game was "playing war," and by age six, I was dressing in my brother's high school ROTC uniform and marching around the yard.

A decade later, I followed the tradition of my father and brother by becoming an officer in high school ROTC, and I might have had a military career had I not developed such a love for science. The 400 M-1 rifles and shooting range in the basement of our high school probably didn't last much beyond my graduation in 1960 when I entered MIT with a student deferment from the draft.
Memphis Belle in Memphis
One of my earliest memories was when my brother used to take me to the National Guard Armory in Memphis where a B-17 bomber called the Memphis Belle sat outside on a pedestal. It was open for anyone to explore until it was eventually vandalized and closed to the public. I would crawl into every space inside that airplane and would sit in the cockpit pretending to be the pilot or in one of the gunner's positions pretending to shoot down enemy planes. I suppose I was 7 or 8 years old at the time. I didn't know much about the airplane or its history except that it was used in the War, and it was filled with instruments, electronics, and other gadgets that certainly fueled my budding interest in science. I hadn't seen the documentary film about the plane and its crew that was made in 1944 or the dramatization that was later made in 1990.

First solo in August 1971That early exposure to airplanes, as well as a ride in a Piper Cub that my father arranged with one of his friends, planted the desire to someday learn to fly -- a dream that was fulfilled only at age 28 after finishing college and graduate school. Shortly after taking my first real job as a research physicist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, I saw a plane flying over the city carrying a banner reading "Learn to Fly - Powell Airport." The next day I was at the airport taking flying lessons, and within a few months I became a licensed private pilot.

The story might have ended there except for a small announcement I saw in the newspaper after some 30 years of flying small airplanes and having many adventures of my own. It said that the B-17 replica that was used in the 1990 movie along with the pilot of the original Memphis Belle were coming to the airport at Madison, Wisconsin where I then lived. It never occurred to me that the pilot would still be alive, and I knew I had to meet him.

On the appointed day, May 31, 2003, I went out to the airport and saw the plane that looked so familiar, and thoughts of the past poured over me. The plane somehow seemed a bit smaller than I remembered, but everything looks larger than life when one is a child. I suppose I should have paid the $10 they were asking for a walk-through of the plane, but somehow I felt that I should not have to pay to renew an acquaintance with such an old friend, especially since it was not even the real Memphis Belle. Anyway, I was really there to meet the pilot.

Crew of the Memphis BelleAnd so I hurried over to the hanger where I saw an elderly gentleman sitting alone at a small table with an array of photographs spread before him. He seemed like a small man, but with a wiry, rugged appearance, and I could imagine him being able to pilot a B-17 even at his advanced age. I tentatively asked "are you the pilot of the original Memphis Belle." "Yep, I'm Robert Morgan." We shook hands and I told him how I had grown up in Memphis shortly after the War, developed a love for aviation by crawling through his airplane as a child, and eventually became a private pilot. "You're not the one who vandalized it, are you?" he asked with a smile. "Absolutely not! In fact, I was heartbroken to see what others did to the plane and very sad when I was no longer able go inside of it." I paid $10 to a woman who was hovering nearby to purchase a photograph of the plane with its original crew, and I asked Colonel Morgan to autograph it for me. "To Clint ... Best wishes ... Robert Morgan - Pilot" he wrote and added an arrow pointing to himself in the photograph.

The story ends on a sad note. A year later I saw a small announcement in the newspaper that the pilot of the original Memphis Belle had died on May 15, 2004 of complications from a fall. I will always be grateful that I had the chance to meet the pilot of the plane that kindled my interest in aviation and eventually led to a career in science.

J. C. Sprott
September 2007