Robert K. Morgan commanded one of the Army Air Force's most famous heavy bombers during World War 11. Although many crews later completed 25 combat sorties, Morgan and the other nine men of the "Memphis Belle" were the first to reach that goal as a crew. Born on 31 July 1920, in Asheville, North Carolina, Morgan grew up during the Great Depression. His father kept the family going on the $50 a month he earned as a night watchman. His mother's death dealt the young Morgan another blow, but he proved to be a survivor. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a business degree just before joining the Army Air Corps in December 1940. Upon receiving his commission and wings, he went on to train in the Consolidated B-24 Liberator and Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.
While in training at Walla Walla, Washington he met Margaret Polk, a southern belle from Memphis, Tennessee. The two were engaged before Morgan went overseas. He crossed the Atlantic in October 1942 in a B-17 christened the "Memphis Belle" and was assigned to the 324th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy) at Bassingbourn, England. By the fall of 1942, combat leaders such as Curtis LeMay had refined bombardment doctrine and developed the "combat box" formation, which Morgan would later fly over Germany. His first missions were flown against targets in occupied France and the Low Countries, but in early 1943, the B- 17s were launched against the enemy's homeland. As the Americans pushed deeper over the Reich, they outdistanced allied fighter cover and losses mounted.
The bomber crews' morale plummeted! Rotation was set at 25 missions, but it seemed an impossible goal. Morgan and Miss Polk wrote regularly and as his crew neared rotation, the story of the aircraft and the romance became well known. Morgan returned home to a hero's welcome-he had survived, but the romance with Miss Polk would not. After a three month publicity tour of the United States in 1943, Morgan took command of the 869th Bombardment Squadron (Very Heavy) which was equipped with the Boeing B-29 Superfortress in the summer of 1944. On 24 November 1944, he led the first B-29 raid over Tokyo from Twentieth Air Force's hard-won base on Saipan in the Marianas.
He completed another 25 combat missions before returning home in May 1945. Morgan left active duty in September 1945, but continued serving in the reserves. Back in North Carolina, he joined his father's furniture manufacturing business and later formed a Volkswagen dealership, ironically becoming a partner with men who had once been his enemies. He retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1965 as a colonel.
In May 1943, Captain Robert Morgan and the crew of the "Memphis Belle " neared completion of their combat tour. The Army Air Force saw an opportunity to publicize this milestone and invited Hollywood film director William Wyler to document their final mission. Wyler flew on the 17 May mission and then put together a superb color film that dramatically brought the impact of the air war over Germany home to America. This mission came to life again in 1991 when Catherine Wyler coproduced a feature film based on her father's work.