Few jobs in World War II were more important or more dangerous than being a member of the Eighth Air Force of the Army Air Corps. The legendary Eighth, stationed in England during the war, flew thousands of missions with deadly results — both for the Germans and for the crews of the Eighth itself.
More than 26,000 American airmen lost their lives, and more than 21,000 were wounded, a casualty rate approaching 25 percent. That's a rate higher than that of the Marine Corps in the Pacific but lower than that of the Merchant Marines, whose casualty rate during the war was an astounding 40 percent!
In the early years of the war, successful completion of 25 missions resulted in a ticket home. One of the first crews to complete 25 missions and to return home to great fanfare was the crew of the "Memphis Belle" — undoubtedly the most famous B-17 of the war.
The co-pilot of the "Memphis Belle" was Captain Jim Verinis of Woodbridge, CT. Verinis, who actually was the pilot on one of the Belle's missions, also flew a B-17 most appropriately called "Connecticut Yankee." Verinis flew as co-pilot in June of 1943 when the "Memphis Belle" flew home to America to begin a war bond tour 69 years ago this month.
Captain and pilot Robert Morgan's girlfriend, Margaret Polk, was from Memphis, TN, and was the inspiration for the B-17's name. Morgan and Verinis proposed the name to the crew after they saw a movie called "Lady For A Night" in which there is a riverboat named "The Memphis Belle." The crew agreed, and the name stuck.
"Memphis Belle: A Story of A Flying Fortress" was the first film produced about the plane. It was a 1944 documentary filmed with color photography and lasted about 45 minutes. Directed by Maj. William Wyler, the film provided the American public with a firsthand account of the Belle's 10-man crew on its 25th and final mission during the war and all of the many dangers inherent in being an airman during aerial combat. The public received it well, and the film remains popular to this day.
The second film, produced in 1990, is essentially a fictionalized account of the 1944 documentary. It stars Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz, and Harry Connick Jr., and is simply called "Memphis Belle." Fictional names replace the true names of the crew. Interestingly, the producer of the film was Catherine Wyler, daughter of Maj. William Wyler, director of the 1944 documentary. She dedicated the film to her dad.
"Memphis Belle" was a hit at the box office, grossing well over $27 million. Filmed mainly in England, the film depicts accurately the often harrowing encounters between the Flying Fortresses and German fighters, as well as the desperate uncertainty of flying through heavy flak. The often-precarious landings caused by damage to the plane and the loss of friends on other planes heighten the poignancy of the film.
Following the war, the Belle was headed for the scrap heap before the mayor of Memphis, Walter Chandler, interceded. The city purchased the airplane for $350 and flew it to Memphis in July of 1946. The venerable plane remained there in various venues into the 1980s. Unfortunately, vandals raided the plane when it was displayed outside, taking virtually all of its inside equipment. The weather also took its toll on the plane's exterior.
Eventually, the National Museum Of The United States Air Force from Dayton, OH, took the plane back for complete restoration in September of 2004. Today, the venerable "Belle" is in the final stages of its restoration process in Dayton. Within two or three years, it should be on display in Dayton.
James A. Verinis of Connecticut went on to have a career in the U.S. Air Force. He eventually attained the rank of colonel. Besides being an outstanding pilot and leader to his men, Verinis also was a morale booster. He purchased a Scottish terrier named "Stuka" who became the mascot for the crew of the "Memphis Belle." His presence lifted their spirits. Verinis even had dog tags made for Stuka.
Jamie Verinis, son of the noted flyer, recently published a book called "Stuka, Mascot of the Memphis Belle — The True Story of Captain James Verinis and Stuka, His Scottish Terrier." Colonel Verinis was able to assist his son in the writing of the book before he died in 2003. The book is available through a link provided at this website: www.moderscottiedog.com.