The Memphis Belle and William Wyler, the Story of the Story

In 1943, Wilhelm Wyler returned to his native Germany flying at 25,000 feet in a B-17 Flying Fortress named the Memphis Belle. As a Major in the US Armed Forces, it was his job to capture history.

William Wyler, had been born Wilhem Weiller in 1902 in Mülhausen, in the Alsace-Lorraine region of what was then the German Empire. Weiller was Jewish, the son of a Swiss father and a German mother. While working in Paris after World War One, he met his mother’s cousin Carl Laemmle, who was looking for people to work at Universal Studios in New York. For Weiller, America was “as far as the moon”, but he left Europe for a new life in America. By 1925, Weiller had become the youngest director at Universal Studios and anglicized his name to William Wyler. Ironically, the German-born Weiller’s specialty was directing Westerns, a uniquely American genre.


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The Crew of the “Memphis Belle”

In 1942, William Wyler was inducted into the US Army Air Force and commissioned as a Major. At that time, the Army’s 8th Air Force had flown the first of its heavy bombers to England to conduct a daylight bombing campaign against Nazi occupied Europe. In early 1943, the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, was inflicting heavy casualties on American planes and aircrew of the 8th Air Force. The military decided it needed a film to boost morale and show the American public how their boys were winning the war and taking the fight to the Germans. The Army Air Force wanted to show one of its bomber crews complete its tour of combat duty and then have it return home to raise money on a war bond drive.

Wyler approached a young B-17 pilot named Robert K. Morgan of the 91st Bomb Group and asked if he could fly with him. According to Morgan, Wyler was attracted to the plane’s name and Morgan’s reputation as a pilot. With Morgan, Wyler knew he would be near the action and have a good chance of coming back alive. Wyler had originally been following another B-17, called the Invasion 2nd, until it was shot down over Bremen and decided to go with the Memphis Belle. Wyler also had a backup plane named Hell’s Angels in the 303rd Bomb Group which actually completed twenty five missions a week before the Memphis Belle did.

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Right waist Gunner Tony Nastal

Wyler’s team of four cameramen flew in different B-17’s on multiple missions to capture footage for the Memphis Belle’s “last” mission. Wyler also mounted cameras near the gunner’s positions to capture their actions during combat. While making the film, Wyler and Morgan flew in multiple planes as the Memphis Belle suffered damage during filming and needed to be repaired. The missions for the cameramen were dangerous, and one of Wyler’s cameramen, First Lieutenant Harold J. Tannenbaum was shot down and killed during the filming. Wyler himself flew on seven missions over Europe as he filmed his real life epic.

Not all of the Memphis Belle’s crew members flew their missions together as implied in the documentary. The Memphis Belle’s co-pilot, James Verinis, flew 16 missions as pilot of another plane and completed his tour of duty a few days before Morgan, but since he had originally flown with the Memphis Belle, he appeared in the film as Morgan’s co-pilot. The right waist gunner, Casimir “Tony” Nastal only flew one mission on the Memphis Belle and twenty four missions on another plane. This “crew” was selected to back to the US on War Bond drive because they either had flown most of their missions on the Memphis Belle or had already completed their tour of duty.

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William Wyler peers out of the “Bad Penny” a B-17 that filmed exterior shots of “Memphis Belle” during bombing missions

The 16mm color film was silent and sound effects were added by the movie studio during post-production. Intercom voices were added by crew members watching the silent film and saying appropriate things to match the footage.

The Memphis Belle documentary was released in 1944 and became a highly acclaimed success. Many of the crew members went on to fly additional combat mission in Europe and the Pacific. William Wyler made another wartime documentary about P-47’s Thunderbolts in Italy and went back to directing acclaimed movies in Hollywood after the war. The Memphis Belle herself was preserved for posterity and is currently under restoration at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

For More on the Eighth Air Force Check Out:

Blood and Fears: How America’s Bomber Boys of the 8th Air Force Saved World War II

Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany

The Boys In The B-17: 8Th Air Force Combat Stories Of WWII

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