Archive for Sunday, May 19, 2002

Pratt to revisit pilot-training days

Town that prepared flyers for B-29 raids to celebrate WWII past

May 19, 2002


— Pilots once came to this south-central Kansas town to train for bombing raids over Tokyo.

Now, more than 50 years later, the pilot who led the first raid will return to Pratt as the guest of honor for the B-29 All Veterans Memorial Celebration.

Observances are set for Friday and Saturday.

Retired Col. Robert Morgan, who trained at the former Pratt Air Base, was the lead pilot when the B-29 raids on Tokyo began on Nov. 24, 1944.

"We're calling it a homecoming celebration for Bob Morgan and everyone is welcome," memorial chairman Jack McCawley said.

Morgan, 83, returns to Pratt for the first time since his training days.

"Kansas was good to me," Morgan said. "Good flying weather. Nice people. We were treated wonderful."

Morgan was the command pilot of 25 bombing missions in the B-17 "Memphis Belle" and another 26 in the B-29 "Dauntless Dotty." His B-17 days were chronicled in his memoir, "The Man Who Flew the Memphis Belle."

The "Memphis Belle" shot down eight enemy fighters, probably destroyed five others, damaged a dozen more and dropped more than 60 tons of bombs.

Morgan still logs air time in a B-17.

"I'll fly anything anybody will let me fly," he said, "as long as I can pass the physical."

After he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in November 1940, Morgan enlisted in the Army Air Corps.

He was only 23 when he piloted a B-17 bomber over Europe, but not as young as the 18-year-olds who comprised his crew.

"I was the old man," Morgan said. "I had to be a father to them."

With 25 successful bombing missions from November 1942 to May 1943, Morgan and his crew returned to the United States to train new pilots.

Morale was low among pilots, despite Morgan's bombing successes; some of the bomb groups faced losses as high as 80 percent.

During a public relations tour in Wichita, Morgan spotted Boeing's new B-29 long-range bomber still in the hangar.

It was "love at first sight," he said.

A chance to fly in the B-29 convinced Morgan to remain on active duty, which led to 26 more combat missions.

"They were both good airplanes," he said. "But the B-17 was a lot more fun to fly. The B-29, you had to work at it."

"Dauntless Dotty" stayed in combat after Morgan returned to the United States and was credited with 53 missions, 880 combat hours and 176,000 combat air miles.

The plane went down in the Pacific Ocean in June 1945 as it headed home to the United States. Ten of the 13 crewmen died in the crash.

The "Memphis Belle," named for Morgan's wartime sweetheart, survived tough times at the hands of vandals.

Eventually the plane was restored to her glory-days condition and given a place of honor on Mud Island, a manmade island in the Mississippi River adjacent to downtown Memphis.

The plane was the backdrop for Morgan's wedding in August 1992, when another famous World War II pilot, Gen. Paul Tibbets, gave away the bride. Tibbets piloted the "Enola Gay," which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan on Aug. 6, 1945 ushering in the age of nuclear warfare.

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