Margaret Polk: THE Memphis Belle

The subject of the affections of Capt. Robert K. Morgan, it was Margaret for which Army 41-24485 was named the Memphis Belle. She helped in fund raising for the Memphis Belle Memorial Association until her death in 1990.

While Bob Morgan about to undergo final flight training at Walla Walla, Washington, a simple request was to have far-reaching consequences. Mrs Oscar Boyle Polk of Memphis suggested to her second daughter Margaret that she might like to go along with her elder sister Elizabeth on a trip up to Walla Walla. Elizabeth was married to a young doctor called Captain C Edward ‘Mac’ McCarthy. He had joined the embryonic 91st Bomb Group at MacDill Field in Florida and had just received orders to move to Walla Walla. The air echelon flew up, but the ground personnel – including the good doctor – would go by troop-train. Elizabeth, however, would have to drive the family Ford all that way from the southeast to the northwest. She made a rest-stop-over in Memphis to say hello to her family. During that stop-over Elizabeth complained about the loneliness of long distance driving on her own, so her mother suggested that Margaret went along to keep her company. ‘She came through Memphis and wanted me to go – but I didn’t. I cannot remember what I was doing, but I didn’t want to go out there. So Mother promised me a trip to Sun Valley and Yellowstone if I’d drive out there. There was me, my sister Elizabeth and a two-bit Scottie dog’.

It was in Walla Walla that Margaret had her rendezvous with fate – and a certain young Second Lieutenant called Robert K. Morgan.

Margaret Polk had been born on December 15 1922, a descendant of America’s eleventh President James Knox Polk of Nashville, Tennessee. Her father was a lawyer, a lumberman and a planter in the old southern tradition. ‘My daddy was Oscar Boyle Polk. My mother we called her Bessie Rob. She was from Indiana. Her real name was Mary Elizabeth but everyone knew her as Bessie’. The Polks by now lived at 1095 Poplar, assisted by two black servants, Robert and Alberta Thomas. Margaret was one of four childen but one, Virginia, died not long after birth. Of her three surviving three siblings, eldest was Oscar Boyle Jr who was born in 1916, Elizabeth born in 1918 and Thomas Robert born in 1926. Margaret grew up becoming something of a tomboy, despite her attendance at girls’ private schools. Brother Tom recalls that as a youngster Margaret had the family nickname of ‘Tooker’, which remained with her all her life. ‘I went to the Miraculous School. It was a little two-room schoolhouse and it had these two old maids. You went up five grades there. It was Miss Emma Cook’s School, right there on Jefferson and Bellevue. One old lady had one room the other old lady the other. You could go from that five grades through there, then to the seventh grade at Miss Hutchisons School. We didn’t have homework because they said they didn’t believe in grading the parents’ papers. And it was play, because those old ladies would get out and play with you. They would lift up their skirts and run and play whatever games we used to play’.

During the summer she went to the family’s farm down at Hickory Valley, Tennessee, some fifty miles to the east of Memphis. There they had a big white wooden house held together by wooden pegs, heated by fireplaces in the winter and with a separate kitchen. On the farm she was more or less allowed to do as she pleased – a great deal of which was to play with the children of the black workers on the farm. Picking strawberries, riding ponies, skinny-dipping in the cow-pond and hoisting the porch furniture into the trees as a prank. ‘Daddy also had a farm over in Marianna, Arkansas, with land he was going to clear. So a lot of the time he was gone, most of the time. You know, back then living on a farm you started working from daylight to past dark and you had to be there. I went there quite a lot. I also spent time with my father in Hot Springs. He had given the Plantation House in Tennessee to his sisters.’ The Great Depression had little effect on the Polk family. ‘I remember Daddy had to drop his membership to the University Club and we could not go swimming over there any more…’ Margaret remembered ‘… that was about it’.

Margaret talked about her life after High School. ‘I was in a sorority at Miss Hutchisons. I just never cared about boys or anything. I dont think I started dating until my senior year there. My Daddy told me if I stayed home and went to school in Memphis for two years I could go anywhere I wanted to. So I went to Southwestern [now called Rhodes College] for two years. Even here, I had a couple of boys, but we only buddied around. I was talked into a year at the University of Wisconsin by a girlfriend, but it was not as I expected, so I went back to Southwestern for my fourth year. I graduated Class of ‘43’

Neither Bob or Margaret had a clear memory of their first meeting: ‘When we got to Walla Walla Mac, her husband, rented this house, but there weren’t any lights or gas. We went to a hotel, and they wouldn’t let that damn dog in. So, we went out to that two-bit house and slept in the dark, and it seems to me that we slept on the floor! I dont really remember when I first met Bob, but in the mornings sometimes if we wanted the car, we’d drive Mac out to the Field. Somebody would drive him back and they’d stop in for a drink in the afternoon or Mac would bring somebody back. There was always so many men around there you never did pay attention one from the other’ recalled Margaret.

What turned things into ‘something special’ was an argument. ‘I had made a date with another young man for July 31st…’remembered Margaret ‘… we were real popular out there because of all those men and so few women. Then Bob invited me to his birthday party which happened to be on the same day. I wanted to go to Bob’s party and break my date, but my sister and Mac would not let me. My brother-in-law said it wasn’t done. ‘You dont late date. You’re not in college now. You’re in a man’s world now’. So he would not let me go. We had a pretty hot argument about it’.

As so often happens, the argument drew Bob Morgan and Margaret Polk together. ‘That brought Bob to my attention, something that I couldn’t do. I started dating him and we got pretty close’. Bob Morgan too was smitten – and was not averse to using a huge, four-engined bomber to show Margaret that he was still around! The 91st were flying every day now – and Morgan already had a reputation for buzz-jobs, so while Margaret was still asleep, Morgan made sure the entire neighborhood would have a wake-up call: ‘Here Bob would come, around for our five o’clock. He came in so low and it was so loud, you would have thought he was flying right through my window. The whole house shook, it felt like he was coming in through the window! Bob’s full of the devil, but he’s a damn good pilot. He could really fly that airplane. It was so exciting!’

Summer grew late, and it was soon time for Margaret to return to Memphis, for she was enrolled for the fall term at Southwestern. It was time to go to school. ‘I had this girl from the University of Wisconsin meet me out at West Yellowstone. I met a Park Ranger there. Then we went to Sun Valley, but had to go back to Walla Walla because we were running out of money. Coming back, I had to stop off at Yellowstone again to see that Ranger. From West Yellowstone we caught a plane to Chicago to pick up Becky’s (a friend) car. Then we drove down back down to Memphis’

When she got back home, a letter was already waiting. Many years later Margaret recalled that first letter. ‘That opened a whole can of worms…’ she laughed ‘…my Mother used to say if she’d known what was in it, she would’ve steamed it open and thrown it away!

On September 12th 1942 B-17F 41-24485 landed at Memphis for the first time. Bob Morgan had to get special permission to show Margaret Polk around ‘his’ airplane. There was another memento for Margaret’s scrapbook that day, ticket stub number 782, for a dance at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. On the back she wrote ‘Us, September 12 1942’. On the same page she placed an orchid corsage. Bob also bought her a love knot ring. ‘It was a little sweetheart ring, a little gold knot with diamonds in the bow part of it’. A little while later Margaret signed for a registered package from Mitchel Field, Long Island, dated September 21st 1942. This was Morgan’s last Stateside trip before departure for England. Inside was a diamond engagement ring.

Interview with Margaret Polk:

Interviewer: That must have indeed been one of the most thrilling of moments Margaret, when you saw
the “Memphis Belle” taxi to a stop before the hangar out at the Fourth Ferrying Group Field and Captain
Morgan step forth… I remember your saying – as we watched that Flying Fortress circle the field, doing
those almost vertical banks – I remember your saying “That’s it! I know that’s it!” How were you so sure
that this was the Flying Fortress we were all waiting to see?
‘Margaret’: Because of the way Bob handled that Fortress, so smooth etc.
Interviewer: It has been many months since you’ve seen Captain Morgan hasn’t it Margaret?
‘Margaret’: Yes, nine to be exact.
Interviewer: Where did you first meet Captain Morgan Margaret? It was up in Washington wasn’t it?
‘Margaret’: Last July in Walla Walla, Washington.
Interviewer: Would you tell us how you happened to meet?
‘Margaret’: I was staying with my sister and brother-in-law and Bob came out to the house.
There then followed four questions with no written answers for obviously
Margaret could answer them herself….
Interviewer: Memphis has always been your home hasn’t it Margaret?
Interviewer: What prep school did you attend here?
Interviewer: What college did you go to?
Interviewer: Captain Morgan is from Asheville isn’t he?
Interviewer: Did he attend prep school in Asheville?

Margaret’: No, in Virginia, Episcopal High School.

Interviewer: What college does he call his “alma mater”?
‘Margaret’: University of Pennsylvania
Interviewer: How long has Captain Morgan been in the Air Force?
‘Margaret’: Two and a half years
Interviewer: Where did he take his flight training?
‘Margaret’: Barksdale Field, Lousiana.
Interviewer: When did you and Captain Morgan become engaged?
‘Margaret’: Last September.
Interviewer: Saturday, during our broadcast from the airport I asked you if you could tell us when you
were planning to marry… you said that the date hadn’t been decided upon… can you tell us about the
wedding date now?
‘Margaret’: In the early part of August when Bob gets his leave. (note: ‘the early part of’ had been crossed out)
Interviewer: Will Captain Morgan be stationed in this country after his present nationwide War Bond
Tour of the “Memphis Belle” is completed?
‘Margaret’: Yes, for at least six months.
Interviewer: How many cities will the “Memphis Belle” visit on this present War Bond tour?
‘Margaret’: 21 or more.
Interviewer: Can you tell us what some of those cities are, Margaret?
‘Margaret’: Nashville, New Haven, Detroit, Cleveland, San Antonio and many others.
Interviewer: When did Captain Morgan and the “Memphis Belle” leave Memphis?
‘Margaret’: Yesterday afternoon.
Interviewer: During his visit to Memphis, you were with Captain Morgan on many of his public
appearances, weren’t you Margaret?
‘Margaret’: Yes, most of them.
Interviewer: It must have been thrilling when the crowd at the meeting Saturday in Court Square kept
calling for you…
‘Margaret’: It was quite a thrill and an honor to speak with a crowd like that one