Serial# O-430609: Morgan, Robert Knight – pilot.
Born on July 31st 1918 in Asheville, North Carolina, the third child of David Bradley Morgan and Mabel K Morgan, from the very beginning Robert Knight Morgan had a lot of things going for him. ‘I grew up in a sort of protective society, you know, we had nurses to take care of me and all that sort of thing.’ That did not stop him from doing all the things that boys everywhere like to do. Hunting. Fishing.‘One of the Vanderbilt estates is located at Asheville. Through my family I got to know one of the wardens on the estate. He took me fishing and hunting, taught me to shoot.’
His sister, named Peggy after her mother, was to break off her engagement to Simon Baring, a member of the London banking family to marry Alexander Abel-Smith, also of London. His brother, David Jnr was destined to marry Princess Dolly Obolinsky, a White Russian emegré and socialite from New York.
Like all boys, Bob was also prone to playing pranks – like the time his mother was having a cocktail party on the lawn and he took the water hose, breaking up the party by squirting water on the maids. ‘That was one time when Dad got out his razor strap and whipped me pretty good. I got by with a lot but Dad was no softie. He knew how to use that strap. Sure I was wild as a kid. I had the world’s speed record from Asheville, North Carolina, to Greenville, South Carolina. I used to see a girl down there, went almost every day. It was 60 miles and a mountain road but I drove it in 55 minutes in Dad’s Buick. Everybody in town knew about and talked about it.’
It seems that young Bob got the taste of marrying early. Journalist Ruth Reynolds alleged in the Sunday News for August 22nd 1943 that before Bob was 15 he had eloped and married 13 year old Doris Newman, another pupil of Asheville Public School. They were wed on June 6 1931 – and divorced on June 15; their parents took care of that!
Things changed with the coming of the Great Depression. Bob’s father was a successful businessman, being the president of the Dimension Manufacturing Company, a successful furniture-making concern. When the Depression hit he became the watchman who guarded the locked-up plant, for $50 a month. It was an experience Bob never forgot: ‘…my Dad was completely broke. I mean busted – completely. We even had to sell our house’.
It was Mrs Sir John Francis Amherst Cecil, the former Cornelia Vanderbilt, a close friend of Bob’s mother, who came to the rescue after that. Cornelia had inherited Biltmore House in 1914 following the death of her father George Washington Vanderbilt. “When we lost our house, she let us live in a house on her estate, rent free. Dad and I lived there by ourselves. Dad did the cooking and I had to do the house cleaning. Dad still had some friends in Massachusetts, and when the depression eased up a bit, he borrowed some money from one of his friends, bought the factory back, opened it up and got it started again’. Before it was over, Bob’s father owned three furniture factories.
In January 1936 came the devastating news that his mother had contracted thyroid cancer. There was no hope of a cure, no hope of recovery. She took a shotgun, pointed the gun at herself, and committed suicide. ‘I believe my mother dying was the biggest blow in my life. My mother was a beautiful and lovely woman. I looked up to her as if she were an angel. She and I had big plans for us. We were going to go on trips together and then, bang, all of it was blown out.”
Bob continued with his education, first at Episcopal High in Alexandria Viginia, then studying business administration at the Wharton School of Finance, part of the University of Pennsylvania. In the summer of 1938 Bob met, and then married wife #2, Alice Rutherford Lane, daughter of Mr & Mrs W R Lane of Hendersonville, N.C. Her folks had a summer residence in Asheville. Accounts from Bob Morgan suggest that the marriage lasted until the fall, when her parents took her to Florida and another divorce. However, Florida divorce records reveal that they were not divorced until 1940 in Manatee County.
Bob’s first job, after graduation, was working for the Addressograph-Multigraph Corporation of Cleveland, Ohio, makers of office equipment. ‘They put me through their school in Cleveland where I learned about their machines, and then I went on the road as a travelling service person.’
War clouds were looming and with Europe already at war, in 1940 Bob decided to take action. “I could see the war coming so I decided to get into the Air Force. I called Dad and told him what I wanted to do and he told me that if this was what I wanted, go ahead.”
Morgan enlisted as an Aviation Cadet at Richmond, Virginia. It seems he almost got washed out of the Air Force before he started, for he had problems with his eyes. ‘The flight surgeon told me that one of my eyes didn’t quite come up to 20/20 and, in that time, it had to be 20/20 to get into pilot training. But for some reason he took a liking to me and told me he was going to help me. He took me in a dark room and gave me some ice to hold on my eye. After five minutes, he came in and got me, gave me the test again and my eye passed, 20/20’.
In February 1941 Morgan received his orders to report for basic flight training in Camden, South Carolina. Here under blue skies sat the bright yellow primary trainers – PT-17s, the famous Stearman biplanes. The man who would one day acquire a reputation of being a wild pilot, almost washed himself outright at the beginning…“When we started flying in primary training, I was scared to death. The first time my instructor took me out and did a loop with a slow roll, I said to myself, I’m not sure this is for me.’ I sort of lost interest and wasn’t really applying myself.
“We had civilian instructors in those days and I had a guy named Earl Friedel. I guess he sensed that something was wrong, so one day he said he wanted me to meet him down at the hangar in the evening. When I got there he pulled up a couple of chairs. We sat down and he told me I was about to wash out.
“But, like the flight surgeon, he took an interest in me and wanted to help me. He said, ‘You’ve got the greatest opportunity in the world. The Government is spending $60,000 to make a pilot out of you and you just aren’t taking it seriously. You’ve got this haphazard attitude.’
“He had a broom with him and he took the broomstick between his legs and said, ‘When I was a kid I wanted to fly so bad that I’d hang around the airfield and watch everything the pilots did. I’d look inside the planes and see that stick. Then I’d go home, sit on the front porch with a broomstick between my legs and go through all the maneuvers for hours. That was 90 percent of my flight training because I wanted to do it so badly. If you don’t appreciate what I’ve done for you, just say so and I’ll wash you out tomorrow.’
“Well, I guess that talk did me a lot of good because after that I got with it and passed my tests.”
Then came the next episode of another near-washout with Morgan himself again doing the washing. “They were sending me down to Bush Field, Augusta [then called Barnes Farm airfield] for basic training but then, at the last minute, somebody was checking the records and found out I lacked 40 minutes of having enough flying time to go to advanced training. They told me to take a plane and just fly around for 40 minutes. I got up there and had been flying about 35 minutes and was about to get ready to land when I got this crazy idea to buzz the field. Well, I buzzed it good and that was a no-no.
“When I got back on the ground I got called on the carpet by the commanding officer. He chewed me out good and he said: ‘Morgan, if we hadn’t already sent your papers to Augusta, you wouldn’t be going. I’d wash you out right now. I’m letting you go but if you ever do that again you’re through.’ Morgan eventually arrived at Barnes Farm Airfield on July 7th 1941.
Why did he decide to be a bomber pilot?. “Most people would have guessed that I would want to be a fighter pilot from the way I drove a car. I was a maniac for speed. So, people would think I was crazy enough to be a fighter pilot. But I liked company. I didn’t like the idea of being up there in the air by myself. If I went up in a B-17 I would have nine other guys up there with me and I liked that fine. That was the reason I picked bombers.”
But this did not stop him from flying the big airplanes as if they were fighters!
It was then on to Barksdale Field, Shreveport, Louisiana on September 26th. Here it was AT-7s, AT-8s, B-18s and A-29s. He graduated as a Second Lieutenant on December 12th, six days after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. His pilot’s wings were pinned on by Martha Lillian Stone, an old flame from the University of Pennsylvania days. Martha, daughter of Mrs Charles E Stone and the late Lt Stone of Mount Lebannon PA, became wife #3 two weeks later in Tampa, Florida, where Morgan had been ordered to report to the 29th Bomb Group, 52nd Bomb Squadron.
Morgan then was introduced to the four-engined Consolidated B-24C – the famous Liberator. By the end of January 1942, he was qualified as ‘first pilot’ with over sixty hours on the type and was expecting to be heading for Africa soon. But that was not to be – the Army Air Force had other plans for their MacDill first pilots.
He was re-trained and re-qualified – this time on the Boeing B-17E and posted again. By May 1942 he was part of the 29th Bombardment Group but, effective May 16th 1942 he was reassigned to the newly-formed 91st Bombardment Group and the 324th Bomb Squadron. These were not the only changes however. The marriage to Martha was soon over – they were divorced in Hillsborough County, Florida in 1942.
At MacDill Field in Tampa, Florida Morgan was again in trouble for buzz-jobs… “While we were stationed at McDill, they sometimes sent us out on submarine patrols in the Gulf. I don’t remember ever seeing a submarine but one Sunday, when we were coming in, I spotted a big house with a beautiful lawn and somebody was having a lawn party. I decided to buzz that party. Man I almost set that plane down in the punch bowl. What I didn’t know was that it was our Commanding General who was having the lawn party. The next morning, I was called in by my commanding officer who chewed me out plenty and I was told that as long as I stayed under that general’s command, I would never get a promotion.”
Some time while he was at McDill, Bob Morgan got tasked with Lt David Alford to fly as co-pilot, taking a B-17 up to Lunken Airport, Cincinnati to put it on display for their Army Air Day.
It looked as if Morgan’s life was going to be a series of reprimands and chew-outs. The next one arrived after pilots were told that, as part of their training, they could make a few discretionary flights, like landing at places near their home towns where they could see their parents. On May 31 1942 Morgan decided to land at Asheville. The only problem being that Asheville, at that time, only had 4,000 feet of runway, not really enough concrete to land a B-17 on. He decided to do it anyway.
‘I burned out the brakes on the plane, getting it stopped on that tiny airfield. They had to send a crew of mechanics from McDill to put on new brakes.’
This may have allowed Morgan some more time to visit his father, but it also earned him another of those chew-outs that now seemed to be a routine part of his training. As punishment for that landing at Asheville, Morgan’s name does not appear on Special Order 22 dated June 18th 1942 from the office of the Group Commander for the Group to be transferred from MacDill to Walla Walla, Washington, for final advanced training before being sent overseas. It seems that other pilots made the transfer by air but Morgan was ordered to make the trip by a slow, hot train ride!
“I became known as Floorboard Freddie because I wore out more brakes than any pilot in our group. I landed them hot. I always said I’d rather run out of runway at the other end than not make the runway on the touch-down. So, I always came in hotter than anyone else.”
At Walla Walla, Morgan was in hot water again because of his insistence on going around bareheaded, refusing to wear the cap required by military regulations. Captain Harold C Smelser, the commander of the 324th Squadron, took over the job of chewing him out day after day, for showing up minus his cap. Since Morgan had been appointed a flight leader, he was due a promotion to first lieutenant, but since he insisted on defying cap regulations, there would be no promotion.“Major Smelser was a West Pointer and he had been in the Pacific where he flew B-17s. He was one of those spit-and-polish officers who carried a swagger stick and tried to enforce every regulation in the book. I never did get along with him. He resented all of us young pilots who had never been to West Point but got to fly on an equal basis with the regular Army men. He assigned me to every dirty job on the base. When one of the planes went on a training mission and crashed in the mountains, killing every man on board, he assigned me to the job of going out to recover the bodies…”
After the Tour…
The triumphant tour eventually turned sour because, as Morgan put it, ‘It was too much of a good thing. There was too much wine, women and song. And not necessarily in that order’.
It was in Wichita during the Bond Tour that Bob Morgan received an invitation to the Boeing Assembly Plant there. It was there he found out the USAAF has a new aircraft – a bomber bigger, more powerful and capable of flying much higher and faster than the Memphis Belle. This was the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. They were slated for duty in the Pacific. ‘They let me climb into one of those planes and sit in the pilot’s seat’ said Morgan. ‘That did it. Here I was, surrounded by all that luxury in a pressurized cabin’.
Morgan volunteered for a second tour of duty in the Pacific and began pulling strings to get into the seat of one of those B-29s. The only member of the Memphis Belle’s crew who would go with him was Vince Evans, the bombardier.
Major Robert Morgan would also make another bit of history when he became the pilot to lead the first B-29 bombing attack on Tokyo. His B-29 would be called Dauntless Dotty,in honor of another girl; this one called Dorothy Johnson. Bob Morgan turned her into wife #4.
After the war, Morgan left the Armed Forces on September 9th 1945 with some two thousand and thirty-five flying hours under his belt and returned to his native Asheville. He did, however remain in the Air Force Reserve, gaining the rank of Colonel.
For a time, along with his elder brother David, he operated the Morgan Manufacturing furniture factories that had belonged to his father. Bob Morgan stayed in contact with Vince Evans, who was now making his mark in Hollywood. It was though Vince’s contacts that Bob Morgan is supposed to have oh-so-nearly gone to work for entrepreneur film-maker, pioneer aviator and famed billionaire Howard Hughes, for Vince offered to get Bob a job as a commercial pilot working for Hughes’ Trans World Airlines – the famed TWA. But it was not to be.
For a time Bob Morgan was an automobile dealer, selling the Volkswagen Beetles so beloved by a generation of Americans. In the beloved hills of his native state, Bob Morgan and Dorothy would rear their four children Sandra Lea, Robert Jnr, Harry and Peggy.
Dorothy was a home-maker and happy-stay-at-home. Bob Morgan had ‘itchy feet’, travelling around the US for Morgan Manufacturing. He talked the company into buying an aircraft – an Army-surplus BT-15, which he flew along with a number of other machines.
Throughout the 1950s he and Dorothy had their ups and downs, as did many other couples. They would break up, then make up, only to separate again. Business trips took Bob down to Memphis to visit a plant affiliated to the Morgan Manufacturing Company. While there, Bob called Margaret. And visited. ‘…for a brief sad time, our romance was rekindled again. We saw each other a few times. Arranged meetings in various places. Wrote letters, loved, argued. It was soon over’.
Eventually, with the kids grown up, he and Dorothy came to a parting of the ways. They were divorced on May 24th 1979. Bob had already met and romanced another – Asheville realtor broker and widow with four children, Elizabeth Thrash. He was married to wife #5 in June 1979. He took Elizabeth to England three times, the first as a belated honeymoon that took in the signing of a batch of prints produced from a painting of the Memphis Belle by aviation artist Robert Taylor.
The second was in 1989 to watch the filming and participate in the publicity for Catherine Wyler and David Puttnam’s film. Eight surviving crewmembers and their wives flew over. However, despite the crewmembers offering suggestions regarding authentic dialogue and detail, film director Michael Caton-Jones declined their assistance. The result, as Bob Morgan said in masterly understatement was something that was ‘…historically innacurate’. Morgan liked to quote one reviewer: ‘The clichés dropped like bombs!’Their third trip to London was to attend the film premiere.
Sadly, Elizabeth contracted lung cancer, and passed away in January 1991.
On the aviation lecture circuit Bob Morgan – now 72 – met Linda Dickerson, who had been doing Public Relations work for David Tallichet, the owner of the B-17 that had stood in for the Memphis Belle in the movie. Dickerson was also acting as a freelance publicity agent for members of the crew. They met in April 1991 at the Sun ’n Fun Fly In at Lakeland Florida. Bob romanced and won her, then 47 year old Linda became wife #6 at a ceremony performed under the nose of the Memphis Belle at Mud Island on August 29th 1992. The bride was given away by Brigadier General Paul W. Tibbets Jnr, the man who piloted the B-29 Enola Gay over Hiroshima with Jim Verninis acting as best man..
Not everyone was happy that the ceremony was about to take place. As Joy G Wilson of Memphis said at the time; ‘I feel strongly that this coming wedding to be held under the wing of the famed bomber is an affront to the memory of Margaret Polk. – a cheap ploy for publicity for Col. Morgan and in extremely poor taste. I do not agree that ‘Margaret would appreciate the idea’. Having known Margaret and having said this, I feel much better!’
Bob Morgan and his wife continued on the lecture circuit, often attending twenty or thirty a year. They went to England in 1993, and again in 1997 to attend the opening of the American Air Museum at Duxford. That was not the only event. They visited Bassingbourn, lectured in the local area and visited Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother at Sandringham.
In April 1999 he was invited to fly a Boeing B-52 at Barksdale Air Force Base, Shreveport, LA and in October 1999, Morgan was invited to fly a B-1B Bomber at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia. Robins subsequently named one of its B-1’s ‘Memphis Belle’ and painted the new nose-art on in February, 2000.
On April 22nd 2004 Bob Morgan attended the airshow at Asheville Regional Airport. Whilst there, he fell and was rushed to the Mission Memorial Hospital where he was diagnosed to have suffered a fractured neck. His condition deteriorated and was eventually taken off life support systems. He passed away on May 15th.
Bob Morgan’s ashes are buried in the Western North Carolina Veterans Cemetery, Black Mountain, about 18 miles east of his hometown of Asheville where, following the ashes internment, a B-52, B-17 and a P-51 did flypasts in tribute.