Col. Robert Morgan, 85, the pilot and commander of one of the most famous airplanes of World War II, the Memphis Belle, died May 15 in Asheville, N.C. He was hospitalized last month after falling following an air show and also had pneumonia.
As portrayed in interviews, Col. Morgan appeared to blend swagger and humility in a manner that won him many admirers during the war and afterward, when he was sought out for public appearances and became a popular figure at air shows.
The Memphis Belle, named in honor of a girlfriend of Col. Morgan's, was described as the first of the heavy B-17 Flying Fortress bombers to complete 25 European missions and return with its crew to the United States.
The daylight missions were carried out at a time of great hazard and severe losses to planes and crews, who contended with intense antiaircraft fire and the machine guns and aerial cannons of swarms of enemy fighters.
Long afterward, Col. Morgan told a reporter of briefing his men before a mission. "Look, guys," he told them, "if only one airplane comes back today, it's going to be us."
The airplane and its crew were the subjects of a wartime documentary and later served as the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.
After completing the 25 missions, Col. Morgan and his crew toured the United States in 1943 to boost morale and help sell war bonds.
Col. Morgan then returned to combat, flying 25 missions over Japan in the new B-29 Superfortress bomber. His first mission in the Pacific was the first B-29 raid on Tokyo.
An article that appeared in the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., offers an account of the relationship between Col. Morgan and Margaret Polk, the young woman for whom his B-17 was named.
The account, apparently based on a book Col. Morgan co-wrote, reported that on his return to this country in 1943, he and Polk wished to wed but that the Army Air Forces, recognizing the appeal of the couple's romance, urged delay.
In time, the marriage plans were shelved, but the couple were said to have remained friends until she died in 1990. However, the plane that Col. Morgan flew over Tokyo was known as the Dauntless Dotty in honor of one of Polk's successors.
As he grew older, Col. Morgan did not lose touch with the daring young man he had been. According to the Greensboro newspaper account, Col. Morgan visited the set of the 1990 film inspired by the Memphis Belle. He was asked how he could be more effectively portrayed.
"Be more egotistical," he said.
It was also reported that on his 1943 U.S. tour, he took his four-engine bomber low enough over a reviewing stand at what is now Reagan National Airport to make the assembled officials duck.
That was one side of him. Another showed when a review of the 1990 film "Memphis Belle" suggested that depicting one crew member as particularly religious may have been a cinematic stereotype.
Col. Morgan objected.
"I was the 'religious' guy in the movie," he wrote in a letter to the reviewer. "Still am. I firmly believe God was watching over us."
He also recognized his debt to the airplane in which he flew, recounting one incident in which a German fighter nearly shot off his bomber's entire tail.
"It was on fire, and chunks of it were falling off," he said. He added that he dived 5,000 feet to extinguish the flames and that the plane few home with half a tail.
Col. Morgan, according to an Air Force biography, was born in Asheville, in western North Carolina, where he lived most of his life. He attended the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania and entered the Army Air Corps in 1940.
Commissioned a second lieutenant five days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought the United States into World War II, he flew his B-17 to an English base in October of the next year.
Early missions took the Memphis Belle over occupied parts of Western Europe, but by 1943, it was flying into Germany itself.
"He's a damn good pilot," one of his crew members was quoted as saying. "He always brought us home."
The 1944 documentary filmed by Hollywood director William Wyler helped make a legend of the Belle and the painting of the long-legged woman that adorned its nose.
Meanwhile, Polk, the woman who inspired the painting, received letters from Col. Morgan that she kept in a scrapbook that was later donated to Memphis State University.
A news account includes this excerpt from one of them, written after he returned from a mission. "Bad day," he wrote. "Never forget it. . . . No denying I was scared to death. . . . But I know you are flying with me."
Col. Morgan "wrote a fine love letter, no two ways about it," a curator at the university library told the Associated Press in 1991.
Col. Morgan retired from the Air Force in 1965 as a colonel and subsequently spent much of his time in the real estate business in North Carolina.
His wife Elizabeth Morgan died in January 1992.
Survivors include his wife, Linda Dickerson Morgan, an aviation buff who promotes air shows. They married in August 1992 in a ceremony held under the wing of the Memphis Belle.