THEY say that staff sergeant Johnny Quinlan, tail gunner on the legendary B-17 bomber the Memphis Belle, used to sing his own version of ``The Wabash Cannonball'' during bombing runs over Germany. ``She flew over Germany one cold December day,'' he would drawl at 22,000 ft., ``and as she crossed the target you could hear those Jerries say: `... They're flying straight from hell./ They come to bomb the Fatherland. They fly the Memphis Belle.'''
Quinlan's crewmate, waist-gunner Clarence E. ``Bill'' Winchell, can chuckle at the memory now.
It's 47 years later. He and I are standing under the wing of the Memphis Belle, now grounded under a protective canopy in an outdoor pavilion at Mud Island, Tenn., near Memphis. Mr. Winchell flew 25 missions on the Belle with Johnny and eight other crew members between November 1942 and May 1943.
Legend has it the Belle always flew with the same 10-man crew; that it was the first to bomb Germany, to complete 25 missions, and the first to return safely to America. It shot down eight Nazi fighters but never lost one of its own men.
And some of it is true.
Three members of that original crew - Winchell, pilot Robert Morgan, and co-pilot James Verenis - came back to Memphis in late August to revisit the plane on the occasion of a press premi`ere of the new movie ``Memphis Belle.''
``I was about 24 when I joined the crew in Bangor, Maine,'' Winchell is saying. ``At that time, flying one of these had an 82 percent attrition rate, which meant 18 guys came back for every 100 that went over.''
The late summer heat is intense. The broad Tennessee sun overhead does not blink. I am wilting. But the wiry, trim Winchell, a retired salesman now, is unfazed.
``She was a tough one,'' Winchell continues. ``She took quite a few machine-gun holes right here one time'' - he pats the letter ``A'' inscribed on the fuselage just below the waist-gun window - ``and a couple of feet over and I would have been cut in half.'' He is quietly matter-of-fact about it all but admits with obvious pleasure that whenever he returns to Memphis, he gets the keys to the city. ``Just like Elvis,'' he grins.
``You were supposed to fly it straight and level,'' says Winchell. ``Not like a fighter. A B-17 was supposed to have certain limitations. But our pilot, Bob Morgan, could fly it like a fighter.
``On one mission, a German fighter was determined to ram us, head on. Bob hung this thing on the props - it's called a `wet stall' - so the fighter slipped beneath us. We went into a steep dive, but the engines were able to `catch' again, and Bob pulled us out of it.''
It was Morgan who gave ``Memphis Belle'' the nickname before the plane and crew left for England in September 1942. It was an affectionate term for his sweetheart, Margaret Polk, a Memphian. Her picture remained in the cockpit through those 25 missions. It is there now. ``No, Margaret and I never married, but we were friends up to the day she died three months ago. My present wife and her were good friends.''