In World War II, some of the most dangerous combat missions were flown by B-17 flying fortress bombers. The survival rate, according to the Air & Space Forces Association, for the pilots and their aircrew in B-17s averaged lower than 50 percent.
In May 1943, at the height of the Allied air campaign in Europe, cinematographers with the US 8th Air Force, working in collaboration with the Army Air Forces 1st Motion Picture Unit, managed to capture the harrowing reality of a B-17 bomber crew in action. That footage became a short documentary released in 1944 titled: The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress. (You can watch the full version below).
The documentary chronicles the last and final mission of the Memphis Belle and its 10-man crew. Narrated by a reporter who risked his life to chronicle the mission, the film puts audiences inside the Memphis Belle as it embarks on a flight over Germany to bomb enemy steel mills and refineries, shipyards and submarine pens, factories, and munitions plants.
The scenes featured – from the squadron’s pre-mission briefing to up-close footage of turret gunners battling enemy dogfighters, to images of American airmen bailing out with parachutes from disabled B-17s – provide audiences with a sobering depiction of war. Ultimately, though, it’s meant to be an uplifting story. Upon completing the raid, the Memphis Belle became the “first US Army Air Forces heavy bomber to return home“ after fulfilling its quota of 25 missions.