October 29, 1990 12:00 PM

Robert Morgan and James Verinis have been buddies for most of a half century. Theirs is a friendship forged aloft, in the deadly, flak-filled skies over Nazi-occupied Europe. Between Nov. 7, 1942, and May 17, 1943, Morgan, then 21, piloted the Memphis Belle, a legendary B-17 bomber that was the first to fly 25 successful missions before being pulled out of active duty, its original 10-man crew all having survived. (Casualty rates for 25-mission flyers bettered 80 percent.) Verinis, then 22, was Morgan’s co-pilot. With the duo at the controls, the hulking, four-engine aircraft, based at Bassingboume, England, dropped bombs weighing a total of 60 tons on Germany, France and Belgium.

Today. Morgan and Verinis can be seen sitting side by side again, heading out on a mission. Only this time they’re in the back scat of a white stretch limo en route to a celebrity-packed, photo-popping premiere of Memphis Belle, the movie based on their exploits. “I never dreamed we would have treatment like this in our lives,” says Verinis, now 71. Agrees Morgan, 70: “We were just doing our jobs.”

It was a job Hollywood liked from the start. In 1943 the late William Wyler made a highly praised propaganda film called The Memphis Belle. Shot partly aboard the aircraft during actual bombing raids, it featured footage of Lieutenant (later Colonel) Morgan, Verinis and the others in action. Now the new Memphis Belle, a feature film based on the documentary, is taking off with mostly warm reviews and solid ticket sales. The movie stars Matthew Modine and Tate Donovan as facsimiles of Morgan and Verinis. (For legal reasons, no real names were used. Morgan’s character, much to his displeasure, is named Dennis Dearborn. “I especially suggested that they not call me Dennis,” he says. “Call me George, Tom, Dick or Harry. But they left it with Dennis.”)

During filming in England last year, co-producer Catherine Wyler—William’s daughter—brought all eight of the surviving Memphis Belle crew members onto the set. Morgan insisted that Modine go up for a spin in a B-17. “They figured this was probably going to be the last movie made about the B-17s,” Modine says, “and that it had to be done right.”

Both Morgan and Verinis say it was. “When I walked out of that theater, I told Catherine, ‘You have captured everything that I would have wanted you to capture. It was magnificent.’ ”

Morgan and Verinis’s saga began in September 1942, at MacDill AFB near Tampa, Fla. Morgan, who was from Asheville, N.C., had a degree in industrial engineering. He was a commanding presence: 6’3″, handsome, a natural leader. He was handed the as-yet-unnamed Memphis Belle and its men, including Verinis, a recent graduate of the University of Connecticut.

Morgan’s B-17 got its sexy nickname from his girlfriend Margaret Polk, who was from—where else?—Memphis. (The two met in Walla Walla, Wash., where Morgan was in training and Polk was visiting king her sister.) Over the plane’s moniker a Betty Grable-ish figure was painted, a telephone at her ear to symbolize their everlasting love. As the giant green bomber flew from Bangor, Maine, to England, Morgan touched down in Memphis to bid farewell to Margaret, now his fiancée. “We kept up a torrid letter romance across the sea,” he says. And her photo hung in the cockpit for good luck.

It must have helped. “We darn near got blown out of the sky several times,” Morgan says. In June 1943, after eight months in Europe and 25 combat missions, the Memphis Belle, its crew and mascot—a Scottish terrier named Stuka—were summoned back to the States by the War Department for a morale-boosting War Bond tour. At least their morale got boosted. “It was wine, dining, women and songs,” recalls Morgan.

“William Wyler had a big party for us in Hollywood,” remembers Verinis. “He had a lot of people there, like Dinah Shore, Olivia de Havilland and George Montgomery. He said to us, ‘Don’t fool with the stars, get the starlets.’ And wouldn’t you know, [bombardier] Vince Evans ended up marrying one [Jean Ames].”

Nearly a half century later, the Memphis Belle vets were on the other end of the awe, keeping the new movie’s actors spellbound with torrid memories. “They told us these stories of how they would sneak women into the barracks and onto planes,” says Tate Donovan. “I used to think our generation was the first to have sex, but…those guys were outrageous.”

So outrageous that Morgan and Polk’s everlasting love became a casualty of the 1943 tour. One day the War Department flew Margaret in to meet Bob for a “surprise” visit. She got a surprise, all right: He had another date. “That was the beginning of the end,” he says. Another time Margaret called Bob in Denver, only to have one of the girls who was visiting his hotel suite answer the phone. “That,” he says, “was the beginning of the second end.” Sadly, Margaret later developed a drinking problem. Her one marriage terminated in divorce. Still, she and Morgan remained friends—and even dated again in the ’60s—until her death from cancer at age 67 this past April.

After the War Bond tour, Morgan went on to pilot B-29s in the Pacific against Japan, while Verinis went to Yale. But their own bond remained unbroken. After V-J Day, Bob hired Jim to work for him as a sales representative for his furniture manufacturing business. During the ensuing years each raised a family—four children, five grandchildren for Morgan; two and two for Verinis. Each married twice. Although they now live far apart—Bob in Asheville with his wife, Elizabeth, Jim in Woodbridge, Conn., with his wife, Marie—they remain close. They also keep in touch, via Christmas cards and a newsletter, with the six other living Memphis Belle crew members.

“I try and keep the crew informed about what is going on,” says Morgan. “I always say, ‘Hey, if you need anything, let me know.’ ” In that respect, things haven’t changed much for the men of the Memphis Belle.

John Stark, Sue Carswell in Memphis

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