Before the Belle; Cassius Mullen

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MWSA Review
A great read and a long-overdue recognition of a record-breaking B-24 crew during World War II.

Have you heard of the Memphis Belle? Have you seen the movie—or the 1944 documentary—of the same name? How about 12 O'Clock High? When we think of World War II bombers, why is it that the B-17 seems to be the first airplane to come to mind? You might find an answer in an article written for the January 2016 edition of the Aviation History magazine, which quotes a B-24 engineer-gunner: "The B-24 was the bomber that was mostly ignored when the history books were written." Thanks to authors Cassius Mullen and Betty Byron, and their thoroughly enjoyable book, Before the Belle, you'll have a much better appreciation for the Liberator's capabilities and its role during the war.

As a retired U.S. Air Force pilot, I was familiar with the story of the Memphis Belle. I also thought that I had a pretty good handle on daylight precision bombing—carried out primarily by the U.S. Army Air Corps—during the Second World War. Although I was familiar with the B-24 Liberator, this book made it clear that there was a great deal I didn't know about its capabilities and contributions to the war effort.

In addition to being a great read, Before the Belle also makes an important contribution by correcting the historical record—which gave the crew of the Memphis Belle credit for being the first to accomplish twenty-five combat missions in the European theater of operations. The authors correctly point out that rather than the Memphis Belle, it was the crew of a B-24 Liberator nicknamed Hot Stuff, who were the first to reach that important milestone.

After a short introduction, we follow the Hot Stuff's crew as they complete their initial training in the airplane, get their first taste of combat during anti-submarine patrols off the coast of Florida, deploy to Europe, and fly and fight their way through each of their thirty-one combat missions from October 1942 through March 1943. The descriptions of aerial combat occur in short, but action-packed, chapters covering each mission.

The authors personalize the history by creating conversations between the various crew members and other military personnel and civilians they meet. The dialog is found throughout the book and allows readers to feel like they're flying along with the crew in their B-24… or exploring London and Cairo with the Hot Stuff crewmembers during a 24-hour pass.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in this unsung hero of an airplane and the brave crewmembers who flew it.
MWSA Reviewer: John Cathcart


Author's Synopsis

On May 3, 1943, a lone American B-24 on a secret mission from Bovington airdrome in England neared the Icelandic coast bound for the United States. Captain Robert “Shine” Shannon was at the controls. He and his nine man crew of Hot Stuff had been honored two weeks earlier as being the first heavy bomber in the Eighth Air Force to complete 25 combat missions. That number was a benchmark established by the Army Air Force for bomber crews to be rotated back to the United States where the plane and its crew would tour the country to promote the war effort.

By the time Hot Stuff and its crew received word they were to rotate back to the States, they had endured not just 25 but 31 combat missions. A combat mission was defined as anytime an American aircraft came under hostile fire over enemy territory.
Hot Stuff was honored to be chosen by Lt. General Frank Andrews, commander of all American Forces in the European Theater of Operations, to fly him and his staff to Washington, D.C. After arriving in Washington he was to receive his fourth star and assume command of all Allied Forces in the European Theater of Operations. However, the accomplishments of Hot Stuff and its crew along with those of Andrews went unheralded in the annals of World War II.