Before the Belle
By Cassius Mullen & Betty Byron
Review by Allen Benzing (B-24 Diamond Lil pilot)
Before The Belle is an intriguing, well written story that was cloaked in secrecy during WW II and almost forgotten to history. It is about the men of a B-24 Liberator “Hot Stuff” who were the first heavy bomber crew in the 8th Air Force to complete 25 Combat Missions – completing 31 missions prior to the “Memphis Belle” completing her 25th. Tragically, Hot Stuff with some of the original crew crashed on a foggy mountainside in Iceland on what was to be their triumphant return to the US. Lt General Frank Andrews, Commander of all US Forces in Europe was flying as Copilot and perished in the foggy crash on May 3, 1942. It was his explicit command that the flight not stop in Prestwick, Scotland, that put the flight in peril of low fuel and inadequate weather information. It was his importance to the War effort that wrapped this crash, and the incredible story of the Hot Stuff crew, in a cloak of secrecy which paved the way for the B-17 Memphis Belle and crew to become famous as the first to survive 25 missions.
I am among the fortunate few who today fly a rare airworthy B-24, Diamond Lil. It was only within the last year or so that I heard “hangar talk” of a B-24 crew who beat Memphis Belle to the 25 Mission mark. Having read many books on WW II Air Power, this was ‘news’ to me, and coming so many years after the War, I was skeptical. Could it be true or was this just a lot of wishful ‘facts’ that didn’t quite add up?
When I saw a book titled ‘Before The Belle’, it instantly caught my attention and made me wonder if it would really make the case of a B-24 with 25 missions before the Memphis Belle. What I found was a very well documented and engaging book that quickly laid to rest all my concerns about authenticity and provided me with the incredible story of the crew of the B-24 Hot Stuff, its 31 Combat Missions and its unique role in the history of WW II.
It can be risky to start a story with the end, especially a bitter end. In this case, it has to be that way, that is the point of the story. It was the bitter loss of this aircraft, crew and a prominent General that disrupted history, and ensured the role of the B-24 would forever be seen as secondary to the B-17.
Reading Chapter One, detailing the crash of “Hot Stuff” was a harsh beginning, but set the stage for the story. It was dispiriting to learn of the unnecessary loss of lives and aircraft, but was countered by learning how this crew accomplished so much early in the War, when bomber losses were very high.
The Military can be capricious and all the more so in Wartime. The fate of crews takes many unexpected twists, and that was certainly the case of the Hot Stuff crew. They were initially assigned to England, flying several missions over occupied Europe, only to soon be ordered to fly south across the Mediterranean to North Africa. That barren landscape was a miserable place to survive in a tent. It’s was difficult to operate aircraft as complex as B-24s in those windswept, sandy conditions and amazing they were able to fly any missions at all.
I was impressed with the well written crew interactions and mission details. This made the missions interesting and was largely due to contributions from surviving B-24 crewmembers who collaborated with many details. The wide variety of missions flown added to the interest, with even ‘simple’ missions becoming fraught with difficulties and danger.
After months of missions wearing out the crew and aircraft, they finally returned to England where R & R and much needed maintenance on the aircraft brought them back to battle-ready condition. Subsequent Missions over occupied Europe reintroduced them to the perils of German Flak and Fighters, and to the loss of Squadron-mates.
One factor continually stood out – a well-trained crew, who worked in concert was far more effective and likely to survive adversity than those not so fortunate.
It is among the War’s many tragedies that Hot Stuff and her crew could not fly their final mission across the Atlantic to home and the rewards of a grateful nation.