By John Ross
On the morning of August 14, 1943, some folks in Asheville got the thrill of their lives and others were scared to death as the Memphis Belle, World War II’s most famous B–17 bomber, banked low over Pack Square, dropped its left wing and roared between the Buncombe County Courthouse and City Hall before straightening up and flying right on to its next stop— Columbus, Ohio.
The Memphis Belle was the first Army Air Forces (AAF) heavy bomber to complete 25 harrowing missions, dodging fields of anti-aircraft flak and scores of Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulf fighters over Nazi-occupied Europe. Its pilot was Asheville native Maj. Robert K. Morgan. Returning to the states for a war bond tour, Morgan landed in his hometown to a tumultuous welcome and richly deserved hero’s parade.
Although Morgan probably did not know it, four months before he landed the Memphis Belle at the old Asheville-Hendersonville Airport in Fletcher, the AAF announced the relocation of its flight control command from Washington, D. C. to Asheville’s City Hall. The county made space available next door for displaced municipal offices. Three wings comprised the AAF command: flight control, communications and weather. The weather wing included the climatological division and a Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) unit.
Weather WASPs, as they may have been known, flew meteorological missions over the US. They piloted transports, light bombers and trainers, like the famed high-performance AT–6 Texan, gathering weather data and ferrying staff and equipment between state-side bases. They operated out of the airport at Fletcher, which had been taken over by the AAF. By lengthening runways, the AAF prepared the base for Asheville’s first regularly scheduled commercial flights in 1947.
The climatology division was in constant touch with the AAF’s weather records center in New Orleans. There, observations recorded on some 80 million punch cards by the Works Progress Administration during the Depression were used to prepare weather maps to aid in forecasts for major operations including D-Day—June 6, 1944. Irving P. Krick, one of the AAF’s lead meteorologists in England, relied on those long-range forecasts for his predictions of the weather over landing zones in Normandy.
Krick was a big fan of “analog” forecasting. That theory of meteorology holds that if today’s weather observations match those of a day shown on an historical weather chart, then tomorrow’s weather will be very similar to the one that followed that day in history. Based on his analog forecasts, Krick argued forcefully to the AAF’s commanders that the night of June 4–5 would be suitable for the invasion.
Instead, Gen. Eisenhower, supreme commander of D-Day forces, listened to his senior meteorologist, James Martin Stagg, and postponed D-Day for 24 hours. Had he followed Krick’s advice, torrential rain, low clouds, high winds and heavy seas would have swamped the invasion. Had landings failed, consequences for the liberation of France would have been disastrous. The war in Europe would likely have continued for two more years. Russians would have met Western Allies at the Rhine instead of the Elbe, meaning no West Germany, communist domination of France and Italy, and no NATO. All of that rode on the forecast for D-Day.
In 1946, the AAF Weather Wing was recalled to the Washington area. But the onset of the Korean War caused another space crunch around the nation’s capital. At the same time, the military and the civilian Weather Bureau realized that records in New Orleans, wartime meteorological observations and captured German files contained a trove of invaluable climatological information. Only one building was large enough to house them all: Asheville’s Grove Arcade, owned since 1942 by the government when it relocated postal records there.
The National Weather Records Center moved in from New Orleans in 1952. Four years later, computerization of data began. By 1963, all of the bureau’s climatological data had been consolidated in Asheville. In 1995, it moved again, this time across town to a new building on Patton Avenue. Then called the National Climatic Data Center, in 2015 it was combined with the National Geophysical Data Center and the National Oceanographic Data Center to form today’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI). Last year the Office of Satellite Ground Services (OSGS), which coordinates communications with all NOAA weather satellites, moved to Asheville.
Co-located with NCEI is the Air Force’s 14th Weather Squadron, which gathers, assesses and provides climatic data to support planning for military training, intelligence and combat operations throughout the world. Together NCEI, the 14th Weather Squadron and OSGS constitute the greatest aggregation of weather resources in the country and define Asheville as America’s weather city.
A resident of Asheville, John Ross probes the interaction between natural and human history in his books, among them Rivers of Restoration (Skyhorse, 2008) and The Forecast for D-Day: And the Weatherman Behind Ike’s Greatest Gamble (Lyons, 2014). Currently working on a book on the physical and social history of the French Broad watershed for UT Press, he will give a talk on his D-Day book at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café on Wednesday, June 5, at 6 p.m.