Masters of the Air
TELEVISION | Apple TV+ series offers a memorable retelling of the harrowing air war over Europe
Full access isn’t far.
We can’t release more of our sound journalism without a subscription, but we can make it easy for you to come aboard.
Get started for as low as $3.99 per month.
Current WORLD subscribers can log in to access content. Just go to "SIGN IN" at the top right.LET'S GO
Already a member? Sign in.
Aeschylus was one of Athens’ most famous playwrights, but his tombstone didn’t boast of his victories on the stage. It merely stated he had fought the Persians at Marathon. The Greeks would preserve the renown of the men who resisted Persian aggression, with those great deeds becoming a source of national identity.
The Second World War holds a similar place in our American consciousness. After all, we call the people who fought to preserve freedom in the face of fascism the Greatest Generation. Their struggle quite possibly will prove the high-water mark of American civilization, and just like in ancient Athens, we continue to preserve the memory of that generation through constant retelling.
Masters of the Air is a nine-part series dramatizing the true story of the United States Army Air Force’s 100th Bombardment Group during World War II. It adapts Donald L. Miller’s book Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany. Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg produced the series, which serves as a follow up to their Band of Brothers (2001) and The Pacific (2010).
The story begins in June of 1943, when 35 B-17 Flying Fortresses, each with 10-man crews, arrive in England. A young navigator named Harry Crosby, played by Anthony Boyle, provides narration, but the series focuses on the friendship of pilots Gale Cleven and John Egan, who go by the nicknames “Buck” and “Bucky.” Austin Butler plays Buck, a reserved, responsible settled man who just wants to get back to his beloved Marge. Callum Turner is Bucky, a hard drinker and life of the party who grows numb to the horrors of war. Masters of the Air depicts many of those horrors in harrowing detail.
Most episodes feature the men of the 100th heading out on bombing raids over hostile territory. Flak from German anti-aircraft guns fill the skies, shredding sheet metal along with flesh and bone. Casualties are high, earning the bomber group the nickname “the Bloody Hundredth.” The series features a dizzying number of characters—including appearances by the Tuskegee Airmen—but the high attrition rate doesn’t give viewers much time to get to know them before they’re snatched away.
The camera doesn’t flinch from the gore, contributing to the series’ TV-MA rating. The men also use some foul language when under extreme duress, and some of the characters indulge in sinful behavior to try to cope with the trauma. The series contains a couple of bedroom scenes, but they’re not as explicit as those from HBO’s Band of Brothers. Despite some objectionable material, Masters of the Air possesses moral clarity about America’s role in the war and the evils of Nazism. There’s no hint of irony or cynicism in this series that highlights the heroism of the Greatest Generation.
Masters of the Air gave me a new appreciation for the work my grandfather did with the 444th Bombardment Group in World War II. The USAAF wouldn’t let him fly because he was colorblind, so he worked as a plane mechanic. I had always imagined he merely gave engines a tune up, but after seeing these flak shredded bombers return to base, I now realize he was rebuilding these planes from the ground up, and ten souls depended on his ability to rebuild engines and patch sheet metal.
The B-17 might have been state of the art in 1943, but the supposed Flying Fortress was little more than a tin-can death trap. The engines were prone to mechanical failure, and the crew often worked in temperatures as low as 50 degrees below zero. Not only did the thin fuselage offer little protection from the elements, it provided even less protection from anti-aircraft guns and enemy fighters. The planes didn’t have electronic navigation systems. A human navigator sat in the nose of the plane with a map, a pencil, and a watch, plotting a course to the target and hopefully home again. It seems miraculous that any of these men survived.
We owe it to them to keep the memory of their bravery and self-sacrifice alive.