GALE CLEVEN: OK, boys. Here we go.
COLLIN GARBARINO: Americans view the Second World War with a special reverence. We even call the people who fought Nazi Germany to preserve freedom “the Greatest Generation.” Their struggle, quite possibly, will prove the highwatermark of American civilization, so it’s only right that we continue to preserve the memory of their deeds by retelling their stories.
Masters of the Air attempts to do just that. The nine-part series adapts Donald L. Miller’s book of the same name and dramatizes the true story of the United States Army Air Force’s 100th Bombardment Group during World War II.
COLONEL HUGLIN: You are in charge of 35 planes and 350 air crewmen, boys who have yet to experience combat. Their lives depend on order and discipline and your example.
JOHN EGAN: Yes, sir.
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.”
DANCING PARTNER: So you’re Bucky, and he’s Buck?
EGAN: Ah, it’s a long story.
Austin Butler plays Buck, a reserved, responsible, settled man who just wants to get back to his beloved Marge. Callum Turner is Bucky. He’s a high-spirited partier who quickly grows numb to the horrors of war. And Masters of the Air depicts many of those horrors in harrowing detail.
CLEVEN: Here we go. Flak incoming. Hold on boys.
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, tearing 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 we barely get to know them before they’re snatched away.
The camera doesn’t flinch from the gore and that contributes to the TV-MA rating. The men also use some foul language when under extreme duress, and some turn to alcohol and womanizing to try to cope with their trauma. The show contains a couple of bedroom scenes, but in this series—unlike HBO’s Band of Brothers—Apple obscures any nudity with sheets and lighting effects.
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 show that highlights the heroism of the Greatest Generation.
SANDRA WESTGATE: Your friend was on that plane for one reason and one reason only. Because Adolf Hitler and his gang of thugs decided they should rule the world. That’s it. That’s the only reason anybody dies in this war.
Masters of the Air actually gave me a new appreciation for the work my grandfather did with the 444th Bomb Group in World War II. The Army Air Force 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 basically had to reconstruct these planes from the ground up. Ten souls depended on his ability to rebuild engines and patch sheet metal.
HARRY CROSBY: The B-17 had 12 machine guns, protecting us from every side. We called it the Flying Fortress.
The B-17 might have been state of the art in 1943, but this 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 negative 50 degrees. 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.
EGAN: We’re going to get through this. Come on. Don’t you stop believing that.
CLEVEN: Sure, Bucky.
We owe it to them to keep the memory of their bravery and self-sacrifice alive.
I’m Collin Garbarino.
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