When Major Harry H. Crosby called his base on October 10, 1943, he spoke in code, inquiring whether all of his friends had returned “from pass.” Met with silence, Crosby followed up: “Did some of them have a permanent change of station?” The response was sobering. “Yes, all but one,” said the airman on the other side of the line.
Breaking code, he continued, “Your old crew is gone. The whole group is gone.”
The “pass” in question was an Allied bombing raid on Münster, Germany. Of the 18 aircraft supplied by the United States Army Air Forces’ (USAAF) 100th Bombardment Group, 5 were forced to turn back before reaching Münster, while 13 carried on. Only one plane returned to base—a staggering loss that cemented the group’s reputation as the “Bloody Hundredth.”
The 100th’s high casualty rate mirrored that of its parent division, the Eighth Air Force, which suffered more fatalities—26,000—than the entire Marine Corps over the course of World War II. The Eighth’s job “was to take the war to the Germans in a way that had never been seen before in history,” says Jeremy R. Kinney, associate director of research and curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. While aerial combat emerged as a powerful tool during World War I, technological advancements in the decades since had opened up the skies as a new front.
“[The American airmen] were always in this suspended state of anticipation,” says Hattie Hearn, a curator at the Imperial War Museum Duxford’s American Air Museum in England. “They knew they had to go out on another mission, and that it wouldn’t stop until they’re either shot down, wounded or they eventually complete their required missions” (initially 25 to earn a trip home but later increased to 30 or more). Hearn adds, “It was definitely a very emotionally daunting experience.”
“Masters of the Air,” a new mini-series more than a decade in the making, dramatizes the exploits of the 100th’s airmen, following them from deployment in 1943 to imprisonment at a German prisoner-of-war camp to the end of the war in Europe in 1945. Based on Donald L. Miller’s Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany, the show serves as a follow-up to “Band of Brothers” (2001) and “The Pacific” (2010), a pair of acclaimed World War II series developed by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. The duo returns for this nine-episode series as executive producers.
Austin Butler, best known for playing Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 biopic, stars as Major Gale “Buck” Cleven, while Callum Turner plays Cleven’s best friend, Major John “Bucky” Egan. Barry Keoghan, Anthony Boyle, Nate Mann and Ncuti Gatwa round out the cast of American airmen.
Here’s what you need to know about the real history behind “Masters of the Air” ahead of its two-episode premiere on Apple TV+ on January 26.
The making of “Masters of the Air”
Miller’s 2006 book forms the basis of the series, but its scope is broader than the show’s, covering the entirety of the Eighth Air Force through episodic profiles of various airmen. Unlike “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific,” both of which drew directly from nonfiction books that provided “the blueprint for the story,” “Masters of the Air” doesn’t have “underlying narrative material [where] we could just turn, flip to that page and it tells us what [the 100th was] doing at that time,” says co-producer Kirk Saduski.
To flesh out the series’ characters, showrunner John Orloff and his colleagues conducted original research, collaborating with Miller, the 100th Bomb Group Foundation, the 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum, the American Air Museum and veterans’ families. The writing team drew on an array of archival sources, including navigator Crosby’s 1993 memoir.
Orloff and his team also pored over oral history interviews with the famed Tuskegee Airmen. Though these Black airmen weren’t part of the 100th, or even the Eighth, three Tuskegee fighter pilots—Alexander Jefferson, Richard Macon and Robert H. Daniels—crossed paths with Cleven and Egan at Stalag Luft III, a German prisoner-of-war camp where all five were imprisoned after being shot down during bombing raids.
According to Saduski, the writers were interested in exploring how the two groups of airmen interacted while at Stalag Luft III. At the time, the American military was still segregated, “so how would it work if all of a sudden these guys are integrated, but in a [POW] camp under pretty bad conditions?” Saduski adds, “Everything we found [suggested] there was not the kind of racial tension that I had assumed. Everyone cooperated because they had to.”
Much as “Band of Brothers” celebrated the bonds forged in the trenches, “Masters of the Air” emphasizes the close ties among the 100th’s airmen, who must work as a team to survive the terrors of aerial combat. Over the course of the show, the men’s bravado—on display in boisterous bar scenes, complete with drinking songs and a fistfight with British airmen—fades into shellshocked resignation as more of their friends fail to return from missions. Eager for distraction from combat fatigue (what would now be classified as post-traumatic stress disorder), the airmen seek comfort in the arms of women or at rest homes where they can briefly enjoy a taste of civilian life.
The beginnings of the 100th Bomb Group
Cleven and Egan, the airmen at the heart of “Masters of the Air,” met in the spring of 1940, when they were assigned to room together at flying school. Both enlisted in the USAAF before the attack on Pearl Harbor, inspired less by patriotism than a desire to become pilots. Egan christened Cleven “Buck,” as he thought his new roommate looked like a friend from back home in Wisconsin; Egan, meanwhile, gained the moniker “Bucky” as a cadet, when a colleague pointed out his resemblance to a man of that name. Together, the friends were known as the “two Buckys.” As Crosby wrote in his memoir, they were “dashing, undisciplined, superb pilots, exactly what Hollywood expected them to be.”
Both Cleven and Egan were assigned to the 100th, a bombardment group established in 1942 with a lineup of 37 crews, each comprising 10 men. The group got off to an inauspicious start in April 1943, when a failed training exercise found bombers bound for California scattered across the country, from Las Vegas to Tennessee. “It was a train wreck to the point where they fired the commander … and brought in other people, saying, ‘Look, get these guys together. We’ve got to get them overseas,’” says Frank Blazich, a curator of military history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. A navigator in the group put it another way, recalling, “We were all conceited and quite impossible. We were undertrained and not as good as we thought we were.”
After undergoing remedial training stateside, the 100th departed for Norfolk, England, in late May 1943. At the time, the tide of the war was turning in the Allies’ favor, with an Axis surrender in North Africa and Soviet, American and British troops preparing to converge on occupied Nazi territory from multiple fronts.
“Once these units get overseas, they’re often sent into combat very quickly,” Blazich says. The 100th, for instance, participated in its first bombing raid on June 25, just over two weeks after the men arrived in England. During raids, American crews of ten—including a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, radio operator, bombardier and gunners—engaged in daylight precision bombing, focusing on strategic targets like German aircraft factories, ball-bearing plants and U-boat pens. The USAAF’s goal with precision bombing was to “deal a blow to the German war economy and hopefully restrict Germany’s ability to build war machines,” says Hearn. Comparatively, the British Royal Air Force conducted night bombing of entire cities—an approach designed to both lower the risk of encountering antiaircraft resistance and retaliate against Germany for the Blitz bombing campaign.
No matter how much training the airmen had completed, they were unprepared for the reality of aerial combat. In the first episode of the series, Cleven poses a question to Egan, who traveled in advance of his colleagues and flew two missions with a different bomb group. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he asks. “You’ve been up. Two missions. You didn’t tell me it was like that.” At a loss for words, Egan simply responds, “I didn’t know what to say.”
Flying at altitudes of up to 35,000 feet and temperatures nearing minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit, bomber crews were exposed to enemy flak, mechanical failure, poor weather conditions and sheer terror. Frostbite and oxygen loss were constant threats. As Miller writes in his book, “Every position in the plane was vulnerable; there were no foxholes in the sky.” Aside from the pilot, the crew had little control over how to respond to crises, and they were often “sitting ducks without the ability to influence their own fate,” Hearn says. When all other options were exhausted, the airmen bailed out with parachutes, consigning themselves to the possibility of becoming a prisoner of war. Overall, two-thirds of the men in the Eighth Air Force could expect to be killed in action, wounded or captured by the enemy.
An August 17, 1943, raid on Bremen, Germany, exemplifies the high-stress circumstances. Cleven’s plane was 30 minutes out from its target when six shells struck in quick succession, killing the radio operator and seriously wounding other members of the crew. “Confronted with structural damage, partial loss of control, fire in the air and serious injuries to personnel, and faced with fresh waves of fighters still rising to the attack, Major Cleven had every justification for abandoning ship,” notes the 100th Bomb Group Foundation. Instead, as his co-pilot pleaded with him to bail out, Cleven said, “You son of a bitch, you sit there and take it.” The crew recovered, successfully bombed Bremen and landed safely at an Allied base in North Africa.
Aerial versus land combat
The men of the 101st Airborne Division and the First Marine Division—the heroes of the two series that preceded “Masters of the Air”—spent weeks or months on the front lines, with few breaks. “You go overseas, you enter combat and you stay in combat until the battle or campaign is won or you’re wounded,” says Blazich. Airmen, on the other hand, could be “in their bunk at 4 a.m., in the air over Cologne at 10 a.m. and then in an English pub by 8 p.m.,” Saduski explains. Missions typically lasted less than a day, and when they ended, the surviving airmen came back to “a warm bed, a warm meal, and the ability to get away” and recharge before their next assignment, which could be as soon as the next day, Kinney says.
Still, what they lacked that soldiers and Marines had was “a degree of control” over their response to enemy opposition, Blazich notes, as well as more immediate access to medical care.
Serving in the USAAF was more dangerous than fighting on the ground, and it exacted a unique psychological toll, with the contrast between time spent on base and in the air especially stark. An airman could eat breakfast next to two friends in the morning, then return from a mission that afternoon to find those same men’s beds empty, their fates unknown. In ground warfare, when “someone is killed, oftentimes there’s a body, [so] you have a means to effectively mourn,” says Blazich. In aviation, it’s harder to know if an airman has been captured, killed or simply vanished.
Reflecting on the 100th’s missing airmen in a later episode of “Masters of the Air,” actor Boyle, as Crosby, intones, “Those of us who continued to fly mission after mission had to tiptoe around their ghosts. Some of the men were coming undone. They’d seen too many planes blow up in front of them, too many men killed.”
Black Week and the “Bloody Hundredth”
In 1943, the USAAF’s strategy for bombing Germany into submission centered on the B-17, which officials believed could defend itself against enemy fighters while dropping bombs on precise industrial targets. Undeterred by heavy losses (and relatively imprecise results) in its initial missions that year, the USAAF proceeded with an operation that sent more than 1,000 bombers to Germany over a seven-day period in early October—later dubbed “Black Week.”
American fighters like the P-47 escorted the bombers part of the way but lacked the range to accompany the planes to their targets and back. Left unprotected, the bombers flew in large formations designed to ensure safety in numbers. But the aircraft encountered successive waves of attacks from the Luftwaffe, the German air force, which easily picked them off. By the end of the week, the Eighth had lost 148 bombers and 1,500 men, some killed and others captured, among them Cleven and Egan.
Cleven was the first to go down, bailing out on an October 8 mission to Bremen. He was subsequently captured and interrogated by the Germans before being transferred to Stalag Luft III. The loss of Cleven, a much-loved squadron commander believed to be “impervious [and] invincible,” shook the 100th, Crosby wrote. “If he couldn’t make it, who could? His good friend, Bucky Egan, didn’t talk much that night.”
Eager to avenge Cleven, Egan volunteered to lead an October 10 raid on Münster. In a departure from earlier missions, the Eighth targeted the city center rather than an industrial outpost. Some of the men balked at the idea of bombing civilians, but others relished the prospect of delivering retribution to the nation that had shot down so many of their friends.
In the show’s fifth episode, one airman objects to the timing and target of the raid, saying, “You saw how close that cathedral is. … We’re hitting it right when everyone’s coming out of mass. There will be a lot of people in that cathedral. Or in their houses. And not just railroad workers, either.” Egan dismisses this concern, replying, “It’s a war. We’re here to drop bombs.” “On women and kids?” a third man asks. “This won’t end until we hit them where it hurts,” Egan says. “Better now [than] before every fucking guy we’ve ever shared a bunk with is either dead or MIA.”
Rodney Snow, an airman in the 95th Bombardment Group, later said that German fighters “concentrated in numbers such as we had not seen on any of my crew’s 20 previous missions” battered the bombers as they approached their target. The Luftwaffe focused its attacks on the 100th specifically, pursuing a new tactic of homing in on a single group during battle. The result was devastating. Only 1 of the group’s 13 planes returned to Norfolk at the end of the day. Its pilot, a newcomer named Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal, arrived back at base with a question: “Are they all this rough?”
The Germans’ strategy at Münster proved effective. They knew “if they were fortunate enough in knocking down enough planes, the effect upon morale would be devastating,” writes historian Edward Jablonski in Flying Fortress. “The absence of 120 men would be noted; one-quarter of the 100th Group’s airmen were gone.” Indeed, the mission confirmed the group’s reputation as the “Bloody Hundredth”; one airman later assigned to the unit declared, “I’m not going to make it. … They just put me in the 100th Group. I haven’t got a chance.”
Black Week proved to be a turning point in the air war, giving the air advantage back to the Luftwaffe and forcing the Americans to suspend long-range strikes. The setback was only temporary; by December 1943, such missions resumed, this time with P-51 fighters capable of protecting bombers along their entire route. A “war of attrition” began, with a shift in the Americans’ strategy to focusing on destroying the Luftwaffe “and gaining air superiority”—a necessary step in preparing for the eventual land invasion of Europe, says Kinney. By the time the Allies landed at Normandy on June 6, 1944, the Luftwaffe was virtually defeated, its fighters drawn in by American bombers, then picked off by P-51s. The Allied advance continued, unimpeded by enemy aircraft.
Life as a prisoner of war
Egan was one of the dozens of 100th airmen shot down over Münster. When he arrived at Stalag Luft III, he spotted a familiar face: Cleven, who greeted him by asking, “What the hell took you so long?”
The friends were among the more than 35,000 USAAF personnel captured by the Germans and their European allies during World War II. Of these individuals, 28,000 were members of the Eighth—a fact that led Stalag Luft III internee Robert Wolff to note that he “met more people from our group in that prison camp than I did when I was on active duty.”
Because the German camps were run by the Luftwaffe, “there was this understanding between the prisoners and the prison guards that these men were fellow airmen, and they deserved to be treated with some respect,” says Hearn. Still, she adds, the “routine of POW life wore down the prisoners both physically and emotionally.” As Blazich explains, “It can be incredibly boring, because you go from very high-intensity work … to essentially a very sedentary lifestyle.”
Enlisted airmen were typically subjected to worse treatment than officers like Cleven and Egan. At Stalag Luft IV, a camp for noncommissioned officers, a German guard nicknamed “Big Stoop” earned a reputation for his sadistic treatment of prisoners; on one occasion, he used a belt “to inflict scalp wounds so deep that the bone of the man’s skull was exposed,” writes Miller in Masters of the Air.
At Stalag Luft III, the prisoners lived in barracks of 15 men each. They attended daily roll calls but were otherwise left largely to their own devices. To pass the time, they played sports, gardened, read, organized theatrical performances and took classes taught by fellow prisoners. Cleven offered lessons on advanced calculus, drawing on his prewar training as an astrophysicist.
“The men were really resourceful,” Hearn says. “They created their own little communities, and they rallied around each other and got through it. But at the same time, they were also suffering from malnutrition … and missing home,” uncertain how much longer the war would last.
Compared with Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, conditions in Germany were tough but less severe. The Germans allowed the airmen to receive Red Cross care packages filled with food, clothing, and recreational gear like baseballs and bats. But the prisoners were still vulnerable to their captors’ whims. In March 1944, when 76 Allied airmen escaped Stalag Luft III by digging tunnels under the camp (as dramatized in the 1963 film The Great Escape), the Germans retaliated brutally, recapturing all but 3 of the escapees and shooting 50 of them on the personal orders of Adolf Hitler.
As the Allies advanced on Germany in January 1945, Nazi leadership decided to evacuate the downed airmen to camps further inland. The forced marches that followed represented one of the “most harrowing experiences” of the war for many of the American prisoners, who were made to walk for miles in freezing temperatures, says Hearn. (As many as several hundred men died during the evacuation of Stalag Luft IV, which Miller writes “was for American airmen the European equivalent of the Bataan Death March of April 1942.”) On one occasion, the former inmates of Stalag Luft III took shelter in a building with straw mattresses “so infested by bugs they could have moved by themselves,” as Cleven later recalled. He and two other airmen managed to slip away during the chaos of the marches, and Cleven soon found his way back to the 100th’s Norfolk base. The rest of the surviving airmen, including Egan, eventually made it to the next camps, where they languished under poor conditions until their liberation by Allied forces in the spring of 1945.
The end of the war and the 100th’s legacy
Contrary to its reputation, the 100th didn’t suffer the most losses of any Eighth Air Force group. That unwanted distinction belongs to the 91st Bombardment Group, which lost 197 aircraft to the 100th’s 177. Questioning whether the group deserved its reputation as the Bloody Hundredth in his memoir, Crosby pointed out, “Other outfits lost more planes and crews than we did. What marked us was that when we lost, we lost big.” The 100th suffered its worst casualties on March 6, 1944, when the group lost 15 aircraft over Berlin. Of the 306 missions flown by the 100th between June 25, 1943, and April 20, 1945, just 8 accounted for nearly half of its losses. “The group would go several months without any casualties and then on one mission might lose half [of its men],” notes the 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum.
Rosenthal, the pilot whose plane was the only one to return from the Münster mission, ended the war as one of the most seasoned members of the 100th. He flew 52 missions—more than double the required 25—and survived being shot down twice. After the Germans surrendered, he volunteered to continue fighting in the Pacific; he was training to fly B-29s when Japan surrendered in September 1945, bringing World War II to a close after six years. Not content to simply return to his prewar life, Rosenthal served on the American legal team during the Nuremberg trials, helping to prosecute the Nazis for their crimes against humanity. A Jewish man himself, “he absolutely hated prejudice and discrimination,” says Hearn, “and he just knew that he couldn’t finish [serving] until the Nazis were defeated.”
The two Buckys remained close friends, with Egan serving as Cleven’s best man at his wedding to his childhood sweetheart. Both remained in the Air Force after the war. Egan died of a heart attack in 1961, while Cleven died in 2006 at age 87. Before his death in 2010 at age 91, Crosby taught literature at Harvard University, wrote college textbooks and helped develop pilot training programs at the Air Force Academy. Today, the Air and Space Museum houses a target chart used by Crosby during his time as the 100th’s lead navigator.
According to Saduski, a recurring question in “Masters of the Air” is how the men found the strength to keep flying missions after they’d experienced the harsh reality of aerial warfare. The common theme, the co-producer concludes, was the camaraderie felt by the crews. “Ultimately,” he says, “these guys keep getting back into the planes for each other.”
The American History Museum’s History Film Forum will present the first episode of “Masters of the Air” on Saturday, January 27, at 7:30 p.m. Kinney will moderate a discussion with the show’s cast and producers.