Masters of the Air

 

I have been watching the newest Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks World War II based production, Masters of the Air. It’s on Apple Plus. It’s considered a sequel to the mostly infantry based Band of Brothers and The Pacific.

It portrays the only time the U.S. military service that became the U.S Air Force engaged in operations that resulted in high casualties. Even World War I didn’t match what the bomber groups endured over Europe.

The daytime raids that those airmen conducted were harrowing, and for about a year, the chances of making through that time alive was low until enough fighters were built that had the range to escort those bombers to their targets in Germany, and other parts of German occupied Europe.

But I have some problems with their focus, and I also have problems with what was likely accurate portrayals of those airmen.

As I write this, episodes 1-6 have been released, with two more episodes to go.

First, I have a problem with their focus on officers versus the enlisted men that also crewed those bombers. When they flew on their missions, the enlisted crews are shown fighting alongside the officers and taking their share of casualties. But when they’re off duty, we see the officers, the pilots, the bombardiers, and navigators at their officer’s clubs partying away, without showing the enlisted men in their clubs. It blurs the different treatments of those two classes. They do the enlisted men who also fought in the skies a disservice. There is some focus on the maintenance crews (or more specifically a particular maintenance chief) but even there, we don’t see what he does on his off time. A portrayal of how the maintenance crews at the NCO club mixed with the enlisted men who flew on the bombers might give us a different perspective as well. And perhaps, though they did go to the same clubs, they didn’t mix.

Today’s Air Force has few enlisted men who go into actual combat. The bomber crews of World War II are really an exception, when you compare the U.S. Air Force’s history as a whole. Again, going back to World War I, the air force of the time (the Army Air Corps) consisted of mostly fighter pilots, and the bombers of today’s Air Force don’t have large crews, which now consist entirely of officers. (A B52 is crewed by 5 officers, no enlisted.) The Air Force does have some rotary wing aircraft that includes enlisted gunners, but mostly those are operated by the Army more than the Air Force. And perhaps that reality today influenced the portrayals in Masters.

Another aspect the series portrays, probably accurately, is how pampered the officers were compared to their Army counterparts on the ground, whether infantry or armor (tanks).

We see pilots – well, combat officers – taken offline and sent to a resort like facility with psychiatrists, to recover. Perhaps some combat enlisted were allowed there, but I doubt it. And while ground combat personnel had their own rest and recovery (R&R) areas, they weren’t like that.

The fact is, while those bomber group personnel had it tough – knowing their odds of not coming back from a mission were not trivial and with multiple missions the odds stacked up against them – if they did make it back, they had hot food, alcohol, and a warm cot waiting for them.

Ground personnel had cold rations, mud, and a sleeping bag when they got back.

I’ve never been in combat, and I am grateful I haven’t. And despite my reservations, I have admiration for those men, just as I do their ground based counterparts. But there is a big difference in how they were treated.

The series kind of blurs that difference too.

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  1. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    First, I have a problem with their focus on officers versus the enlisted men that also crewed those bombers.

    My understanding is that every crewmember on the bomber was at least an NCO, in order to ensure better treatment if shot down and captured.

    My biggest problem with the program so far is that during the aerial sequences, the guys are never wearing their goggles, and frequently take off their oxygen masks.

    I get it, it’s hard to photograph and “act” when you can’t see eyes and faces.  But it was really cold up there in an open bomber at 25,000 feet,  30-50 below, even before you figure in the 300 mph slipstream coming through the gun ports.  Nobody left any bare skin exposed during the flights.

    This picture came up on my facebook feed the other day:

    • #1
  2. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    They have been pretty deliberate about putting the mask on above 10,000 feet and only removing them momentarily above that. The Time of useful consciousness at 25K feet is between 3 to 10 minutes. So a brief removal to yak or drink water is no big deal.

    • #2
  3. Al Sparks Coolidge
    Al Sparks
    @AlSparks

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):
    the guys are never wearing their googles

    I rarely criticize spelling in posts.  But I can’t help it.  It’s goggles.

    But yes, in one scene we have two crewmembers conversing with one person not wearing their air mask.  The obvious question was why one man and not the other?

    • #3
  4. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Al Sparks (View Comment):

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):
    the guys are never wearing their googles

    I rarely criticize spelling in posts. But I can’t help it. It’s goggles.

    But yes, in one scene we have two crewmembers conversing with one person not wearing their air mask. The obvious question was why one man and not the other?

    Whoops.  Fixed.

     

    In the late 1970s I was using my dads WWII Army Air Corps goggles for skiing.

    • #4
  5. Al Sparks Coolidge
    Al Sparks
    @AlSparks

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):
    Whoops.  Fixed.

    Too bad.  It’s a funny typo.

    In a self deprecating way, it’s a typo that I’d be happy to own.

    • #5
  6. cdor Member
    cdor
    @cdor

    Thanks for the synopsis. I started watching it and after a couple of episodes lost interest. I will go back and try again

    • #6
  7. Tex929rr Coolidge
    Tex929rr
    @Tex929rr

    You need to read the book, which goes into great detail about the air war.  I thought I was well read on the European air war but it was full of details I had never heard. The people in the series are relatively minor players in the book.  The rest and rehabilitation facilities were a direct response to the incredible stresses the crews endured, especially early in the campaign.  Entire crews indeed went together.  The scene in last night’s episode where the gunners were in the river splashing water was covered in the book.  The lives of the ground crews (and the local townspeople) are covered extensively in the book.  They only have so many hours in the series, and have to put their focus someplace.

    • #7
  8. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Sometimes just out of nowhere, the image pops into my mind of those war films showing wings coming off bombers…

    Geeze.

    • #8
  9. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    This is a “made during the war” documentary about a day in the life of the 8th Air Force.  It’s a little dry for modern MTV-age attention spans, but covers everything from target selection to mission take-off and form-up, through the mission and debrief afterwards.  It even goes into detail about how the “box formation” of the bombers disassembles itself for the actual bomb run and then reassembles afterwards.

     

     

    • #9
  10. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    I saw this in theater, many years ago:

     

    • #10
  11. Steve Fast Member
    Steve Fast
    @SteveFast

    I just went to the B-29 Superfortress museum for Doc in Wichita, and it’s a chance to see an operating WWII bomber up close. Of course, the B-29 was not used in Europe; but there were still a lot of commonalities. They were really pushing Masters of the Air. They have really nice displays about the air war.

    It was a fun visit, but I would have liked a little more of an explanation of the inside and outside of the plane. We got tickets for a cockpit tour, but there were a couple men working in the cockpit, so it was kind of limited. They are supposed to fly in a couple weeks to start the airshow season, and they are behind on their winter maintenance, so everyone was focused on getting the plane ready to fly ASAP.

    I was impressed by the pressure vessel that allowed them fly without oxygen masks on, the long tunnel back to the gunner’s station at the rear, and the system that allowed (I think) one gunner to aim and fire all the guns simultaneously.

    • #11
  12. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    • #12
  13. Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler Member
    Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler
    @Muleskinner

    One of my college roommates told a story about taking a very long drive for a family vacation because his father was afraid to fly. Sometime later, just before spring break, Tim’s Dad had a heart attack. When he got home his Mom told him about him talking in the recovery room. He was still pretty out of it, but he kept going through a list of German-sounding names, so his Mom wrote them down to ask about later. When she showed them to him later, he was upset, because he thought he would never have to talk about it. Turns out that he loved to fly, and got his pilots’ license before his driver’s license. When the war started he enlisted and became a B-17 pilot. During one of his first missions, he prayed that if G-d would get him through his tour, he would give up flying, something he loved so much. The names were the 25 missions he flew.
    Tim grew up thinking that his Dad was maybe a veteran, but he never knew for sure until then. I’ve been watching Masters of the Air, and it provides a hint at the terror those crews must have experienced.

    • #13
  14. Red Herring Coolidge
    Red Herring
    @EHerring

    I spent two years at Barksdale AFB, home of the “Mighty 8th.” The hallway outside the general’s office in my building had many tributes to 8AF.  We attended Air Force Association suppers and had 8 AF WWII vets at our table.  Some played in the community band I was in. Those folks were amazing and interesting. I never asked them to discuss the air campaign over Europe.  I had seen enough war footage in class.

    8th AF has a museum just south of Savannah, GA off I95.

    Tidbit: Bush’s first stop after leaving Tampa on 9-11 was Barksdale – a good place to be to be briefed in case this was a strategic attack and a good place to make a televised address. 

    Re the show, will watch. I loved the Band of Brothers. Am working my way through The Pacific. It is a little harder to follow since it skips around and I think the personal soap operas spoil it a little. I don’t need to see graphic depictions of love-making in a war movie even though flings were quite common. Band of Brothers is hard to beat. 

    • #14
  15. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    It’s quite well done and worth your time if you are interested in history and WW2.

    • #15
  16. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Of the 12,731 B-17s built during the war only 45 exist and of those only 10 are airworthy. The production team built two of them from scratch, one was built to taxi and the other could be towed. The powered one was so unstable and shook so violently they had to start from scratch and rebuild it to Boeing’s original specifications.

    Unike Band of Brothers (2001) and The Pacific (2010), this crop of actors had no living subjects they could rely on. Gale Cleven passed in 2006, Harry Crosby in 2010, and John Egan passed way back in 1961.

    The children who came to hang out with these American flight crews were invited on to the set. The production crew recreated 16 structures on the site of the East Anglian air base and many of the now elderly visitors were brought to tears as their memories came flooding back.

    I personally don’t mind the scenes with love interests. It always recalls the three things English men hated about the Yanks: “They’re overpaid, oversexed and over here.”

     

    • #16
  17. RufusRJones Member
    RufusRJones
    @RufusRJones

    Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler (View Comment):
    I’ve been watching Masters of the Air, and it provides a hint at the terror those crews must have experienced.

    I’ve been watching the highlights on YouTube, and that is pure hell. No way would I volunteer for that.

    • #17
  18. Tex929rr Coolidge
    Tex929rr
    @Tex929rr

    RufusRJones (View Comment):

    Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler (View Comment):
    I’ve been watching Masters of the Air, and it provides a hint at the terror those crews must have experienced.

    I’ve been watching the highlights on YouTube, and that is pure hell. No way would I volunteer for that.

    The thing is, no one knew.  The theory was that the B17 fast enough and well armed enough that a properly flown formation would be safe.  And it took a very long time for senior leadership to understand that they were wrong.

    • #18
  19. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    RufusRJones (View Comment):

    Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler (View Comment):
    I’ve been watching Masters of the Air, and it provides a hint at the terror those crews must have experienced.

    I’ve been watching the highlights on YouTube, and that is pure hell. No way would I volunteer for that.

    They didn’t advertise the pure hell part.

    This was a generation whose fathers and older brothers served in WW1. They heard what life was like in the infantry. Cold, muddy, wet and very dangerous. Flying was glamorous. Flying paid better. Flight crews went to work and then came home to a hard billet, hot chow and a shower. I’m sure this was pretty appealing to a 19 year old from Manhattan, KS.

     

    • #19
  20. LC Member
    LC
    @LidensCheng

    It’s not as good as The Pacific (not going to even compare it to Band of Brothers because very few series ever come close to reaching that level), but I think most people will get something out of it. My main issue with Masters of the Air is some of the narrative decisions early on. I think it had a relatively rough time establishing the main characters of the 100th and even some of the basic settings of their situation. In a war show, if you don’t spend time at the beginning of the story distinguishing the characters before the action starts, it becomes harder to get the audience to care about them later, especially when you know many of them will perish later. Thankfully, the series improves as you get further into it, but now that we’re 2/3 of the way done, I can’t imagine it having great character arcs the way its two predecessor series did. It does look impressive though and does succeed in getting you to feel the relentlessness of their missions. 

    • #20
  21. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    I have been at Barksdale now for almost 1/4 of a century. During my time on active duty, I spent 15 years in 8AF, some in a squadron, some on the staff. I actually work there now, in my civilian job.

    The producers of Master’s of the Air treated us to a preview back in January, to include a talk with Lucky and one of the producers. It was awesome. My team has enjoyed 2 episodes so far, we watch at 1530 on Fridays, work permitting.

    • #21
  22. Charles Mark Member
    Charles Mark
    @CharlesMark

    Just watched episode 5 – shiver down my spine. 

    • #22
  23. CACrabtree Coolidge
    CACrabtree
    @CACrabtree

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Of the 12,731 B-17s built during the war only 45 exist and of those only 10 are airworthy. The production team built two of them from scratch, one was built to taxi and the other could be towed. The powered one was so unstable and shook so violently they had to start from scratch and rebuild it to Boeing’s original specifications.

    Unike Band of Brothers (2001) and The Pacific (2010), this crop of actors had no living subjects they could rely on. Gale Cleven passed in 2006, Harry Crosby in 2010, and John Egan passed way back in 1961.

    The children who came to hang out with these American flight crews were invited on to the set. The production crew recreated 16 structures on the site of the East Anglian air base and many of the now elderly visitors were brought to tears as their memories came flooding back.

    I personally don’t mind the scenes with love interests. It always recalls the three things English men hated about the Yanks: “They’re overpaid, oversexed and over here.”

     

    To which the Americans replied (concerning the British):  “They’re underpaid, undersexed and under Eisenhower”.

    • #23
  24. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Sometimes just out of nowhere, the image pops into my mind of those war films showing wings coming off bombers…

    Geeze.

    I think the B-24 was notorious for have a wing structural weakness.

    • #24
  25. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Sometimes just out of nowhere, the image pops into my mind of those war films showing wings coming off bombers…

    Geeze.

    I think the B-24 was notorious for have a wing structural weakness.

    Well they weren’t just coming off from weakness, they were being shot off.  Although I suppose a structural weakness could make that more likely to happen.

    I haven’t found a video clip online, but what I remember was more like a B-17 than a B-24.

    • #25
  26. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill
    @CarolJoy

    Some of what I have gotten about the lives of combat pilots in WWII came to me from various stories about Jimmy Stewart.

    Here’s one:

    https://www.denofgeek.com/movies/jimmy-stewart-ww2-mission-air-force/

    Although the above  web article makes a great deal over a mission Stewart flew where his plane was severely shelled, with this  resulting in him and another crew member  hi tailing it back to England minus two engines, another story about Stewart says something else affected him more.

    That was the mission where  he commandeered a mission from the ground.

    The men on that mission didn’t come back and as their leader, he suffered a good deal of survivor’s guilt.

    Although from our perspective, the differences between an officer and a lower ranked flyer seem serious, in a war like WWII, it was easy to rise through the ranks. “All” it took was surviving  enough combat missions, right? (meant with a touch of irony)  But getting to a higher rank could not guarantee you’d get safely home in one piece any more than remaining just a pilot would.

    • #26
  27. Old Bathos Member
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    The show does a great job of presenting the sheer horror of midair combat.  The depiction of the one raid in which every plane but one was lost was visually spectacular.  

    • #27
  28. Al Sparks Coolidge
    Al Sparks
    @AlSparks

    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill (View Comment):

    Although the above  web article makes a great deal over a mission Stewart flew where his plane was severely shelled, with this  resulting in him and another crew member  hi tailing it back to England minus two engines, another story about Stewart says something else affected him more.

    That was the mission where  he commandeered a mission from the ground.

    One of the biographies I read of Jimmy Stewart talks about his military service, and that he attained the rank of Colonel and command of a bombing group.

    The biographer talked of rumors that Stewart had a nervous breakdown and had to be relieved.  In Masters, the first or second episode shows a group commander who has a bleeding ulcer, and you can see the pressure he’s enduring.  He finally falls over, when the ulcer is too much.

    Commanders like that continued to serve in staff positions, but were never given command again.  This was not uncommon, and I don’t think less of Stewart over that.

    The other side of this was Curt LeMay, who was ruthless towards the enemy in his bombing campaigns in both Germany and Japan.  He was also ruthless in driving his own men as the casualties mounted.  He would threaten to court-martial pilots who turned back from a bombing run without a good reason.  It had its desired effect.

    The other side of the coin for LeMay is that even as a general, he flew combat missions.  Stewart never made general during WWII, but he also flew combat missons as a group commander.  But sending his men into harm’s way was another thing for him.  It broke him as a commander, and it almost broke him as a man.

    • #28
  29. Red Herring Coolidge
    Red Herring
    @EHerring

    Al Sparks (View Comment):

    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill (View Comment):

    Although the above web article makes a great deal over a mission Stewart flew where his plane was severely shelled, with this resulting in him and another crew member hi tailing it back to England minus two engines, another story about Stewart says something else affected him more.

    That was the mission where he commandeered a mission from the ground.

    One of the biographies I read of Jimmy Stewart talks about his military service, and that he attained the rank of Colonel and command of a bombing group.

    The biographer talked of rumors that Stewart had a nervous breakdown and had to be relieved. In Masters, the first or second episode shows a group commander who has a bleeding ulcer, and you can see the pressure he’s enduring. He finally falls over, when the ulcer is too much.

    Commanders like that continued to serve in staff positions, but were never given command again. This was not uncommon, and I don’t think less of Stewart over that.

    The other side of this was Curt LeMay, who was ruthless towards the enemy in his bombing campaigns in both Germany and Japan. He was also ruthless in driving his own men as the casualties mounted. He would threaten to court-martial pilots who turned back from a bombing run without a good reason. It had its desired effect.

    The other side of the coin for LeMay is that even as a general, he flew combat missions. Stewart never made general during WWII, but he also flew combat missons as a group commander. But sending his men into harm’s way was another thing for him. It broke him as a commander, and it almost broke him as a man.

    In squadron officers school, we watched and discussed 12 O’clock High as part of our leadership lessons. It depicted the mental strain.

    • #29
  30. RufusRJones Member
    RufusRJones
    @RufusRJones

    Al Sparks (View Comment):
    The other side of this was Curt LeMay, who was ruthless towards the enemy in his bombing campaigns in both Germany and Japan.  He was also ruthless in driving his own men as the casualties mounted. 

    “I think there are many times when it would be most efficient to use nuclear weapons. However, the public opinion in this country and throughout the world throw up their hands in horror when you mention nuclear weapons, just because of the propaganda that’s been fed to them.” 

    Curtis LeMay

    • #30
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