masters of the air

‘Masters of the Air’ Explained: The True Story Of These WWII Heroes

We unravel the stories from Apple TV’s astonishing WWII Series (CONTAINS SPOILERS)

Masters of the Air marks the third World War II miniseries from executive producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, following Band of Brothers and The Pacific. It features a star-studded cast that includes Austin Butler and Callum Turner.

With the final episode of Apple TV’s sensational WWII series concluded, we take a look at the stories of several key figures from the 100th Bomb Group. These include Gale ‘Buck’ Cleven, John ‘Bucky’ Egan, Harry Crosby, Robert ‘Rosie’ Rosenthal, and others encountered throughout the series’ nine episodes. So let’s get into it.

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What is The 100th Bomb Group?

The 100th Bomb Group, were a prominent unit of the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. Activated in 1942, the group played a crucial role in the strategic bombing campaign against Nazi Germany. Operating primarily from Thorpe Abbotts airfield in England, the 100th Bomb Group flew B-17 Flying Fortress bombers and participated in numerous daylight bombing missions over Europe.

The group gained a reputation for its tenacity and bravery in the face of intense enemy opposition, earning the nickname ‘The Bloody Hundredth’ due to the high casualties it suffered. Despite the challenges, the 100th Bomb Group contributed significantly to the Allied air effort, ultimately helping to weaken the German war machine and pave the way for the success of the D-Day invasion and the overall Allied victory in Europe.

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Austin Butler’s Gale ‘Buck’ Cleven

Major Gale ‘Buck’ Cleven was a remarkable figure in the annals of American military history, portrayed by Austin Butler, Buck was renowned for his leadership and bravery during World War II. Cleven’s ascent through the ranks was swift, fueled by his natural leadership abilities. He found himself at the helm of the famed 100th Bomb Group, leading them into the heart of the most perilous missions of the war.

Under Cleven’s command, the 100th Bomb Group earned a reputation for its ferocity and precision in combat. Throughout the war, Cleven led his men through some of the most harrowing experiences imaginable, from daring daylight bombing raids over Nazi-occupied Europe to fierce dogfights with enemy fighters.

Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse for Cleven when a mission resulted in seven of the 100th’s planes being shot down, including Cleven’s own aircraft. With the plane forced to land, Cleven and his pilot were captured and taken to a German military station west of Osnabruck. After being interrogated in Frankfurt, Cleven was moved to the Stalag Luft III camp on the morning of October 23, 1943.

Cleven and the prisoners of Stalag Luft III were forced to trek across Germany in dangerous winter conditions as the Nazis attempted to evade the advancing Allied forces. During one of these journeys, amidst confusion in the German ranks, Cleven managed to escape. Twelve days later, he returned safe and sound to Thorpe Abbotts. Upon his return to England, Cleven participated in Operation Chowhound, which aimed to drop food over the German-occupied Netherlands, where people were suffering from famine. Cleven concluded his World War II service as a hero.

masters of the air
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Callum Turner’s John ‘Bucky’ Egan

During Masters of the Air, Major John ‘Bucky’ Egan brought a fiery and unpredictable attitude that sometimes landed him in questionable scenarios. However, he was guided and served alongside his real-life best friend, Gale ‘Buck’ Cleven. Egan was a figure of immense valor and determination, joining the esteemed ranks of the 100th Bomb Group and embarking on perilous missions over Nazi-occupied Europe. Throughout the conflict, Egan led his men through countless horrific experiences, performing daring bombing raids over enemy territory.

Following the doomed Munster Raid, which Egan had been eager to fly after learning that Cleven had gone missing the day before, Egan was forced to land in German territory. Despite attempting to evade capture, he was eventually apprehended by German forces and brought to Stalag Luft III, where he was reunited with Cleven. Despite Cleven’s successful escape, John Egan remained a prisoner of war until April 1945. Eventually, he was liberated by American troops and sent back to the United States.

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Nate Mann’s Robert ‘Rosie’ Rosenthal

Lt. Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal was one of the Bloody Hundredth’s most decorated pilots and one of the lucky few who completed his 25 mandatory bombing missions. However, despite having earned himself a ticket home, Rosie decided to continue his service and went on to complete a staggering, record breaking 52 missions.

Not only was Rosie the only pilot whose plane survived the Munster Raid, but he also survived being shot down twice. Rosenthal’s plane was shot down over German-occupied France, resulting in a broken arm and nose. With the help of the Free French, he returned to active duty. In February 1945, during his second-to-last mission, Rosenthal was on his way to bomb Berlin when his plane caught fire. He remained with the plane until they hit their bomb site, and within seconds of the plane exploding, he escaped. Once again, Rosenthal was saved by Allied forces and returned to duty immediately afterward.

After the war, Rosenthal remained in Europe to assist with the Nuremberg Trials, becoming a lawyer. He prosecuted Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials and even personally interrogated Hermann Göring.

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Anthony Boyle’s Harry Crosby

Major Harry Crosby is a standout character as he serves as the narrator of Masters of the Air. In December 1941, soon after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Harry Crosby decided to put a hold on his graduate studies at the University of Iowa to enlist in the United States Army Air Forces. Crosby operated as lead navigator of the entire squadron of the 100th Bomb Group. Despite suffering from air sickness, he navigated 32 perilous missions over Nazi-occupied Europe. Crosby played a major role in planning out the Eighth Air Force’s routes over France on D-Day, as well as countless important missions throughout the war. These included dangerous flights to Bremen, the Munster Raid, and Schweinfurt.

Crosby is one of the few characters in the series who reveals aspects of their private lives and personal relationships. Despite having a wife named Jean waiting for him at home, he started an intimate relationship with a British Subaltern named Alessandra Westgate while attending lectures at Oxford. Crosby survived his time in Europe and returned to Iowa to finish his graduate degree in 1947.

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Who were The Red Tails?

The Red Tails, officially known as the Tuskegee Airmen, were the first Black pilots in U.S. history. In 1943, they were deployed to the European Theater of Operations. Where they were assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group, they flew combat missions escorting bombers over enemy territory.

The Tuskegee Airmen’s formation originated from the Civilian Pilot Training Program at Tuskegee University. This program provided an opportunity for numerous Black men to undergo pilot training, making them so highly qualified that the U.S. military could not refuse them. Additionally, rigorous tests were administered to select the brightest and most physically fit candidates, making these Airmen some of the best available.

The Red Tails are unfortunately rather glossed over by the series and predominantly feature in the 8th Episode of Masters of the Air. This is where we are introduced to the three primary characters presented, Ncuti Gatwa’s Lt. Robert Daniels, Josiah Cross‘ Captain Richard Macon, and Branden Cook as Lt. Alexander Jefferson. During a flight over Marseilles, Saint-Tropez, and Toulon in France, the trio are shot down and taken to the POW camp Stalag Luft III, where they are questioned by the S.S. not one of them cracks. The trio later connect with John Egan and Gale Cleven at Stalag Luft III, where they plan an escape together. 

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Rosie and The Concentration Camp

While it’s unconfirmed whether Robert ‘Rosie’ Rosenthal actually visited the camp in the Polish town of Zabikowo. This scene is extremely important to the final episode and one of the most powerful moments from the Masters of the Air finale. It also directly mirrors the concentration camp scene from Band of Brothers, which was equally harrowing to watch.

Seeing Rosie discover the full extent of the unconscionable horror inflicted upon Jewish people in the concentration camp highlights the brutal realities of World War II. Equally heart-wrenching is Rosie starting a conversation with an elderly Jewish man who describes the atrocities committed by the Nazis on his family. These scenes are key moments in conveying the profound impact of the war.

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Was the escape Buck mentioned in the POW camp ‘The Great Escape’?

Yes! When Buck and the men discuss the possibility of an escape, their plans are abruptly thwarted by Buck’s revelation that 80 British POW’s had dug a 30 foot deep tunnel to escape the camp. He informs them that the majority had been recaptured, with 50 of them going on to be executed by the Nazi’s. This significantly heightened camp security and shattered any semblance of decent relations with the guards.

‘The Great Escape’ was a daring mass escape from the German prison camp Stalag Luft III during World War II. The prisoners, primarily British airmen, constructed three tunnels, code-named “Tom,” “Dick,” and “Harry,” to facilitate their escape. The tunnels were dug using improvised tools and hidden beneath a stove in one of the prison barracks.

The escape did not go as intended. While 76 prisoners managed to break out of the camp through the tunnel code-named “Harry,” most were eventually recaptured by the German authorities. Only three escapees successfully reached freedom. Adolf Hitler, infuriated by the audacity of the escape attempt, ordered that those recaptured be executed. The story was turned into a Hollywood film in 1963 starring Steve McQueen.

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What was Operation Chowhound?

One of the most heartwarming moments of Masters of the Air occurs after Gale ‘Buck’ Cleven returns following his escape. He pilots the mission Operation Chowhound alongside Robert Rosenthal & Harry Crosby, and instead of dropping bombs, the team drop food packages to the Dutch people below.

Operation Chowhound was part of an effort to provide humanitarian aid to civilian populations across war-torn Europe. Alleviating the suffering of Dutch people who were enduring severe food shortages and starvation conditions. The operation was highly successful in delivering much-needed food supplies to the Dutch population, and it helped to improve their living conditions as the war drew to a close.

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Final thoughts on the season finale

The final episode of Masters of the Air is the longest of the series, running at 1 hour and 20 minutes. It serves as a thrilling and satisfying conclusion to a fantastic show, skillfully tying together the major themes in a beautiful manner. It celebrates the accomplishments of The Bloody Hundredth and their tireless efforts, while also acknowledging the profound impact of war, as seen through Rosie’s discovery of the concentration camps.

Buck and Bucky’s POW storyline is expertly executed, the liberation of Egan’s camp, as well as his scaling of the flagpole to fly the Stars and Stripes, are stunning cinematic moments.

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Image Credit: Apple TV

Will Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks continue telling WWII stories?

Spielberg and Hanks truly are the masters of these stories, Band of Brothers was revolutionary, the largest budget ever given to a limited series with ten episodes of the highest quality TV ever made and in 2024 it still remains one of the greatest TV shows in history. The story of Easy Company’s journey across Europe to Berlin will remain one of the greatest war stories to ever be told.

Spielberg’s creative team then followed that up with 2010’s The Pacific, an equally brutal portrayal of the theater of war in Japan. With the success of Masters of the Air, there is no reason why they cannot continue to tell these stories. There are plenty of directions they can go, including following the U.S. Navy during World War II.

However, given the length of time between them, do not expect anything anytime soon. But for now, you can enjoy the three shows they are some of the best war stories ever told!

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