Masters of the Air – 100th Bomb Group

Observations of the series and from other sources

I am 7 episodes into the series, based on the 100th Bomb Group at Thorpe Abbotts in Britain during WW II, and am thoroughly enjoying it.

I became so interested in the series that I started to read a book on the last surviving member of the 100th Bomb Group, John “Lucky” Luckadoo. I was surprised to learn that the series was so accurate they brought many of the historical figures to life, with no fictional embellishment.

As an aside, the one thing even this author did that bugged me a bit was refer to what was the US Army Air Force as the “Army Air Corps”. It seems a common mistake.  A minor nit perhaps, but by June 1941, the US Army decided that the mission of their Air Force had expanded such that their aviation arm was its own Air Force:

The Army Air Forces was formed in 1941, from the Army Air Corps, in response to the growing structure and mission that Army aviators were playing and the need for a more independent command structure. When created, several other nations had already adopted independent air forces but the United States made the decision to leave aviators as a part of the Army.

Which of course, 2 years after WW2, begat the separate US Air Force.

Think WW1, biplanes and Peashooters, Army Air Corps.

Think WW2, 1,000 plane bomber formations and escorting fighters accompanying them deep into enemy territory, Army Air Force.

Maybe this is just me, but this oversight seems almost universal.

I have made several blog posts on the Lexican’s website about the “Mighty 8th”. One of the most moving books I have read was recommended to me by Hogday, American Bomber Boys. It is a series of small recollections of modern-day British civilians and veterans of the 8th on their time in East Anglia (which, at its peak, had 50 airbases devoted to the 8th).

The overall theme of the book to me was the constant shadow of death, both of course for the Army aviators but also the British civilians. Right up to near the end of the war, Londoners would go about their business in a city completely blacked out at night not even knowing if they would be killed that day by a bomber or a V1 or V2 rocket. Those who were there describe nighttime London as eerily black with pedestrians even having trouble seeing lampposts. While Londoners still went to nightclubs and restaurants, that with rationing, had meager faire.   I still remember the passage of a popular London night club being hit by a V1, killing over 300 revelers. Or the crippled B-17, almost at the airbase, crashing into a British school, killing dozens of children.

Or the memory of a British woman, who as a child, was befriended by an American P-47 pilot. She waited for him at his assigned tie-down area to return every evening, and he would let her sit in the cockpit. And one evening, he didn’t come home.

And in this era of amazing digital restoration was a movie produced by Katheryn Wyler, who is the daughter of famous Hollywood director William Wyler, who, along with 4 other famous Hollywood directors, volunteered for the War Dept to go overseas and document the war.  They used much of the unused footage her father made in the making of the original Memphis Belle (1944), and together with interviewing many veterans of the 8th AAF, produced a masterpiece and an historical record. What was so powerful, in addition to footage that was digitally restored and seemingly was shot yesterday, was interviewing so many 90+ year old veterans of that time.

For me, that is the only weakness of the Masters of the Air series, unlike Band of Brothers, they interviewed no veterans. But then, by now, they are mostly gone. John Luckadoo is now 101, and he was in his early 20s when flying a B-17. He is the last surviving member of the 100th Bomb Group.

But I remember the recollection of one former crewman in the The Cold Blue video saying that the attrition rate was so bad that every morning he climbed into that B-17, he felt like a prisoner led to the wall to be executed. Would this be the day? In the book previously mentioned about Luckadoo, he mentioned sitting at the table in the dark morning hours with a new crew, and wondering if today’s raid would be the last. He mentioned checking out a new pilot and, in his mind, passing the flight test of the horrors of what they would experience. And a mission or 2 later, the pilot and his crew were gone in a fireball at 25,000 feet.

Imagine returning in your shot-up bomber and finding 30 or so fewer men there that evening. Thirty bunks that were not empty with the personal effects picked up.

Air crews of the 8th AAF lived day by day, not knowing if there would be a tomorrow.

“From the day you’re born, you’re fast approaching your expiration date. For the air crews of the eighth Air Force it came at the blink of an eye. Lucky found himself fighting for his country 5 miles above Continental Europe, facing nearly insurmountable odds, and the only explanation he could accept was sheer luck. It didn’t matter if he prayed – he did often – or if he was good at his job. It was just luck if he came home or not. Nothing else mattered.”

 Damn Lucky, page 198

What has kept me fascinated about the 8th was the attrition rate, and the stoic attitude of the airman who, against overwhelming odds, flew their mission day after day. I have heard different numbers of the odds of death, wounding or becoming a POW before the magical 25 missions were completed. They are all heavy against survival, from 30% to 50%, but I guess it would depend on what missions one flew and the time, although with the coming of the “Little Friends” (escort fighters who stayed with them through the entire mission), and missions involving 100s of bombers in tight formation, the odds of survival probably went up a bit.

Of the 25 missions required before being allowed to go stateside (later changed to 30), I have heard numbers of 11 or 15 which would mean you have already beaten the odds.

And at an altitude of around 25,000 to 29,000 feet, life in that unpressurized B-17 was incredibly hostile. Someone compared it to standing atop Mt Everest. At up to -60F, they had electrically heated flight suits, which sometimes malfunctioned. If a gunner had to remove his gloves and he made the mistake of touching the steel of that .50 caliber gun, his hand would be severely damaged.

Lucky once described a time when flak blew a hole in the fuselage right under his feet, and the electrical system for his flight suit was gone. The cold and wind were so severe his feet became frostbitten, and he was worried that they would be amputated. And as co-pilot, his pilot needed his feet too to work those rudder pedals getting that battle-damaged Fortress straight on the runway. He described the excruciating pain trying to work those pedals a few feet off the runway.

Even a simple task of trying to relieve yourself during one of those 8 to 12-hour flights was misery. You would urinate in your suit, which at altitude was OK, because it usually froze. Until you descended. As to the other, I will leave that to your imagination. But the missions ran up to 12 hours, some even a bit longer.

The 2 waist gunners, 1 on each side of the fuselage, had to have it the worst standing right by an open section for those .50 caliber guns.

Then, with all of that, was the flak and the fighters. The Me109s and FW-190s preferred making a head-on approach slightly high and with a 500+ mph closure rate. The gunners had about 3 seconds to react. The Germans had a lot of respect for the Fortress, referring to it as the “Porcupine”.

They learned over experience that the head-on approach from a bit high exposed them to the least danger, but they too paid a toll.

I was surprised to learn that sometimes, in a desperate effort to defend their target, they would fly through their own flak and even ram a Fortress.

The flak guns were the famous 88 mm and radar-controlled. And in their own study it took 350 shells to down one bomber. It took about 25 seconds from the shell leaving the muzzle to exploding at the pre-set altitude. The exploding shell produced shrapnel that would rip through the thin aluminum skin, the engines, hydraulic systems, and bodies.

They had to fly a straight and level course in those formations. Curtis LeMay determined in a study that they had to do that while being shot at rather than jink.  They were more likely to hit their targets and less likely to have mid air collisions in formation. He proved that they had fewer lost planes and bombing was more accurate.

And he wasn’t an “arm-chair strategist”, but led a flight into Germany to prove his theory.

First, in a tight formation, everyone was in more danger from mid-airs. And even if there were no midair collisions, a plane above you slightly out of its position could destroy the plane below them with the bombs. It happened.

Second, once at the IP (initial point), the pilot turned control of the aircraft over to the bombardier, who made slight corrections to align the Norden Bombsight to the target. They had to fly without deviation.

They took special care of the Norden bombsight to make sure none fell into enemy hands. The unit even had a small explosive charge should the plane be in trouble and require abandonment. Or, if trying to lighten the weight they would dump them over water.

During my tour last year of the historic Wendover Army Airfield, we went to the room where they adjusted and stored them, and there were 4-5 safes the size of small rooms where they would be locked when not being used or serviced.

The Norden Bombsight Building. Note the vaults where they were kept for security.

While the Army said that they were so accurate that they could “drop a bomb in a pickle barrel”, one docent jokingly said “as long as the pickle barrel was ¼ mile wide!”

With that huge attrition rate, rank came fast for the experienced survivors. Between that and the rapid expansion of the Army Air Force in WW2, it was not unusual to see some in their mid 20s as majors, or even higher. My father gave me his book by Bill Mauldin many years ago. Mauldin was a GI who, like Ernie Pyle, was considered by his fellow soldiers as “one of them” and it was reflected in his cartoons. He knew what they were experiencing.

Among many that I have remembered for 60 years, was this one:

It was a cartoon that nearly every GI understood – and got a chuckle. Someone presumably in their 20s  or early 30s and a Bird Colonel – a full colonel. That’s Captain for you nautical types. A rank that in the normal military one would usually take 20 years or so in service before achieving.

The times amazed me – with not only high ranks achieved quickly (for those survivors who had the aptitude), but command of a bomber with a few 100 hours experience as a 2nd Lieutenant in his early 20s. Responsible for the other 9 men in the crew.

They were dying so quickly and the Air Force was expanding so rapidly.

Hollywood and portraying History in movies

 When it comes to movies and miniseries that deal with history, I am always curious as to their accuracy. That being said, they aren’t supposed to be a documentary – but entertainment. But some things in history are so dramatic in themselves are any deviations necessary? And for those who have seen an enjoyable movie or mini-series, having no other knowledge of those times, they are left assuming that was the history.

Some years ago, I went to see the Mathew McConaughey movie We Are Marshall. 52 years later, the subject of that movie – the almost entire loss of a college football team and its staff through an airline accident – is the still deadliest accident in US sports history. A chartered Southern Airways DC-9 crashed in bad weather on approach to Huntington’s Tri State Airport. They had been playing East Carolina in Greenville, NC.

During that time I was going to school at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville – 350 miles away – but I must have made a few dozen weekend trips to Huntington to visit my aunt and uncle. And – while it has been over 50 years – about a week before the accident my uncle took me to a local Marshall game where they were playing Kent State. For those of us who were there at that time – in retrospect I thought that in itself was a bit eerie – (This being the Internet where someone will instantly correct me on the dates, the Kent State Game was November 4, 1972, and the Marshall accident was November 14, 1972).

Right after that accident I thought of all those players I saw on the field just the week before – now gone.

The movie really showed the atmosphere in Huntington at that time. I would call it a pallor. It was a city nearly dead. Nearly everyone in Huntington either knew someone who lost someone or lost a family member or friend personally. Even a few business leaders were on that plane as I recall. According to this there were 37 members of the football team, 8 members of the coaching staff, 25 boosters, the charter co-ordinator and 4 crewman. 75 souls gone on that stormy night.

Was the movie accurate? Yes, even though for expediency and telling the story in 2 hours 11 minutes a few of the characters were composites of the actual people.

I really enjoyed the Paramount series 1883, which was a prequel to Yellowstone. I guess you could say that Yellowstone was a guilty pleasure for me. It revolves around the modern-day Dutton family on a ranch the size of Rhode Island, in Montana.  I have called it half soap opera, half western. If you are looking for a character good at seeking revenge, forget Rip and look to Beth.

I was impressed at the detail of history shown in 1883, which was a prequel to Yellowstone. It revolves around the Dutton Family leaving Tennessee and talking a wagon train from Ft Worth to Oregon. They showed you ways to die on the trek westward that Hollywood has failed to see. That I never saw. Like trying to push a stuck wagon from the back, and having it roll back and over you. Better to push from the side using the wheel spokes. Or sitting down to relieve oneself and being bitten in the **** by a rattlesnake. Of all the humiliating ways to die….

In an interview with the talented creator, Taylor Sheridan, he said that Indian attacks, made so popular by Hollywood over the years, were relatively rare.

There really was a Hell’s Half Acre at Ft Worth – a virtually lawless place, and there really was a Marshall Jim Courtright, who was quite the gunfighter. But by 1883, he was not there and Hell’s Half Acre was probably a lot tamer.

Sgt Mom of Chicago Boyz  is a published author and loves western history, and in particular Texas history. She said at the time that by 1883, most likely the Dutton family would be taking the train and not a wagon train. Most major cities had a rail line.

The facts in 1883 were right but it was a chronological mishmash.

Did that make it bad? It was one of my favorite series. And yes, even if you are aware of the chronological differences, I still learned some things about the West.

At the bottom of the scale for historical accuracy are the screenplays that take an actual event and then fictionalize the people surrounding that event. U-571 falls into this category. A group of Americans race to capture a stricken German U-Boat to capture the Enigma code machine.

Americans were never involved in the actual capture – it was the British. And the actual U-Boat was U-570. Still, the movie was entertaining. But don’t believe you have learned anything historical.

Reactions to the Masters of the Air Miniseries. (and a few spoilers)

Overall, I have found the screenwriter’s and producer’s quest for historical accuracy astounding. From the high winds at Bluie West One, the landing strip used in Greenland for the bombers to refuel on their way to Britain, to the capture of the “2 Bucks” (themselves based on actual characters) at Stalag Luft III.

On the POW camp, I even learned something here, corrected from the inaccuracies made by the 1963 movie The Great Escape. It was run by the Luftwaffe, but held over 10,000 allied airmen. The 1963 movie portrayed it as a small camp.

In the book American Bomber Boys, the Flak Houses were mentioned.  These were sites set up by the American Red Cross to give temporary R & R to crewmen traumatized by their missions. While most of the 15 or so were relatively simple affairs, the one near Thorpe Abbotts was described as a resort, with horseback riding, tennis, canoeing…

If I remember the book correctly, it was donated by a British nobleman to use for the duration of the war.

And in the series, it was depicted accurately.

There’s still 2 episodes remaining, but I believe the producers and screenwriters made quite an effort to depict this history accurately. It is an excellent series, and one I will be revisiting in the years to come.

On Apple TV+.

Cross Posted at The Lexicans

17 thoughts on “Masters of the Air – 100th Bomb Group”

  1. Bill, thanks for the post. I remember reading as a kid the horrible losses the various bomber groups took in Europe during 1943 and the terrible causalities even after that. After learning that Jimmy Stewart flew B-24s in Europe, I never saw another of his movies the same way again.

    You had mentioned a difference between “Masters” and “Band of Brothers”, that unlike the latter “Masters” wasn’t able to do interviews with the actual participants due to the passage of time. Another difference is that Masters deals with something an uncle (and early mentor) of mine taught me as the “terrible mathematics of attrition” while Band of Brothers dealt with the dynamics over time of a close-knit combat unit. Not a criticism of Band of Brothers, either the book or the show, just a difference.

    I wish somebody would do a series similar to Masters butdealing with the terrible infantry combat of the Normandy campaign and various Autumn battles in the Voges and Huertgen Forest where entire American infantry formations were ground to dust in attritional combat at a time where many assumed the War in Europe was all but won.

    I would love it if someone (Trent?) could recommend a book or study dealing with efforts of keeping combat formations intact during such times of stress and losses. It would be an especially valuable insight given the nature of the war in Ukraine.

  2. “Bloody 100th” by Harry Crosby, who became group navigator, is a very good book. You won’t find terminology mistakes in it.

  3. I believe I ave read somewhere that Jimmy Stewart did not complete 25 missions. He quit at 15 because of “Combat Fatigue.” I have only seen that once and I cannot recall the source. Does anyone know of any other mention of this ? I could imagine that there could be interest in suppressing such information,

  4. @MikeK – I hadn’t read that about the 15 combat missions. I did read in American Bomber Boys from a former 8th AAF airman that he had the respect of everyone because he flew some of the most dangerous missions along with the rest of them. Didn’t invoke his celebrity card.

    I remember reading somewhere that upon returning from a bad mission, told his crew chief that “A fellow could get hurt in one of those!”

    I think you too used to be a regular on Robert Avrech’s late blog – I remember his saying in classic Hollywood history that upon entering the Army, Stewart still sent his agent his 10% of his meager Army pay.

    When he got out he didn’t even know if he wanted to continue being a movie star. His friend Frank Capra talked him into starring in It’s A Wonderful Life. He was still suffering from PTSD and the anguish that he portrays in that movie wasn’t acting.

    Lastly there is a picture of him and Clark Gable in uniform together – Gable had volunteered as a waist gunner when his wife Carole Lombard died. I think he wanted to kill himself.

    @Mike – I rememebr reading how it was stressed to keep those combat formations tight – it was the key to survival. A mystery to me – with sometimes 150 .50 caliber machine guns firing at the fighters, how they didn’t hit each other – or did they? And how did that top turret gunner avoid hitting the vertical stabilizer? Or did the gun automatically stop when it was within a few degrees? You know darn well in the excitement of trying to shoot down a fighter trying to kill you how many would say, “opps, better stop for a second – I am by the back of my plane!”

    @Quartermaster – I’ll have to put that on my reading list! Both American Bomber Boys and Damn Lucky were excellent.

  5. “And how did that top turret gunner avoid hitting the vertical stabilizer? Or did the gun automatically stop when it was within a few degrees?”

    I’ve read that there was a cam mechanism which would keep the gunner from shooting off his own vertical stabilized. Didn’t keep him from hitting a nearby friendly airplane, though.

  6. Army Air Force losses during the strategic bombing campaign were greater than all the Marine Corps casualties in the Pacific.

    Add in all the other losses in other operations around the world, and you get a pretty large number.

  7. The security around the Norden was real, each had a quarter pound of TNT with a time fuse to keep it out of the enemy’s hands after a crash landing. Of course, it was literally raining Norden bomb-sights in Germany for 3 and a half years. It really didn’t matter because the Germans knew everything there was to know by 1939 from their own man at Norden. They gave it a hard pass and never developed a plane to use it anyway. Dito for the Japanese.

    When the bomb-sight was engaged, it was actually flying the airplane and released the bombs as the bombardier turned cranks and dials to keep the cross hairs (spider silk) stationary on the Aiming Point (not usually the target, usually a nearby landmark, the bomb-sight was set to compensate). The bombardier had a button to push, but it was a backup to the automatic release. The movies that show the cross hairs moving along the ground are fantasy. Bombardier and navigator school was more selective and had a higher washout rate than pilot training.

    All of this was for nought. The “pickle barrel” was on a test range in Nevada on a clear calm day. Northern Europe with clouds, and multiple levels of cross winds blowing different directions or the Jet Stream over Japan scattered the bombs to hell and back. The Germans knew we were dependent on visual references and were smart and resourceful enough to hide them, spoof them and generally make pin-point meaningless. By the end of the war, we were using radar and SHORAN which solved some problems but not others.

    Trent Telenko has gone into detail in a few past posts about how the “Bomber Mafia” deliberately delayed and obstructed the deployment of escort fighters. This was because the “box” was supposed to be impregnable and they feared the fighters would drain resources from their beloved bombers. The Germans, confronted by a wall of machine guns, adopted cannons and finally rockets, lethal from far beyond the range of a Browning.

    In the end, it was a total war for survival. The cost of winning was using the weapons at hand and paying for their deficiencies in blood because the cost of losing is unimaginably more.

  8. Had to smile at the scene where they’re landing at Blue West One. The airfield, and its hazards, are eloquently described in “Fate Is The Hunter” by Ernie Gann. It’s still open, now named Narsarsuaq Airport.
    When I was flying the North Atlantic in the 80’s, it was one of our emergency airports. The thought of taking a 767 in there, maybe at night, in the snow, one one engine, was hair raising. A very steep approach to a short runway, with a big hill at the far end.

  9. Stalag Luft III was indeed a large camp….and got even larger the further into the war you got. But it was divided up into smaller compounds that were not entirely inconsistent with what was shown in The Great Escape. Liberties would have been taken to not show the degree of crowding and boredom as that would be a distraction from the story line. The movie did show the escape as being more “American” than it really was. Had a chance in years past to converse with a number of ex POWs from this camp.

  10. Wow! What a bunch of wonderful comments following a great article.
    Thank you, for each and every one.

  11. Still part of the Army. My dad told the story that he was learning to fly in 1942-43 when the decision was made to ground the entire division and they become infantry.

  12. @David – that there would be a cam mechanism makes sense. Still in the excitement of battle and tight formations one wonders how many neighboring bombers were shot up. A few .50 caliber slugs could reach havoc and as they taught me so many years ago, its maximum effective range was 7,000 meters.

    @Scott – it is a mystery to me too – and quite a common error. Although perhaps as it started with that name old habits die hard.

    Just finished episode 8 where they were participating in D-Day. A few years ago I heard a couple of WW2 legends – Bud Anderson the Air Force ace and Dean Laird – the only Navy ace who participated in the North Atlantic and the Pacific. Anderson was saying that on D-Day his squadron was assigned a tiny slice of a beach and their only job was to patrol it up and down.

  13. Jim R, thanks. I think that explains it.

    I assume you all know that “12 o’clock High”, the movie, was largely a true story. The man who was portrayed by Gregory Peck was named Frank Armstrong. He did much of what the story recounted. On his, and the group’s, first mission to Germany, he flew as copilot with Paul Tibbets as pilot. Tibbets went on to command the B 29 group and he dropped the first atomic bomb.

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